Japanese prime ministers resign every now and then, some of them for as little as the shame of breaking an election promise. One I remember from a couple years back won in a landslide victory but was forced to resign because of mounting criticism for his flip-flopping on the issues he promised to solve during his election campaign. At the time he was the fourth Japanese PM to step down in four years, with the others resigning under similar circumstances. I have to hand it to the Japanese people; they really know the meaning of shame. This is something our elected officials and we as a people need to emulate.
Japan is actually known for its shame (Haji) culture. It is said that the society of Japan uses shame as a primary agent of social control. Though taken to the extreme, shame seems to lead to a high suicide rate on its members, all in all the society of Japan thrives in the culture of shame. Paul Hiebert characterizes the shame society as follows:
Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.
There is definitely not a lot of downside to having a shame culture. It promotes a heathy environment of trust among its citizens that the right thing will be done. In contrast to Japanese culture, Western culture uses “guilt” as an agent of social control. It relies on the notion that one should do an internal evaluation before doing something — to reflect on what one believes one should or should not do. Otherwise, if one does something in defiance of what is the norm, one believes that he will receive the wrath of God or worse, the wrath of the entire community. Guilt is an emotional experience that happens when a person realises or believes that he or she has violated a moral standard and accepts responsibility for that violation. The feeling of guilt is closely related to the concept of remorse, when a person feels regret for what he has done. When guilt as an agent of control does not work, they have the criminal justice system as a last resort.
Psychopaths are said to be those who lack any true sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused to others. Instead, they blame their behavior on someone else, or deny it outright. They lack moral bearing (in comparison with the majority of humans) and are unable to evaluate situations within a moral framework. They also have an inability to develop emotional bonds with other people.
Philippine society keeps trying to model its way of life based on the western model but we fail to grasp the fundamentals of what make Western society work. Indeed, we fail at even being a copycat. With the number of public officials and common citizens who get away with fraudulent activities in the Philippines, I am beginning to believe that there are members of Philippine society who are turning into psychopaths. A lot of our public officials do not have a sense of guilt or do not feel remorse for not being able to fulfill their social obligations and for causing harm to the rest of society. They also blame their behavior on someone else, make all kinds of excuses and therefore do not feel accountable for their actions.
Added to the lack of sense of guilt or remorse, Filipinos in general are averse to giving a critical evaluation of our public officials based on their past performance. This is part of the reason why the public officials who are guilty of embezzling public funds or those who simply do not do their jobs to the best of their abilities still get re-elected or worse put on a higher ranking position like the presidency. There is no shame in having accomplished mediocre work because Filipinos just “let the matter slide” into pwede na yan (“that’ll do”) oblivion and hope that things will become better eventually. Our false sense of hope has gotten us nowhere. I hear a lot of people say, “There is still hope for the Philippines” but until we develop a sense of shame or guilt, there is no hope for the Philippines. We do not like being criticized at all, whether it is a fellow Filipino or a foreigner doing the criticizing, Filipinos tend to lash out or dismiss the criticism as lacking in merit. We as a people, lack the ability to evaluate our circumstances or apply a bit of self-reflection.
According to cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame arises from a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one’s internal values. It may make sense that Filipinos do not feel guilty or shameful about fraudulent activities if we perhaps consider that our internal values may be flawed. Worse, there seems to be a highly developed unconscious justification for deceptive actions within the Filipino mind. What we value as a society seems to be more around saving face by way of acquiring material possessions, family connections and having a good time. Whatever our neighbors have, we must have. Whatever our family and friends do even if it is illegal (i.e downloading films or DVDs or rigging votes), it must be ok because they have acquired a lot of material possessions through it and they seem like they are having a good time while they are at it. We as a society do things as a means to an end no matter the circumstances and we tend to be ok with it when we do it with family or friends, sort of like when in a pack mentality.
The things that bring us dishonor or shame are really trivial, do not benefit the whole of society, and only give us useless anxieties. Not having enough money to host a feast during a town festival or fiesta gives us a feeling of shame. Similarly, not having enough money to hold a Christmas party can give us a sense of embarrassment to other people. In both circumstances, some Filipinos would go to extra lengths as to spend all their hard earned cash or borrow money just to be able to hold a feast for that one-day event without thinking of the consequences. When the neighbors see that the party was held, we find our source of pride.
The things that give us a sense of guilt are also trivial, do not benefit the whole of society, and only give us useless anxieties. The family connections we value the most are also a source of dysfunctional behavior. Our family obliges us to hire family members when we own a company or if we are in a position to do so. There are many Filipino stories about family members who are working as overseas foreign workers who are obliged and made to feel guilty about sending money back home even if unnecessarily. Likewise, not having any presents or pasalubong for each member of the clan and the entire neighborhood is a no-no. Filipinos do not expect balikbayans to come home empty handed. Our family connections are a double edged sword. It can be a source of comfort and a source of sorrow.
Our religion also plays a big role in how we quickly remove our sense of quilt and shame. We have been made to believe that our “sins” are forgiven once we confess to a priest or a member of the Catholic Church; it is as if our conscience can be wiped clean of every abominable act — and then we are ready to do it all over again. There is no real sense of atonement or remorse after the confession but the cycle of dysfunctional behavior continues until it becomes part of our system. In short, a lot of Filipinos hide behind their religion as they continue their fraudulent activities. We often see a lot of households adorned with the images of saints and the members of the holy family. It makes some Filipinos believe that they are holy despite their unholy acts.
If we are to imitate the culture of shame by the Japanese or to genuinely adapt the western culture using guilt as an agent of social control, we need to develop a sense of responsibility for others and ourselves. The only way we can attain stability and progress is to honor our promises and value what is best for the whole society and ourselves in the long-term, and not just focus on trivial pursuits that only cater to instant gratification. In short, we just need to develop a conscience.
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