What are we to make of a society in which pornography is readily available, violence pervades the arts and the media, men frequent bawdy shows and children are raised with the greatest permissiveness?
I refer, of course, to Japan.
This is the Japan that is almost unique among industrialized nations for its remarkably low rates of crime, especially violent crime, and its legendary ability to control the spread of dangerous drugs. There are youth gangs in Japan, some of which are deeply involved in crime and corruption, but rarely do the "yakuza" engage in drive-by shootings.
In Japan, it would be unusual for there to be a spirited public debate about the need to curtail explicit sex and violence in films, magazines, television and recordings, and if such a debate were to occur, it would not be linked to ominous statements about cultural decay and rising crime.
Why, then, does such a debate occur here? Sen. Bob Dole is only the latest, though perhaps the most prominent, elected official to attack the recording industry. Not too many years ago, Tipper Gore, wife of the current vice president, did the same. Sen. Paul Simon has been an unrelenting critic of violence in the media. Former Cabinet member William J. Bennett, editor of the best-selling Book of Virtues, has castigated the media and has been joined in this by C. DeLores Tucker, the head of the National Political Congress of Black Women. The assault on media excess has been a bipartisan, biracial matter and, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, widely supported by the public.
People in the film and recording industries have responded as one might expect, denying the existence of a large problem (though no one, so far, seems to have referred to the Japanese example) or lamenting the advent of censorship (though hardly anyone has suggested government censorship). Indeed, what is most interesting about the debate is that most critics of the industry seek to shame, not to censor them, while most defenders of it prefer to talk about censorship rather than shame.
Shame, in fact, lies at the core of our dilemma. The reason that Japan can behave so properly, despite depictions of violence and licentiousness and even permissive (at least in the early years) child-rearing, is that it has a culture that powerfully induces a sense of shame in its members. The reason that Americans behave less properly, despite a much greater reliance on law enforcement and criminal sanctions, is that we have become shameless.
We can perhaps better grasp this point by referring, not to the complex and subtle culture of Japan, but to changes that have occurred in the West. Since before the birth of Christianity, shame was a core idea in Western philosophy. People feared to be disgraced in the eyes of those whom they admired, or in the eyes of decent people generally. They attached great value to honor, manners and dignity, and, above all, to protecting their essential privacy.
For a person to experience shame, he or she had to be able to communicate it. It was difficult to feel ashamed of one's own conduct if one was unable to be shocked by that of others. Shame was, and remains, a social process _ that is, a set of reciprocal understandings. "I am ashamed because you are scandalized; you fear shame because you know I can be shocked."
But in the West, we have been engaged for many years in an effort to elevate the individual over the group and to free that individual from an unhealthy preoccupation with what is private and, especially, sexual. Men and women have sought to emancipate themselves from public opinion and private prudery. We have used law and philosophy to accomplish the first task and Freudianism and self-esteem to achieve the second. Both tendencies have in common a desire to both liberate and level. No one should be told what to do, save to prevent some injury, and no one is any better than anyone else.
These modern Western tendencies have no counterpart in Eastern cultures. Most Asians probably would find the notion that individuals ought to be emancipated from, or elevated above, the group bizarre; people have meaning only as part of groups and hierarchies. And if groups are to remain central to the lives of individuals, the power of that group _ the power to shame, among other things _ must not be diluted. In Japan, permissive child-rearing does not lead to individualism, violent films do not induce violent action and public lewdness does not produce social disintegration because group affiliations _ and the reciprocal power of shame _ are too strong.
In the United States, by contrast, the weakness of the state is not offset by the strength of the social order. We have more crime, violence, debauchery and drug abuse than most Americans want, but we also have forsworn the use of those methods _ either a repressive state or group-centered social order _ that might reduce these pathologies.
This means that we have a more precarious and uncertain relationship between thought and action. Some other nations can afford to tolerate a popular interest in sordid vulgarity; in those societies, human character is either formed by a powerful culture or human behavior is checked by a powerful state. We have neither recourse; human character here is formed by processes that are at once highly individualistic and politically undirected. Lacking government fetters or cultural sanctions, we naturally will worry more than others might about what commerce will do to character.
Most Americans are skeptical of government censorship; they want self-censorship instead. But self-censorship ultimately depends on a sense of shame, and the culture we have produced makes that almost as unlikely as censorship.
Despite its individualistic tradition, Americans still are more easily shocked by misconduct than most Western peoples. Europeans still sniff at our sexual prudery. Our television programs may display violence on a mind-boggling scale, but they still are relatively restrained about overt sexuality. Gangsta-rap recordings are purchased by only a tiny fraction of the record-buying public (and disproportionately by white kids).
America, in a way, remains the most Victorian of all Western nations in this decidedly post-Victorian era. It is a good thing, too, for it also is the most rights-oriented. Those who are criticizing (correctly, in my view) the vulgar, morbid and incendiary images and words of modern Hollywood are gambling that a sense of shame is not dead, but living on some life-support system. They are gambling that even people making big money purveying filth will find it difficult not to blush when asked two questions:
How often do you show your products to your mother, wife and children?
When have you stated, clearly, the limits beyond which you will not go?
It is no fair changing the subject to gun control and the school-lunch program.
James Q. Wilson is the Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is The Moral Sense.
Special to the Los Angeles Times