So this is what happened last night.
I came home about 8 and it was dark. The porch light shone faintly. I could see a couple of pieces of mail in my slot. I foraged them out and noted that the larger one was from the California DMV. The return address was in that unmistakable DMV font that appears to have been designed with countless layers of impersonal bureaucracy in mind.
I’ve had countless dealings with auto insurers, traffic court, and the DMV recently, so I assumed it was yet another kernel of expensively bad news. I’m traumatized this way. I find myself in a perpetual state of waiting for that other shoe to drop. It was also unusual for a DMV mailing to come in such large envelope, and furthermore, something inside the envelope felt hefty, a little solid, even. I received a copy of my duplicate driver’s license recently. What now, I wondered. I ripped the envelope open as I climbed the stairs. My middle-aged unassisted eyes and the darkness didn’t reveal the fact that this article of mail did not belong to me. I didn’t learn this until I studied the contents of the envelope in the light of my kitchen. It was a California handicapped parking placard which would be viable until the middle of 2015. And it was addressed to an elderly neighbor of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. Typical robotic California bureaucracy move. If I had handled the mail more calmly, I would have noted that this was not addressed to me. But now I was in possession of a blue placard that I could hang on my rear view mirror which would allow me to park anywhere I pleased.
The devious thought crossed my mind for a moment.
But it was gone quickly. Realistically, if I pilfered this placard, I would not use it each time I parked, but I would save it in reserve for those panicky moments I need a space now (movies, appointments, etc). In such cases, I would whip it out and park in the creme de la creme spot while the other able-bodied proletariat would have to park miles away. My father has such a placard, but his is legitimately attained.
I thought of the dark possibility last night in the seconds after I tore open my dead neighbor’s mail.
But I would not do such a thing. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Nice parking spots are not that exciting or worth the dishonesty. I couldn’t even entertain that malevolence realistically. It was wrong. Besides, wouldn’t using the placard just tempt fate, especially considering it belonged to a dead person? This is awfully Christian thinking for an atheist such as I, but that’s how I roll. For I am Americanized. I am a product of guilt culture even though general sociological consensus states that Mexican culture is one such shame culture.
A shame culture demands behavior that is a reaction to the perceived opinions of other members of society in the presence of wrongdoing. A shame culture is essentially collectivist for its root catalysts are external human/group perceptions as opposed to displaced, third party moralistic standards. Shame culture stresses the notions of honor and “face.” Japan and Mexico are cited as archetypal shame cultures. On the other hand, a guilt culture dictates that the populace is controlled by a fixed set of moral principles and rules which are sorted in a dynamic sense of give-and-take bargaining and reduction. Guilt is an immutable figment of human nature and in such a culture, it is this internalized self-directed judgement that is the compass of our behavior. Conscience is a firm arbiter of behavior in a guilt culture.
A shame culture is limited by the awareness of other’s opinion of your failings, whereas a guilt culture is limited by your awareness and judgement of your own failings.
I found a couple of very insightful grid diagrams which visually compare and contrast the cognitive pathways that differentiate guilt and shame cultures, over at a site named “Doceo” (Latin for “I teach”).
Here are the grids placed atop one another.
As you can see, the shame culture can be construed as opportunistic and capricious, whereas the guilt culture might easily degenerate into repression and authoritarianism.
There’s an editorial in the New York Times today defending the use of “shame” as a behavioral “tool” to prevent unwise, but not necessarily illegal, actions. In fact, the editorial tries to justify the nanny state’s overzealous shaming of so-called damaging behaviors, such as the ingestion of very large servings of soft drinks. The culture of social engineering espoused by liberal idealists is nothing but shaming on a grand scale. When utilized in such a base and transparent manner as part of a strategy of affection social evolution, it reeks of immaturity and totalitarianism. Shaming, when it’s part of a historical cultural lineage of self-control and self-policing, resounds with more dignity than the cosmetic shaming condoned by the left-wing nanny social crusaders.
Thought police use shame in the same manner a high-school student would: superficially and in a flagrant disingenuous self-serving manner. An impulsive strategy to force the ends to justify the means. The thought police don’t want you to behave because it’s intrinsically “right.” They want you to cater to their rules because their self-described society demands it, right or wrong. Furthermore, they work to overlay the paradigm of their beliefs onto society’s template through legislation. In other words, they legislate shame, and seek to make the transgressors answerable to public, artificial ridicule.
This morning I scribbled a note on the DMV envelope. “Addressee, x____ x____, is deceased.” I slid it under the sliding doors of the closed DMV office and drove off. My conscience was not lightened for it was never heavy. I knew what I had to do, the guilt told me through its power of dissuasion.
Shame is merely guilt turned inward by external levers.