Thursday, May 12, 2005

Trash-Sorting and Shame

The Japanese, according to this article from today's New York Times are very serious about recycling. Very serious.

An island nation with limited space and limited natural resources, of course, has special incentive for reusing those materials that can be recycled and for incinerating those that would take up precious acreage in landfills.

The Times article talks about communities that have 10 and 44 different refuse categories into which individuals are expected to sort things. This is in many ways, laudable. I believe in recycling and probably no nation on earth is better at organizing themselves quickly and efficiently than the Japanese.

What interested me though, is the role played by societal shame in seeing to it that individuals comply with Japan's complicated trash-sorting rules.

There are what can only be described as "vigilantes" who cruise their neighborhoods, peering at the contents of the required-transparent trash bags to make certain that neighbors have sorted all items properly. When their neighbors fail to do so, the vigliantes are on them, tarring them with bad reputations.

Two vignettes from the article illustrate this use of shame:

Shizuka Gu, 53, said that early on, a community leader sent her a letter reprimanding her for not writing her identification number on the bag with a "thick felt-tip pen." She was chided for using a pen that was "too thin."

"It was a big shock to be told that I had done something wrong," Ms. Gu said. "So I couldn't bring myself to take out the trash here and asked my husband to take it to his office. We did that for one month."
And this:

At a 100-family apartment complex not too far away, Sumishi Kawai was keeping his eyes trained on the trash site before pickup. Missorting was easy to spot, given the required use of clear garbage bags with identification numbers. Compliance was perfect - almost.

One young couple consistently failed to properly sort their trash. "Sorry! We'll be careful!" they would say each time Mr. Kawai knocked on their door holding evidence of their transgressions.

At last, even Mr. Kawai - a small 77-year-old man with wispy white hair, an easy smile and a demeanor that can only be described as grandfatherly - could take no more.

"They were renting the apartment, so I asked the owner, 'Well, would it be possible to have them move?' " Mr. Kawai said, recalling, with undisguised satisfaction, that the couple was evicted two months ago.

In America, of course, we've almost done away with anything remotely resembling shame. We do, thankfully, have laws that strive to keep sexual predators away from children and that provide for the publication of these predators' names and faces in newspapers and other media. But by and large, Americans feel little motivation to do or not do things because of the possibility of being shamed.

One day last week, my wife, who works at a local retail establishment part-time in addition to her full-time gig as a school librarian, was approached by one of the young women with whom she works. This early-twenty-something had a look of horror on her face.

My wife soon knew why. A guy perusing the Mother's Day cards, wearing a Hustler ball cap also wore a T-shirt. Across the chest of the shirt was written in bold letters: F**k me, I'm bored.

Neither my wife or I believe in telling other people what to do. We're both squeamish about recent efforts of some Christian political groups to, as we see it, impose their particular brand of Christian morality on society.

But we both believe that when people like the T-shirt guy wear garbage in public where children can read it, people have a right, at the least, to say something.

When the man came to the cash register where my wife was working, she told him, "That is the most disgusting T-shirt I have ever seen in my life and it's completely inappropriate." The guy chuckled and said something about wishing he could find more like it.

While I'm proud of my wife for calling this guy out for publicly imposing his morality on children he passed by, nothing was immediately changed.

By and large, shame is a poor tool for change in America (or anywhere else, I surmise). We're too individualistic here, so raised on the (questionable) notion that all are born with rights, that we often view any obligation to others as an infringement. That's why, for example, we have people who claim that US courts have no jurisdiction over them and why some refuse to pay their taxes.

But I'm surely glad that I don't live in Japan. Shame is a destructive thing and it seems to be a deeply-ingrained and unquestioned presence in Japanese culture.

A woman I knew, who lived in a close-knit community, lost her job. She had taken a small sum of money from the company for which she'd worked and she was fired. Jobless now, she was reimbursing her former employer and could, in that community, have easily secured another position. But she was too ashamed to ask for a job. Doing so would have entailed the possibility of explaining why she was looking for new work.

For weeks, she went through an elaborate hoax designed to convince neighbors, friends, and family members that all was fine and that she was still working at her former job.

At last, she couldn't take the shame any longer. One morning, she got into the car in her garage, turned the engine on, keeping the door closed, and killed herself with carbon monoxide fumes.

Shame is a lousy motivator for long-term changes in human behaviors, no matter what the culture. It's been my observation that shame held onto for long periods of time can morph in three different ways:

(1) The weight of shame can cause people to simply deny the notion of any accountability to anyone or anything. It will lead, in other words, to a kind of libertinism, what I call, "anything goesism." The easiest fix for the shame that others impose on you is to deny that there are any standards whatever for how we interact with the world. That seemed to be the attitude of the guy with the T-shirt.

(2) The weight of shame can crush the life out of its victims, literally causing them to take their own lives. Unable to face or handle their shame, sometimes agreeing with the standards of perfection they sense others imposing upon them and sometimes simply submitting to them, these folks see no way out but death. That was the attitude of the woman who took her life.

(3) The weight of shame can bludgeon people into submission, turning them into furtive creatures, always worried about what the neighbors might say, and doing whatever they can to placate the false god of honor. That appears to be the way of Japanese culture.
I'm not a fan of shame.

But, as I've written more extensively here, guilt can be a good thing.

Shame assaults our personhood. Guilt calls us to accountability for specific actions or ways of thinking.

Shame questions our right to exist. Guilt calls us to make our lives better, affirming our capacity for growth.

Shame believes that we can't change. Guilt can motivate change.

We can learn something from the earnestness with which the Japanese are recycling. But they need to lighten up a little.

And I believe that the only real antidote to shame or guilt is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who accepts us as we are and graciously, lovingly, patiently helps those who surrender to Him to become all they're made to be.

1 comment:

purple_kangaroo said...

Great post, Mark. Have you read the book "Tired of Trying to Measure Up" by Jeff VanVonderen? It deals a lot with how crippling shame is and the balance between grace and truth in God's character.