Shame and War

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Thucydides saw three motives for going to war: honor, fear, and interest.

The Chinese Grand Marshal’s Methods cites four motives — glory, profit, shame, and death — T. Greer notes:

Some of these match up quite closely to Thucydides’ expression. “Profit” finds its way onto both lists, while the Marshal’s Methods‘ “death” states clearly what men most “fear.” It is more difficult to find Thucydides’s “honor” among the Marshal’s Four Preservations. Both “glory” and “shame” seem to fit the bill, and it would be easy to conclude this matching game by concluding that the Marshal’s Methods simply draws attention to two different aspects of honor and leave the matter at that.

I ask my readers not to do this. Considering each of these elements separately exposes some of the biases in the Western — and especially, American — patterns of thought. Shame, for example, a concept so central to both daily interactions and high politics across Asia, holds little sway in America. When it does register in the public consciousness it is usually in reference to some crusade to deny it any influence: thus a recent series of viral videos featuring overweight women dancing their hearts out is titled the “No Body Shame Campaign,” while the word “shaming” has been largely appropriated to mean any bigoted sort of criticism you think shouldn’t be tolerated (e.g. “slut-shaming”).

The ancient Greek sense of honor was a very public emotion. Those living in the honor culture of Thucydides’ day believed that honor not earned was shame deserved. Not so for those living a Christianized, post-Enlightenment democracy! Americans have a very different conception of honor than our classical forebears, and an even weaker sense sense of shame. In American discourse, shame is something you stand up against, not something expected to move or motivate you.

Glory is much easier to understand. The desire to win, to compete, to do great deeds and be lauded for them, permeates American culture. It is such a fundamental part of our world view that we sometimes forget that this drive to be undeniably better than the rest is not a universal desire.

Writes Richard Nisbett:

“An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how log the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed.”

There are large parts of the world that do not think — and more importantly — do not feel like Americans do. There are places where shame moves men to do heroic things and pressures them to commit heinous acts. As the Grand Marshal suggests, shame lies at the scarred heart of as many battlefields as interest or profit.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    “There are large parts of the world that do not think — and more importantly — do not feel like Americans do”

    Not realizing this was the cardinal error of the “New Frontier” style liberals of fifty years ago (for whom I actually have a lot of respect) and of NeoCons today (for whom I have less respect…)

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