Monday, October 16, 2017

A Never-Ending Guilt Trip

Often have I written about shame and guilt. While shame is more difficult to conceptualize, guilt, by comparison is rather easy. Or at least I thought it was until I read Devorah Baum's confusing piece about it in the Guardian.

In the interest of clarity, I will lay down a few predicates. You feel guilt when you have broken a law, transgressed a taboo, violated a prohibition and are awaiting punishment. Guilt is a form of anxiety. It is a feeling of anticipating punishment. It is felt by criminals, especially by those who have a conscience. 

Those who wish to rid themselves of their guilt must submit to punishment. They might do penance; they might be incarcerated; they might even be mutilated. Once you pay off the debt acquired by committing a crime, you will no longer feel guilty. You will then be able to go out and sin again.

As rackets go, the guilt/punishment dyad counts among psychology’s greatest. It allows you the maximum of bad behavior while exacting a relatively small price. Obviously, if your guilt involves having committed a major crime, you will be paying a serious price. But career criminals know the price and still commit the crimes—they are willing to do the time. It’s part of the cost of doing business. Or better, it’s part of the risk/reward equation.

In recent Western intellectual history, serious thinkers want us to feel guilty. Freud counts among those who understood guilt best. We are all guilty, he posited, because we all want to murder our fathers and copulate with our mothers. Regardless of whether he have done it, we are guilty for having wanted to do it. Freud was like the detective who is investigating a crime and who discovers that his favorite suspect has an alibi. Said suspect could not have done it. And yet, the Freudian detective says that it does not matter. He is guilty for having wanted to do it.

Those who are more politically involved, and who want to indoctrinate us expand the narrative. They want us to feel guilt because, if we have it so good, if we have such good lives, we did not earn it by the sweat of our brows. By the laws of the Marxist dialectic, we stole it from others, from the less fortunate, from the oppressed, from the exploited. We have no right to enjoy the fruits of our labor because we are guilty of have done so at someone else’s expense. The only way we can assuage our guilt is to offer reparations to those who we have exploited. 

It might be the sort that Ta-Nehisi Coates believes all white people owe to all black people, or the kinds of income redistribution that the Democratic Party seems increasingly to favor, or the wealth transfer written into the Paris Climate Accord. By this reasoning the state of Israel is not a great testimony to hard work and resilience. It is an organized criminal conspiracy designed to oppress Palestinian peoples. Israeli guilt can only be reduced by giving Israel back to the Palestinians.

Baum quotes Frankfurt School guru Theodor Adorno to the effect that we should all feel guilt for the Holocaust. Of course, this is nonsense. It shows that the Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School wanted the Western world, the world that destroyed Nazi Germany, to self-destruct.

Baum explains Adorno’s thinking:

In other words, guilt is our unassailable historical condition. It’s our contract as modern people. As such, says Adorno, we all have a shared responsibility after Auschwitz to be vigilant, lest we collapse once more into the ways of thinking, believing and behaving that brought down this guilty verdict upon us. To make sense after Auschwitz is to risk complicity with its barbarism.

By this logic, the greatest danger lies in the return of a fascist dictator. These great thinkers, who did not see the monstrosities that Communism would afflict on the planet are running around, like the boy who cried wolf, yelling: The Fascists are coming! The Fascists are coming!

You see the reasoning. You see the logic. You see that those who are militating against white supremacy want to receive rewards that they did not earn and want to punish others for their success.

If you buy the leftist narrative, guilt mongering, the recourse of the modern political left, makes good sense. Baum explains that you should feel guilty even if you have not done anything criminal:

For a psychoanalyst, however, feelings of guilt don’t necessarily have any connection to being guilty in the eyes of the law. Our feelings of guilt may be a confession, but they usually precede the accusation of any crime – the details of which not even the guilty person can be sure.

Of course, she wants to make life one long guilt trip. One would expect nothing less from the daughter-in-law of famed Freud apologist, Lisa Appignanesi. If you take the concept of guilt and attempt to apply it everywhere, to send yourself off on your own private guilt trip—which is called psychoanalysis—you will confuse the issue. In a delightful piece of prose Baum shows us how to do it:

I feel guilty about everything. Already today I’ve felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I’d said. Plus, I haven’t called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organised something special for my husband’s birthday: guilty. I gave the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I’ve been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I’m taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty.

If you are feeling that guilty, you will be spending most of your life whipping yourself like a penitent. Obviously, this will render you incapable of doing anything consequential. If you believe that your positive actions, your hard work and achievements are really ways of exploiting the oppressed, why would you do anything?

