Whatever Happened to Shame and Guilt?

Once again we have been treated to yet more failures of leadership. Last week it was Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles. Instead of testifying in court over his priest-child-abusers, the Cardinal arranged for a $660 million payout to the victims. He then made his apologies and closed the case.

This week we see Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tripping over his own lies as he testifies before Congress about the mismanagement of the Justice Department. Then, of course, as his approval ratings decline, President Bush has again resorted to reminding us that we are a nation under the terrorists' threat. In Tuesday's speech he used the words "Al Qeada" 95 times as he tried to connect A.Q. to Iraq and September 11. Good God, how much more of this charade must we take?

Meanwhile, CEOs continue to sell off more American jobs to the lowest overseas bidders, wreak havoc on the local communities that depend on these jobs and then they are rewarded for cutting costs and creating greater profits. Afterward, many of these geniuses are curiously let go with multi-million-dollar parachutes.

Be it religion, politics, or business, our leaders have evolved into a bunch of brutish, violent, aggressive, all-knowing, all-controlling hooligans and this brand of arrogant, unabashed leadership is totally unacceptable. "We, the People" get nothing out of it, so "We, the People" we must put a stop to it!

Most of us have been taught that we are judged by our actions and not by our words. So it is disconcerting for us to deal with leaders who apply positive public relations (a la Bush); slick, legalistic word usage (a la Bill Clinton); and behind-the-scenes, under-cover maneuverings of the system to further reward the rich and powerful (a la Cheney).

Lately, it is becoming more and more obvious to more and more citizens that our leaders do NOT concern themselves with the good of the society that they have been entrusted to, but rather for the good of those on top, especially, themselves. They don't even seem to care about the institutions they lead except to "mine" their resources and move on. It is INDECENT that the Miniscule Minority (1 percent of the top 1 percent) take from the rest of us!

Most of our leaders have strong educational backgrounds from distinguished universities, a long list of achievements and some religious affiliation. However, it seems that their thirst for more power, more money and more influence is what motivates them most. Such aspirations are just plain shameful and, unfortunately for us, our leaders don't seem to know it OR feel guilty about their behavior.

Seems to me that "We the People" need to re-institute some form of control over our leaders and give them a little dose of middle class morality. Cultural anthropologist Paul Hiebert (1932-2007) might lend us a hand. He was the distinguished professor of mission and anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, and a third generation Mennonite Brethren missionary to India. Hiebert illustrated that a society controls its people through either shame or guilt. For example, in a shame society, like Japan, people respond to misdeeds in the following ways:

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 [emphasis added]. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honor restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation, including committing suicide if necessary.

So the way it works in Japan is that if the leader makes a terrible mistake, he resigns his position in shame. Everyone expects him to do so because he has violated the community or society he was supposed to protect. By contrast, in a guilt society like ours, people develop a sense of right and wrong as an integral part of their conscience:

Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by CONFESSING THE MISDEED AND MAKING RESTITUTION [emphasis added]. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order

Today, it appears that neither shame nor guilt affect our abusive and incompetent leaders. We have a legal system and our Constitution's checks and balances, but these tools are failing to help us deal with our leaders. So at this time of national and international emergency (i.e., constant war, limited energy resources, global warming, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor), we must do something about this failure of our leadership:

* Impeach incompetent government officials.
* Boycott unnecessary consumerist products.
* Walk out of corrupt religious institutions.

Let's get going, America!

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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