Streetwise Professor

July 21, 2019

Twitter: A Shame/Honor Culture From Hell

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 4:52 pm

Social scientists have identified three types of societies/cultures: shame/honor, guilt, and fear/power. They differ in the manner in which individuals regulate their conduct. In a shame/honor society, people evaluate their actions and regulate their conduct based on how it will be perceived by others: they seek to avoid being shamed by those in their society, and strive to be honored by them. In a guilt society, individuals regulate their conduct by reference to an internalized code of morals or justice: violating the tenets of this code self-induces negative affect and emotional/psychic punishment. In a fear/power society, fear of retribution by the more powerful shapes individual behavior.

A key difference between guilt societies on the one hand, and shame/honor or fear/power on the other is that in the former, the guilt mechanism affects behavior even when (or especially when) nobody else is watching, whereas in the latter, the mechanisms affect behavior only if somebody else is watching. Since trust relates to actions that cannot be monitored directly, guilt societies are more likely to be high trust than the other two. Moreover, since the enforcement mechanism in a guilt society is internal to the individual, and not dependent on external approbation or punishment, it can support a higher degree of individualism and individual autonomy.

So perhaps you are say, OK, prof–makes sense, but this is kind of out of the blue here. Well, there was a prompt, and is a purpose.

The prompt was a conversation over coffee with a Boston Baptist, a Texas Catholic (no I didn’t mix those two up), and a Turk. And no, we weren’t walking into a bar. Anyways, the Catholic said “I have to confess to telling a little white lie, and I feel guilty about it.” Well, the lie was about as innocent and harmless as you could imagine. But the mention of guilt sparked a thought: I know Arab society is of the shame/honor variety (see David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs), but I wasn’t sure about the Turkish, so I asked. The Turk responded that Turkey is a shame/honor society.

And that sparked another thought. Specifically, that Twitter is a shame/honor society of the most vicious sort. And when it is not a shame/honor society, it is a fear/power society.

The mechanism of social control on Twitter is vicious shaming of those who offend the self-appointed arbiters of discourse. This mechanism induces many either to avoid Twitter altogether, or self-censor to a considerable degree. (Many of those who are shamed suffer because of inadvertent remarks that they did not recognize would result in massive attack.) The “honor” part of Twitter (and I put that term in quotes for a reason) is that people signal furiously in order to obtain approbation from the crowd.

Twitter can shame even conduct that does not occur on the platform, e.g., the poor sod who had a grocery-line confrontation with an obnoxious harridan in Georgia. By this means, Twitter extends its shame/honor dynamic into society at large.

The shame/honor enforcement mechanism in Twitter is backed up by fear/power. The power is exerted by Twitter itself, with its shadow banning, and especially in its outright banning of those who offend it.

I unabashedly say that a guilt society with internalized rules that regulate individual conduct even when no one is watching is superior to the alternatives. (This wrongthink is no doubt a trigger for Twitter shaming, but IDGAF.) Not least because this is a necessary condition for individualism, individual autonomy, and a large scope for individual freedom.

And this is why I think that Twitter (and to a considerable degree Facebook, which is more power/fear than shame/honor) are highly deleterious, especially in the United States and other western countries, which (via Christianity, primarily) are predominately guilt societies. The shame/honor dynamic that Twitter creates, and extends beyond the platform itself, is socially corrosive and undermines the mechanisms that support high-trust societies, and those that extend considerable degrees of personal freedom and autonomy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. True, but since at least the Sixties, the US has been sliding from a high trust guilt nation to a low trust fear/power nation and the pace of change is increasing.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 21, 2019 @ 8:55 pm

  2. @Pilot: a spontaneous change, or brought about by who immigrates? Or both?

    Comment by dearieme — July 22, 2019 @ 7:14 am

  3. “The shame/honor dynamic that Twitter creates, and extends beyond the platform itself, is socially corrosive and undermines the mechanisms that support high-trust societies”

    Not to mention the sheer exhibitionism it encourages, or the fact that every lunatic around the world now has instant access to you, or the crazy hysteria it generates.

