Shoplifting and the Rise of Shame image

Shoplifting and the Rise of Shame

The UK is in the midst of a ‘shoplifting epidemic’, with shop thefts having more than doubled in the last three years.

Why is this?

As always the answer is probably more multifaceted than simple: the cost of living crisis; the decline in social cohesion; declining respect for authority; covid (every negative social indicator has got worse since covid, or rather, since the imposition of lockdowns in response to covid). I expect someone will lay the blame on Brexit. It’s always Brexit.

Perhaps it isn’t just these factors that lay at the root of it though. Perhaps it’s our societal shift away from being a guilt-innocence culture to more of an honour-shame one.

In his very helpful book, The 3D Gospel, missiologist Jayson Georges provides a useful summary of these different cultures. First, in guilt-innocence cultures,

The notions of right and wrong are foundational pillars… Society creates rules and laws to enforce what actions are right and wrong. These rules and laws define acceptable behaviour.

In such a culture people don’t steal because they know it is wrong, because it is breaking the law. Yes, there is always theft, but the more strongly people feel the demands of their guilt-innocence culture the less theft there is.

By contrast, 

Shame-honor societies assume a strong group orientation. Honor is a person’s social worth, one’s value in the eyes of the community. Honor is when other people think well of you, resulting in harmonious social bonds in the community. Honor comes from relationships.

In these cultures people don’t steal because doing so brings shame on them; except in those situations where it doesn’t. So to steal from someone outside the group might not be shaming. It might even be a way of accruing honour. It’s why people from honour-shame cultures don’t pay their parking fines while those from guilt-innocence cultures do (see p.41ff in The Weirdest People in the World by Henrich for more on this).

What we are seeing in many of the reports of shoplifting is a total absence of shame – the thieves are brazen. And there is clearly a complete absence of guilt. At first this might seem confusing, especially for those of us who still operate primarily within the guilt-innocence framework. Think your way into an honour-shame worldview though and it begins to make more sense:

I don’t recognise the arbitrary nature of the law.

If someone is foolish enough to not adequately protect their goods from predation that is their problem, not mine.

I don’t understand why I would feel ‘guilt’ (whatever that is) about taking what I want from someone who means nothing to me or my peers.

When I successfully steal goods I get a lot of kudos from my peers. And it is their opinion of me that counts – not yours.

I think this is something of what lies behind the increase in shoplifting. It seems obvious that the shift away from a guilt-innocence culture and towards an honour-shame one is being driven by social media. We are increasingly programmed to seek the accrual of kudos on social media and fear the stigma of a social media shaming. And that changes the way in which we behave – it changes our ethics.

So one way the shoplifters might be deterred from their actions would be if their peers (and it needs to be their peers, not people like me) did shame them on social media – but that probably isn’t going to happen. Simply telling them that it is wrong won’t work either, because (as any missiologist would tell you) that’s a category mistake.

All of which means we can probably anticipate more changes on the high street: either with retailers giving up and retreating entirely online, or security measures being significantly increased, with the negative impact of that on all of us.

Then there is the missiological dimension – that we find ourselves in a context where for a significant proportion of the population the categories of guilt and innocence do not make much sense. And that means you might need to adjust the Christmas message you are preparing this year.


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