We need to develop capacity to feel shame and guilt

By: Okodan Akwap

Recently, a headline in the opinion section of this newspaper screamed: “Declaring wealth will not redeem police image.”

We need to rephrase that headline in this way: “Declaring wealth will not stem corruption in this country; shame and guilt might.”

The Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopaedia defines shame in two ways. Used as a noun, it means a painful emotion resulting from an awareness of having done something dishonourable, unworthy or degrading; capacity to feel such an emotion; disgrace; a person or thing that causes such emotion; and an occasion for regret or disappointment.

Now, it is a hard, cold fact that virtually every study that has been done on corruption in this country has placed the police force at, or near, the top of the most corrupt institutions.

Indeed, it is safe to assume that the disturbing level of corruption in the force is what led to the reported decision by the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, to order police officers to declare their wealth to some vetting committee.

To be sure, it must be remembered that the typical name-and-shame approach to studies on corruption in our society appears largely to have amounted to mere whistling in the wind.

Corruption rages unabated. Clearly, this points to the widespread absence of self-reproach, guilt, remorsefulness, contriteness and regret among the alleged perpetrators of the vice.

Yet shame and guilt have been known to contribute to the kind of behaviour change that has lubricated the process of socio-economic and cultural transformation of contemporary societies.

The major reason behind such a poignantly uplifting outcome is seen in the explanations of Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), renowned as one of America’s pioneer cultural anthropologists.

Ms Benedict characterised shame as “a violation of cultural or social values” and guilt as a “violation of one’s internal values.” In that respect, shame is seen as arising largely from the exposure of one’s wrongdoings to other people, thus attracting a negative evaluation from them.

Guilt, on the other hand, comes from one’s own negative evaluation of oneself. It matters less whether anyone knows you are the one who stole the money meant for immunising children; the burden of guilt may weigh on your conscience to the extent that you experience the emotion of embarrassment, which may make you feel bad enough to vow never to repeat the wrongdoing.

China had the courage to feel ashamed of the mediocrity of its education system. As early as 1949 when it came to power, the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, began developing a major support base among university students.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) marked the strongest relationship between education and ideology. Communist party cadres scrapped the university-entrance exam to make it easy for students to sail through, just as we are doing with the UPE policy on automatic promotion. With the death of Mao in 1976, the new leaders emphasised reforms in critical sectors in tandem with opening up to the outside world.

In his 2008 BA thesis, “From Mao to the Market: An Analysis of Chinese Higher Education in the Communist Era,” Samuel Ruth quotes Jan Wong who studied at Beijing University during the Cultural Revolution, as writing in her memoir: “The once-glorious label ‘worker-peasant-soldier student’ became a badge of shame.”

That shame forced China to reintroduce the rigorous university-entrance exam in 1977. All said, it is futile to argue that the complex challenges we face – such as rampant corruption and the sorry state of UPE – can be fixed through simple actions like wealth declaration.

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