    Comment by Rob — July 22, 2019 @ 7:32 am

  4. Interesting post. Watch Chernobyl for fear/power. A key problem with guilt society is incomplete or defective “installation.” Too many wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    Comment by Ty — July 22, 2019 @ 8:47 am

  5. @Rob. I agree, and suggest that the exhibitionism is the “honor” part of shame/honor. Such cultures are noted for their emphasis on grandiose displays to achieve notoriety and honor.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 22, 2019 @ 11:16 am

  6. @dearieme & @pilot. I agree that US society is devolving from a high trust to a low trust culture. This is obviously a huge issue, and no doubt many factors are driving it.

    One potential factor: de Toqueville noted the strong local bonds in Jacksonian-era society. Further, that was an era in which national government was weak, and largely distant. I hypothesize that the growth of the scope and power of the federal government has undermined these local ties (which support trust-based interactions).

    Another potential factor: the influence of television, and latterly the internet. Whereas once for entertainment people relied on various social structures (some formal, like fraternal lodges and churches, others less formal) to pass their free time, people now can be entertained in the privacy of their own homes. And the proliferation of entertainment options means that the potential for shared entertainment experience is reduced.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 22, 2019 @ 11:24 am

  7. @Dearime,

    I’d agree with SWP’s comments and add doubling the population and increasing urbanization as factors. Fifty years ago, even in the NYC area there were rich connections thru organizations like volunteer fire departments, clubs devoted to sports like golf, shooting or tennis and much broader links across classes. Credentialism meant less, if you were street smart, social adept and had a high school degree you could fit in a lot places that would bar you on sight today. Now, it’s all about the resume, the schools attended etc. WW II vets cut across lots barriers of color, class and background. Unheard of today.

    My father with a little bit of education made a career in public accounting, but had friends from plumbers to local business leaders and they shared interests like the fire dept or shooting and hunting trips. Dad once made a deal to trade a shotgun in a store in Maine for one he had at home. A handshake and a promise to ship Dad’s gun resulted in walking out with s new Winchester model 12. Imagine doing that today.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 22, 2019 @ 9:58 pm

  8. @Ty–Thanks. I had been planning to watch Chernobyl. I agree with you, but note that there’s no perfect system. Like Churchill said of democracy re the worst alternative, except for others that have been tried from time to time.

    Tying in (no pun intended) your comment to @dearieme and @Pilot, to my previous hypotheses I would add another: declining religious observance increases the rate of incomplete or defective installation, which reduces the effectiveness of a guilt society, and in particular leads to a decline in social trust.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 23, 2019 @ 9:41 am

  9. SWP:

    Vlad was banned from TW years ago. Trolls wd bait him. He wd engage. Then he wd B accused by a mob of _______ fill in the blank. It was usually only a few days, w/ the warning from TW that some violation had occurred (such as a RT of a SWP column). Vlad wd re-read the policies, agree to them… & then be re-admitted to the media. Until it happened again.

    Eventually, the cost in time was not worth the benefit of amusement.

    Since then, TW has only gotten more depraved.

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — July 26, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

  10. Others have mentioned the wider rot in our culture. True enough, but Twitter has particularly bad technical design.

    Now that computer gaming often has a social media component, the art of designing games so that the experience doesn’t devolve into a Twitter-like hellscape has become a rather hot topic. For young idealists who want to design games for children, the prospect is downright nightmarish. The first wave of social gaming (e.g. Farmville) brought with it a flurry of data metrics that, much like the minute-by-minute TV ratings depicted in the cyberpunk dystopia of the 1986 series Max Headroom, drove the chase for investment and ad revenue in shockingly amoral directions. I remember one designer mentioning that merely including voice chat (rather than just text) in a game turned out to be a misfeature, when the small number of women gamers attracted hordes of male orbiters just from the sound of their voice. Trust in a community builds slowly and incrementally, starting with small groups that have repeated interactions pursuing a common goal, whereas Twitter’s (and money-driven Si Valley outfits generally) need to monetize drives them to introduce communication, information-sharing, and engagement features indiscriminately on a mass scale to create a re-enactment of the infamous rats-in-a-cage “behavioral sink” experiment.

    Comment by M. Rad. — July 27, 2019 @ 4:55 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress