|Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!
Archie: How very interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?
Otto: You are the vulgarian, you fuck! Now apologize!
As a repressed barrister henpecked by his haughty spouse, Archie Leach is an unlikely candidate for Aristotelian magnanimity. But in his residua of upper class English twittery, he is more than capable of mimicking self-depreciacion inspired, and condescension justified, by true magnanimity. And in the great cause of his love for Otto’s girlfriend and partner in crime Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), he rises to the occasion, eventually facing, and prevailing over, mortal danger at Otto’s gunpoint with great aplomb. But in his moments as a parrhesiast, Archie’s quandary comes at odds with greatness of soul. He flouts social convention by volunteering a true opinion of Otto’s qualities. Archie’s opinion is guaranteed to be found not only unwelcome by its recipient, but also unhelpful to their interaction. As it happens, Otto is not only equally willing to do away with convention in his response, but eager to transgress the laws mandating proportionality of his response to Archie’s insult. On several occasions, he initiates or escalates violence without further ado. When Archie opines, Otto attacks.
The disparity of human power cannot stand in the long run. In the long run, Otto’s belligerence becomes ineffectual. A momentary advantage over his superior fighting skill and guile enables Archie to prevail, and compels Otto to find his level. The fact that the film audience justly regards this outcome as just, implies that it would be impossible for Archie to make an effective apology to Otto in the normal course of events. To the extent that he retracts his imputation of Otto’s stupidity spontaneously, he cannot do so sincerely. A sincere retraction of calling a spade a spade is possible only through painstaking realignment of thought, to the extent of regarding it as something it is not.
It is clearly possible for Archie to save the appearances for everyone involved by feigning a change of mind. The reason that enables this possibility is his moral governance by the conflicting notions of shame and guilt. This predicament was first analyzed by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946). Benedict’s book originated part of a study of Japanese culture undertaken for the U.S. government in preparing for post-war dealings with the Japanese. It attempted to explain how Japanese thinking differed from American thinking. In Chapter 10, The Dilemma of Virtue, pp. 195-227, Benedict introduced the distinction between a shame culture based on value systems that focus on honor and shame, and a guilt culture based on value systems that focus on virtue and sin. Shame cultures flourished in feudal societies, as practiced by the aristocrats in their relations to their peers and their goals. But feudal societies also incorporated the standards of guilt cultures in their submission to the religious ideals. Man’s behavior in a guilt culture is conditioned and judged by how he would feel about himself under perfect moral insight, rather than by how others would feel about him under actual conditions of witnessing. This distinction has become a commonplace of social studies.
E.R. Dodds applied Benedict’s distinction to the history of Classical Greek literature in The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951). In Chapter 2, From Shame-Culture to Guilt-Culture, pp. 28-63, Dodds contrasted the shame culture exemplified in the world of the Iliad, with a guilt culture that emerged in later Greek civilization. Jews, Christians, and Moslems, as adherents of monotheistic traditions, create their guilt cultures thereby, in virtue of evaluating their actions from their impact on the soul. The same is true of godless practices of Buddhism and Platonism. The ensuing value system organizes itself around the idea of individual conscience, a faculty that countermands even undetected and undetectable wrongdoing, even when it would be socially advantageous to the wrongdoer.
Allegiance to a guilt culture plays out as an initial disadvantage in opposing an acolyte of a shame culture committed to getting away unnoticed with whatever he can. The man ruled by honor and shame will not see the point in apologizing for sins committed in private, any more than he would take satisfaction in virtues invisible to his peers. By contrast, the man who measures his merit on the religious scales of virtue and sin defines the starting point of apology as contrition, a sorrow of soul caused by a motive of filial fear or the pure love of God, and a hatred of committed sin because of its consequential privation of God from the soul, with a firm resolve of not sinning in the future. By contrast, attrition, or imperfect contrition, is a sorrow caused by a motive of servile fear, causing the sinner to detest sin only because of his fear of punishment. According to the XIIIth century theologians, attrition, albeit of itself too imperfect to win the pardon of God, could become perfected through confession and absolution. The weaker the form of sorrow, the greater the sins confessed and absolved, the heavier are the temporal penalties demanded by the righteousness of God. Though these definitions are familiar from two millennia of Christian theology, their substance does not depend on religious faith. The corrosive effect of wrongdoing on the soul is recognized by Plato and the Buddha, without any reference to deterrence by divine punishment.
For Marcel Mauss, the social bond that maintains the “face” is a prestation, a mutual obligation without which the individual disappears. For the denizen of a shame culture, the loss of his face entails losing his place in the intelligible world. A tacit, pragmatic rule of his society may tolerate indecent behavior, as long as it does not embarrass anyone. Thus traditional Chinese culture ignores a wide variety of sexual transgressions, from extramarital sex to incest, provided that they remain discreet. Classic Chinese erotic novels and art, utterly unrestrained in their portrayal of sexuality, are publicly accessible, despite the Party censorship. Their archaic nature renders them safe for public consumption. By contrast, personal exhibition of sexuality in Internet publications, defined as “new human writing”, retains its power to shock and embarrass its readers. Chinese culture is a shame culture. Chinese morality depends on shame. Nothing feels worse to a Chinese subject than being ashamed. Nothing liberates him more than indifference. Having lost his face, he judges that there is nothing more for him to lose.
Residual effects of shame cultures persist within societies governed by the standards of guilt. They manifest themselves above all in pursuits that depend on appearances. Master of anonymous disparagement and vituperation, Junius summed it up best: “Private credit is wealth; public honor is security; the feather that adorns the royal bird supports its flight; strip him of his plumage, and you fix him to the earth.” Absent a sincere apology, the great-souled man beset by his inferiors, guided by virtue that is incomprehensible to them, has only one recourse. He knows that they would never admit having wronged him willingly. No matter. He speaks with Achilles: “Not if his gifts outnumbered the sea sands or all the dust grains in the world could Agamemnon ever appease me ― not till he pays me back full measure, pain (θυμαλγής) for pain, dishonor (λώβη) for dishonor.” (Homer, Iliad IX.383-386.) The man intent on regaining some measure of dignity degraded through despicable dealings with could do no better than visit reciprocal degradation upon his enemies. Trial by media works in his favor because the public applies different standards of proof to crimes by public personae, from those it maintains for private nobodies. The shameless are poised to reap its rewards in full.