There should be no shame in admitting you’ve made a mistake

December 13, 2003
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Published in The Times, 13th December 2003

There's a story told about the legendary head of IBM, Thomas Watson. On one occasion a senior manager made a serious business mistake that cost the company ten million dollars.

Watson summoned him to his office. “I guess you want my resignation,” the manager said. “Are you crazy?” Watson replied. “We’ve just spent ten million dollars educating you. ”If there is one truth that is humanising above all others in the Judaeo-Christian tradition it is that it’s OK to make mistakes. Not just OK — it is of the very essence of life in the presence of God.

By giving us freewill, God empowered us to make mistakes. That is what makes us different from, and more interesting than, the angels.We are not just computers programmed to sing the praises of our maker. By forming us in His image, the creative God made the one being in the Universe capable of creativity — and there is no creativity without risk, no risk without occasional failure, and no failure without new self-knowledge.

More than through the things we get right, it is through the things we get wrong that we learn. God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge them when we make them, apologise, make amends, heal the relationships we harmed, and commit ourselves not to make the same mistake again. That is what turns failure into a learning experience. It’s the cluster of ideas the Bible calls repentance, atonement and forgiveness. It is what makes biblical cultures more humane than their alternatives.

We owe to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict the fundamental distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. In shame cultures what matters is how we are seen by others. In guilt cultures like Judaism and Christianity, what matters is the voice within — conscience, what Freud called the superego, the moral values we internalise and make our own.

In shame cultures a person is judged by the honour in which he or she is held. In guilt cultures there is no way of escaping the still, small voice that calls to us as it once called to Adam and Eve saying, “Where art thou?” Shame cultures seem to lack the idea of forgiveness. If you’ve done wrong, the most important thing is to hope no one will find out. Once they do, there is no way of removing the stain of dishonour or the loss of face. Depending on time and circumstance, the shamed hero either goes off to fight and die in a distant battle, or flees to some remote country, or (in the old British theatrical tradition) disappears offstage to do the decent thing with a loaded revolver in the library of a country house. Shame cultures produce literatures of tragedy.

Guilt cultures produce literatures of hope. King David sins — seriously, as it happens — is confronted by the Prophet Nathan and immediately confesses. So do the inhabitants of Nineveh when Jonah finally reaches them and tells them of their impending doom. They are given the greatest gift a culture can confer: the chance to begin again, not held captive by the past.It seems to me that Britain, once biblical in its values, has now become a shame culture.

What counts today is public image — hence the replacement of prophets by public relations practitioners, and the Ten Commandments by three new rules: Thou shalt not be found out, thou shalt not admit, thou shalt not apologise. It’s a bad exchange. A shame culture turns mistakes into tragedies. A guilt culture turns them into learning experiences. I know which I prefer.