My indignant host sister, Manal, uses the word “hshouma” at least thirty times a day. She often uses it to accuse others: “hshouma ‘alik!” or “hshouma ‘alikoum!” At other times she uses the word more generally – any number of issues that are talked about between the members of my host family will be deemed “hshouma.”
Manal is not the only one; “hshouma” is a frequently used word in Moroccan society. In its most general translation, “hshouma” means ‘shame’, and the word is attached, basically, to anything that does or would go against social and cultural convention. You can say this about things others have done: A guest was received at a house but not given anything to drink? Hshouma ‘alihoum – shame on the hosts! A girl and boy were kissing on the street? Hshouma ‘alihoum! Someone wore his outdoor shoes into the hammam? Hshouma ‘alih! And so on.
Alternatively, you can use it to explain how certain things must be done. Serve guests only water because you only have a little tea left? No, impossible, hshouma. Walk outside in your underwear? No, impossible – hshouma. Keep your last extra blanket for yourself rather than give it to someone else? No, impossible – hshouma. You get the picture.
Hshouma is a strong word, and (despite the fact that I hear it so often) I am told not to use it too frequently. If bothered on the street, for instance, it is best to stick to “ihtaram rasek” (respect yourself): only if harassment gets really bad is a pronouncement of “hshouma” warranted.
Hshouma is such an omnipresent word that my friend Hatim talks about a veritable “taqafat hshouma” – a culture of hshouma – in Morocco. If that is true, that would make Morocco a ‘shame culture’.
The notion of a ‘shame-culture’ is part of an old anthropological theory that divides societies into two groups: those that base themselves primarily on shame, and those that base themselves primarily on guilt. Shame and guilt, in this theory, feature as strong human emotions that can be used as tools for social control. Both are negative emotions brought about when a person acts in an unsanctioned way. However, the commonly understood distinction between the two holds that guilt is felt about acts, whereas shame is felt about the self. That is, having done something unsanctioned (by culture, law, family, whichever) we can feel guilty about what we’ve done, though this does not necessarily affect our image of ourselves. But when such an act elicits shame, the unsanctioned act seems to mean that we, as individuals, are somehow deficient, dysfunctional. But while shame thus seems much more person-centered than guilt, at the same time guilt can be felt very internally, whereas shame often involves public perception. That is, we can feel guilty about an act no one knows we’ve committed, whereas shame depends on the perception of being judged negatively by others. In fact, Ruth Benedict (an old-generation anthropologist heavily involved in creating this concept of shame- and guilt-cultures) claimed that shame is a violation of cultural values, whereas guilt is a violation of personal ones.
This theory also holds that guilt-based cultures are to be found in the Judeo-Christian world, whereas shame-based cultures are those of the Far- and Middle East. It claims that members of Judeo-Christian societies socialize their members by using guilt as a motivator for adherence to norms and values, whereas the Arab world and Asia use shame. This leads to a different relationship between individual and society. Generally, the theory claims that people socialized by means of guilt have internalized their society’s norms much more than members of a shame-culture. Because shame is so connected to the person, it is much more dependent on public perception – we can feel guilt even if no one knows what we did, but shame emerges when we are conscious of being seen as guilty. Real culpability doesn’t matter, it is suggested – it is only being seen as guilty that counts. Shame cultures thus work with observational judgment, while guilt cultures work with internal judgment. Shame-based cultures are those that do not talk; guilt-based cultures are those that do.
Indeed, ‘hshouma’ is a method of socializing children in Morocco. As Hatim explained, children are taught what isn’t appropriate by frequent use of the word ‘hshouma’. Eating without proper etiquette, for instance, is not impolite, but simply hshouma.
Clearly, also, Morocco is a society that works with observational judgment rather than discussion. But still, I have issues designating Morocco as a ‘shame culture’ without a second thought.
Because the theories that divide cultures into shame-based and guilt-based have a bias – a bias that becomes clear at the very outset by the reference to guilt-based societies as being “Judeo-Christian” in origin. Clearly, the guilt-based versus shame-based distinction maps directly onto the us-versus-them polarity. It is a matter of self versus other. And of course, as self-other distinctions always aim for, the former must come out looking better than the latter. And indeed, shame-based cultures are often described as negative and dysfunctional; ‘shame’ as a whole is described as a much less constructive emotion than guilt. Because it focuses on acts, such theories hold, the experience of guilt leads a person to act, to repair the damage done assertively. Shame, on the other hand, is more internal, and often causes us to turn inward. We withdraw, or we act out – we behave in other inappropriate or slightly unhealthy ways to cover up our sense of shame. This may mean pre-emptive aggression (lifting oneself up by putting others down), or seeking power and perfection (preventing the possibility of future shame). By designating guilt as an internalized form of social control and shame as an external motivator, these theories even seem to imply that shame-based cultures are stuck in a lower stage of Kohlberg’s theories of moral development. It suggests that members of a shame-culture are motivated only by the fear of external rejection, rather than the inherent good- or badness of an action.
Clearly the notion of ‘shame-based cultures’ and ‘guilt-based-cultures’ need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. First of all, no culture should be definitively characterized as either one – all cultures, most likely, include elements of both. Even if we are part of a Judeo-Christian ‘guilt-based-society’, don’t we also know the feeling of shame, and can’t that be as strong an instrument of social control as guilt? In the same way, I am sure that Moroccans feel guilt just like they feel shame. The fact that ‘hshouma’ is so often pronounced does not exclude that possibility in any way.
And secondly, can we really distinguish so clearly between shame and guilt, anyway? Is shame really so public yet linked to the person, and guilt really so internalized yet linked to actions? Does shame really affect the self in a way that guilt does not? And also, how debilitating is shame, really? Any emotion, if taken to the extreme, can result in inappropriate behavioral responses. But in a healthy dose, shame may not be that different from any other feeling.
In Morocco, the notion of hshouma certainly goes together with a heavy sense of observational control. But still, I don’t think that means social norms have not been internalized, that people obey the law only out of extrinsic motivations (punishment, reward). To the contrary. It’s important to keep in mind that what counts, in the case of shame, is not whether public disapproval actually exists. It is only the person’s own sense of receiving such evaluation that matters. Shame can lead to a great internalization of what is right and what is wrong – Manal’s (and everyone else's) constant pronouncement of ‘hshouma’ is prime evidence of that fact.
But in any case, it makes me wonder: how would Moroccans distinguish between shame and guilt? What do Moroccans feel guilty about? What is the word for ‘guilty’ in Moroccan Arabic?