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8 Tongues are Spears Shame and Differentiated Conformity
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Shame, Behavior, and the Distribution of Culture

Earlier, it was shown that individuals are exposed to a variety of judgments of similar acts with those of some sanctioners approving and those of others


disapproving what was done or contemplated. Clearly, the different assessments cannot affect behavior equally in a given situation, so guidance is needed in choosing which to accord most weight. One of the factors in this is what has been internalized and another is who the holders of the different views are.

The weightiest assessment and the actor's own views may not coincide, but the variety of standards available through the multiplicity of sanctioners with different views offers the possibility of flexibility as well as uncertainty. With the guidance of both internalized beliefs and values and with knowledge, not necessarily explicit and formulated, of the status system, a person can satisfy his or her personal needs without either refraining from desired behavior or being negatively evaluated by any of a diversity of sanctioners.

The ability of the individual to respond to the diversity of standards associated with different types of sanctioners by controlling information about his activity and by inhibiting his behavior in some, but not necessarily all, social settings suggests strongly that he or she has not internalized all of the different—and perhaps conflicting—values concerning that activity with equal strength. This would be so, at least, if internalization usually results either in behavior in accord with what is internalized or in discernible anxiety when engaging in behavior contrary to the standards.

My data concerning how different individuals experience aibu and how it is involved in motivation are regrettably sparse as, so far as I can establish, are the comparable data from studies of shame in other societies reported in the literature. Swahili informants tell me that aibu is an unpleasant feeling that no one wishes to experience. People suffering from serious aibu are said to be unable to look others in the face, and anyone who customarily looks at the ground instead of at those around him is generally understood to be experiencing chronic shame. I am unable to determine, however, how effective aibu is as a force in motivation.

Informants agree that people, probably everyone including the worst, try to avoid aibu and that "good" people, like those I call arbiters, try harder than others. I do not have information that allows me to make statements about how far people are willing to go in avoiding aibu, and I cannot even approximate how experiencing it is weighed against the benefits and social costs of doing desired, but aibu, things. Nor can I comment on the emotional cost of not doing desired things because they are aibu.

Balancing Shame and Contrary Forces: A Little Case

A brief case suggests that at least sometimes group members will endure such psychic pain as they may experience from behavior that they agree is


somewhat shameful, if the behavior has social benefits and acceptable social costs.

A young Swahili man told me that although he enjoyed the company of his male companions, they often caused him concern because of their drinking, smoking marijuana, and talk of sexual activities. He said that a "true Muslim" must lead others away from sin and he, although he saw himself as a true Muslim, did nothing to influence his companions to behave in more acceptable ways.

I take this to suggest that he felt some shame at his failure to do what he thought he ought to do. His views about what he should have done to influence his friends are in accord with what the Swahili say is true Muslim doctrine, and, although he never said so to me, I am sure he knew that. Still, he did nothing to correct his friends and continued to see them despite his misgivings. He never mentioned to them his disapproval of their actions but only, he told me, remained silent when they spoke of their activities and when they drank and smoked in his presence. However, he steadfastly refused to drink or do other things contrary to Islam despite the urging of his friends.

Insofar as my informant's account can be taken at face value (and the possibility that he sees me as a sanctioner vaguely aligned with men who are arbiters cannot be dismissed out of hand), his behavior appears to be more directed to gaining the benefits of associating with people who amuse him than with avoiding the feelings of aibu deriving from that association. It is to be noted that his associations had little or no social cost. The arbiters neither knew nor were likely to find out that he associated with the particular youths who were his friends, since their gatherings are in "cold houses" (cafés where cold soda and snacks are sold) where arbiters rarely or never went, and anyway, most or all of these youths were from good families and had done nothing sufficiently public and notorious to gain bad reputations. My informants knew of their aibu, but arbiters and others from sanctioner groupings likely to disapprove did not. From a personal perspective, he could—and did—console himself with his refusal to participate actively in his friends' sinful ways.

The youths themselves are, of course, sanctioners, and there can be no doubt they would have disapproved of any action by my informant aimed at "correcting" their behavior. Whether or not my informant and other group members would consider a negative judgment of this sort as a source of aibu (and I suspect they would not call it that), it would seem likely to be the functional equivalent in being a stimulant of feelings of being disapproved and losing prestige among the judges. At the same time, my informants did gain the social benefit of having usually amusing companions. The informant's aibu was, perhaps, not very great by his own standards, although he did feel he was behaving wrongly by not attempting to stop his friends from sinning or, at least, by continuing to associate with them when they did not stop.


Such emotional pain as this may have caused him, however, seems to have been outweighed by the social and personal gains of continued association and, perhaps, his personally virtuous behavior.

I do not mean to suggest that all cases result in feelings of aibu being overpowered by other considerations. My informant believed it was aibuproducing to drink alcohol, and he never did it despite teasing from his friends. I only mean to suggest that the existence of the feelings associated with aibu do not necessarily prevent the behavior that is identified as causing that aibu. Social considerations seem very weighty in determining aibu's effect on behavior, and many of these considerations involve an understanding by the actor that different "significant others" have different views of what is right and proper. Epstein (1984:40) says of the views of both experimental psychologists and psychoanalysts,

common to these diverse approaches is the way shame is held to be intimately linked to threat to the image or negative evaluation of the self. [On the negative side are] . . . feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and the like . . . elicited by the exposure of some act or quality . . . one perceives as reflecting discredit on the self. . . . More positively, shame may also be seen as providing, at the level of the individual, a major thrust towards the development of a sense of identity, serving at the same time, at the cultural level, to protect and maintain basic social values.

I agree with Epstein. I would add, however, that shame is not a monolithic process in Swahili society but that it "protects and maintains" not only "basic social values" (those represented by the arbiters for the most part) but also the cultural distribution that is as basic to the existence of the society as are the fundamental values. The individual is motivated to behave in accord with widely held values because of the shame he would experience and the social costs he would incur if he ignored the judgments of the arbiters and such sanctioners as might support these values as they applied to him. The individual, however, is also motivated to act in accord with values different from, even opposed to, the fundamental ones because of the shame he would experience and the social costs he would incur if he did not.

Shame as a Support for Cultural Diversity

It is shame's operation as a support for diversity based in differences among statuses that is of particular interest in dealing with the questions raised by the fact that not all of culture's elements are shared by all of a community's members. The broadly shared values applying more or less equally to everyone, such as not going naked in public, serve more importantly as tokens than as guides. By following them, and it is effortless for almost everyone,


one affirms group unity, and members show each other that they behave as decent people do. However, the varying values and beliefs of the sanctioners, applying selectively but predictably, support a conformity to a culture that is differentially distributed among the statuses that make up the social structure and is not even fully shared within the status categories.

Like the models based in terms considered in the last chapter, shame not only promotes conformity to understandings shared by group members, it does so in a differentiated way. This differentiation is based on status differences with both the status of the judged and that of the judge greatly affecting the kinds of conformity expected of the judged. The sort of universally applicable pressure for conformity to universally shared understandings is limited to understandings whose importance for most sorts of behavior is rather slight. It is the status-dependent, differentiated pressures that promote much of the behavior that is vital for individual adaptation and community life. This sort of pressure for conformity allows substantial flexibility in the sorts of behavior found within the group and does not depend on broad sharing of large numbers of specific understandings.

The interest in statuses and their role in cultural processes in this chapter and those preceding it has focused more on how statuses function and their general properties as seen in Swahili culture and social life than on their operation as systems of interconnected elements. In the next two chapters, some of the effects of interconnected sets of statuses, that is, of social structure, will be examined.


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8 Tongues are Spears Shame and Differentiated Conformity
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