Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Embarrassed to Death

Since when is death preferable to embarrassment? Is getting embarrassed really the end of the world? Take the Chinese gymnastics coach, for example, who said he would "jump off the highest building" if his solemn team of gymnasts didn't take home more gold than last time. No wonder those boys never smile. A fall off the high bar becomes a life-and-death situation. Lucky for all of them, they won, because cleaning up that mess (physically and psychologically) would take a while.

The Chinese are big on avoiding diu lian (losing face) at any cost. They would rather tell you they will come to something they have no intention of ever attending than say no. It's a culture that takes a lot of finesse to navigate. Embarrassing someone or making them lose face is probably the worst sin imaginable. It's a cultural phenomenon that runs exactly counter to the American preference for almost rude straightforwardness. I'm pretty sure if you put a New Yorker and a Chinese person in a room together for a week somebody is going to die of embarrassment. And it won't be the New Yorker.

But in nearby countries, a much darker and more egregious interpretation of this shame-based philosophy is in the news lately. Called "honor killing" a relative, usually a father or a brother, kills a woman for some behavior they think will shame the family. From refusing to succumb to a distasteful arranged marriage to being the victim of sexual assault, it's a putative measure, practiced mostly in the Middle East, brought against a female who is perceived to have brought dishonor to the family. Sometimes even the other family members look the other way thinking it may be impossible for another girl in the family to make a good marriage if a "shamed" girl has not been adequately punished.

The fact that this fear of being shamed is on this level is astounding and heartbreaking. To place honor above human life is impossible for me to understand. It of course requires an acceptance of violence against women, deep seated sexism, and a long-standing tradition of women as chattel. But if this is the most shocking and lurid of these practices it certainly makes me think that the other less egregious atrocities against women are more common than we even want to believe.

Surely any amount of shame or embarrassment is preferable.

1 comment:

KL said...

The whole concept of this is truly amazing. Thank you for bringing this up. I never realized how different cultures view things so literally.

I for one am always embarrased. I guess you could say I've died a thousand deaths.