In the 1940s, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict posited a distinction between “guilt” and “shame” cultures, which has since become standard in the social sciences. Put simply, guilt cultures tend to focus on the inward response to transgression, while shame cultures emphasize society’s reaction to the individual transgressor. The late rabbi Jonathan Sacks frequently employed this distinction in his writings, seeing Judaism as an exemplar of the merits of a guilt culture. Marc Eichenbaum explains how Sacks’s ideas on the subject have particular relevance today:
Although Rabbi Sacks discussed the differences between guilt and shame cultures as early as 2001, it is noteworthy that he began to discuss [the subject] much more frequently in the later years of his life. Perhaps Sacks did so because he saw a disturbing trend in which contemporary society began increasingly to transition into more of a shame culture. On several occasions, Rabbi Sacks decried the influence of social media in such terms: “The return of public shaming and vigilante justice, of viral videos and tendentious tweets, is not a move forward to a brave new world but a regression to a very old one; that of pre-Christian Rome and the pre-Socratic Greeks.”
People increasingly view sin as a permanent stain on the sinner and thus regard forgiveness as archaic. The fear of being forever canceled and shamed is more apparent than the fear of betraying oneself. “What counts today is public image—hence the replacement of prophets by public-relations practitioners, and the Ten Commandments by three new rules: thou shalt not be found out, thou shalt not admit, thou shalt not apologize,” mused Rabbi Sacks. People are called out for their mistakes instead of being called in to reconsider them, ostracized for nonconformity instead of being appreciated for their diversity of thought.
Rabbi Sacks urged the world to return to the ethics of the Bible and reclaim the beauty of a guilt culture. He saw the values of responsibility, repentance, forgiveness, and individuality at risk.