American social media is normalizing crime, especially low-level offenses such as shoplifting. Millions, for example, have viewed posts of digital content creator “Boonk Gang” stealing shoes, not paying for haircuts, and even abducting live lobsters on platforms like Vine, Instagram, and Facebook. The creator’s arrest for robbing a Dunkin’ Donuts in 2017 only inflated his popularity, fueling a semi-successful rap career. Meantime, American youth absorb the message that not only is it okay and maybe even funny to steal—it might also boost your career. This is an incredibly destructive message.
Even more recent than Boonk Gang was the rise of the notorious Milwaukee-based “Kia Boys,” aptly named after their primary auto-theft target. These American youths steal dozens of cars per day, taking advantage of a software vulnerability in the South Korean cars. A YouTube documentary about the group posted last year has garnered well over 7 million views and spurred a “Kia Boys trend,” prompting countless posts and videos shared across TikTok with detailed instructions on breaking into and hot-wiring Kias.
Have the kids no shame?
These trends highlight how far as a society we’ve veered from the idea that shame might spur better behavior. A society that greets thieves with applause, and not social ostracization, is dystopian. It also suggests a grim future for America’s international standing; while America’s youth consume petty-crime and hot-wiring tutorials, Chinese social media, fraught as it is with censorship, promotes educational content, science experiments, and museum exhibitions to young people.
This dichotomy gets to the heart of a key component to crime prevention that has been largely absent from our national conversation: culture. Crime is prevented not just through law enforcement but also through the messages would-be offenders absorb about how society feels about criminality. Yes, culture can be harder to shift than laws, but we need to bring culture into the national conversation. Unless we do, we will find it impossible to reverse our mounting crisis of violence and disorder.
Consider again the comparison with Asian countries. The contrast between the norms and messaging of Asian and American communities—and of Asian countries and the United States—and our respective crime levels starkly illustrates culture’s role in curbing crime. To undertake this type of analysis, scholars like anthropologist Richard Nisbett have created the “guilt-shame-fear” paradigm to compare accountability mechanisms in different societies.
In debates around the guilt-shame-fear spectrum of cultures, the United States is typically classified as a “guilt-based society.” Asian countries, on the other hand, such as China and Japan, view accountability through a generally “shame-based” lens. What is the fundamental difference? Within a guilt-based culture, an individual behaving antisocially is generally expected to disapprove internally of his own actions—to hold himself accountable. In a shame-based culture, on the other hand, members of the community or wider society hold someone accountable for his actions, regardless of his own feelings of right and wrong. Prevention is grounded in potential social consequences for the offender, and even for his family. Shame, unlike guilt, utilizes both self-censure—in the sense of the individual wanting to maintain his status—and social accountability.
Americans of Asian descent are dramatically less likely to commit violent crime than any other racial group. Experts often attribute this to socioeconomic factors—Asian Americans are the wealthiest, most educated racial demographic in the country. But as Barry Latzer has noted in City Journal, 23 percent of Asians in New York City live in poverty, tied with Hispanics for the highest poverty rate among all racial demographics. Despite this, New York City Asians commit both violent and nonviolent crime at rates magnitudes lower than either Hispanics or blacks. NYPD crime data from 2020 is still broadly representative of these trends:
Violent Crime Arrest Rates Per 100,000 of Major Social Groups, NYC, 2020
If the explanation were purely socio-economic, there wouldn’t be tenfold greater murder and robbery rates for blacks than for statistically poorer Asians. Even accounting for the greater population of blacks in New York City, the disparity is huge.
This pattern of Asian law-abiding, irrespective of wealth, is also apparent at an international level, when we compare with America those Asian countries that are poorer on a per-capita basis. For example, China’s GDP per capita was $9,905 in 2018. That same year, the U.S.’s GDP per capita was $62,823, more than six times China’s per-person output. Despite this staggering difference in wealth, that same year, China’s homicide rate was roughly 0.5 per 100,000 while in the U.S. it was roughly 5.0 per 100,000. Similar, albeit less pronounced, relationships can be seen when comparing Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to the U.S. Considering these international comparisons and localized domestic numbers, socioeconomic explanations for crime seem questionable at best.
Other factors come into play, too, notably the far harsher punishments for even low-level offenses in Asian countries like China and Singapore. But those countries’ societal relationship with shame also dictates their citizens’ behaviors—even inspiring, I would argue, their exceptionally punitive sentencing policies—and deters crime by means beyond just citizens’ fear of stringent punishment. Homogeneity is often offered as an explanation for lower crime rates in such nations. But even if homogeneity reduces crime, Singapore, like many other Asian nations, is more religiously and ethnically diverse than many U.S. cities, yet America’s 2018 homicide rate was about 2,400 percent higher. Arguably, shame-based cultures can bind citizens across demographic groups.
In the end, neither wealth, penal code, nor ethnic or cultural homogeneity satisfactorily explain Asian countries’ and communities’ low rates of criminal offending. Rather, it may well be the Asian culture of shame. It is not uncommon to see “walls of shame” in Asian retail stores displaying photos of shoplifters. Singapore’s Yishun Mall posts shoplifters’ faces and physical descriptions; many stores even annotate these posts after the perpetrators are brought to justice. Being arrested doesn’t get your picture taken down.
Of course, cultural shame can go too far. In Japan, in the mid-1990s, the father of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki publicly disowned him for his string of heinous child murders, refused to pay his legal fees, and ultimately killed himself. Such grim reactions put an extreme burden on already-suffering families—though they likely make an impression on prospective criminals, too.
None of this is to argue that we can or should inculcate such mores fully in the United States. But Americans could integrate aspects of shame culture into our storied “melting pot,” while avoiding the despair that it can cause at the extremes. We need at least to admit that cultural normalization of theft (and other antisocial behavior) has a disastrous impact, and we should teach individuals to hold themselves accountable by demonstrating that our society believes crime is shameful.