Guilt is a feeling that you want your competitors to wallow in. A guilt ridden competitor is weak and futile. All this guilt mongering puts us in the world of psy ops. Considering that it is coming down to us from the radical left, it merely shows that capitalism is, by its nature, so much more effective and efficient than socialism that the only hope socialists have is to render capitalists so guilt-ridden that they destroy their economy on the altar of multicultural political correctness.

Whereas Freud wanted us to understand that we all felt guilt for holding wishes to commit horrific crimes, leftists tell us that we are all participating in a vast conspiracy to oppress the downtrodden and the underprivileged. Being members of a successful society we are all complicit.

Since Baum calls guilt the most unbearable emotion, you can safely conclude that shame is the most unbearable emotion. Guilt sets you to finding the right punishment. Shame sets you to changing your ways. Many of the misdeeds that Baum believes to be a function of guilt are really about shame and embarrassment.

Baum notes that liberal guilt does not really produce very much change. Perhaps she believes that only the Revolution can do that. After all, old illusions die hard in some quarters. But, liberal guilt cannot produce any change because it tells those who are less successful that they should not emulate habits that produced success but that they should militate to receive reparations, the fruits of wealth redistribution.

One does understand that the concept of guilt comes to us from the Garden of Eden, from the Fall. And yet, lest we be as confused as certain people, we will note, again, that Adam and Eve were punished, first, for doing something that they were told not to do, thus for transgressing a taboo, but also, for failing to remain humble and not to pretend to be like God. Thus, theirs was a dual sanction: they were condemned to hard labor and death, but they also knew that they were naked. They learned both shame and guilt. They paid for their crime, but, in the meantime, they were free to be responsible for their actions as social being.

Anyway, Baum offers a fairly standard and wrong distinction between guilt and shame. After all, promoting a guilt culture will not allow her to sustain a shame culture, one where people work hard to achieve and where they recognize their errors and try to improve them:

The victim who feels guilt evidently has an inner life, with intentions and desires – while the victim who feels shame seems to have had it bestowed from outside. The victims of trauma consequently appear to be the objects rather than the subjects of history.

Shame, then, tells us something about what one is, not what one does – or would like to do. And so the effect of this well-intentioned shift in emphasis may have been to rob the survivor of agency.

Baum is correct to see that those who are guilt-ridden are lost in their inner life. As long as they conduct their lives by the terms of a guilt culture they will remain so. People who feel shame are not victims. They made mistakes. The cult to victimization belongs to the guilt narrative. Baum should not confuse the issue.

One might argue that shame involves what one is, but a shame culture promotes honor, dignity and pride… and you only acquire those through your actions, not your feelings. True enough, shame seems to be bestowed from the outside, in the sense that it involves how you look to others, your reputation. Yet, people who observe us from the outside do not know about our inner emotional states. They know us by our deeds.

Dare I say that these accepted modern definitions of shame and guilt are a muddle. At the least, shame gets us to go out and correct a bad impression by creating a good impression. The only way to do so is to do the right thing.

Yet, Baum, apparently a member of the Ask Polly school of therapy tells her readers to feel their feelings… thus to retire from the world and to wallow in emotion… like a good Freudian:

But if guilt is the feeling that typically blocks all other (buried, repressed, unconscious) feelings, that is not in itself a reason to block feelings of guilt. Feelings, after all, are what you must be prepared to feel if they are to move you, or if you are to feel something else.


Jack Fisher said...

An orthodox Christian would day that guilt is one part of the penitential process that leads to reconciliation with the person wronged and or society, and involves recognition of the wrong, restitution, acceptance of punishment and a sincere effort to not repeat the offense.

Guilt in your description as a cost of doing business, is ethically indefensible, better suited to breaching contracts and the NHL's scale of penalties, which encourages a small amount of fighting when it could easily prevent all fighting.

Shame, on the other hand, results from unresolved offenses, and is the long lasting, corrosive effect they have on the soul and character, hence the old testament reference to the effects of sin through successive generations.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Dare I say that these accepted modern definitions of shame and guilt are a muddle. At the least, shame gets us to go out and correct a bad impression by creating a good impression. The only way to do so is to do the right thing.

I'll have to agree things are muddled, but since we still have to share language with everyone, its not exactly possible to fixed muddled definitions by simply saying everyone else are using definitions wrongly.

My current thoughts (which are free to be as muddled as anyone else) are that we feel guilt when we do wrong things, and we feel shame when we get caught doing wrong things, and try to deny it. That is, the coverup seems to convert honest guilt, something that needs correction, into shame, something that shines a light on a part of ourselves that needs to remain hidden for us to feel good about ourselves. But perhaps this is only one way the two might be related. And maybe this relation to shame is more of the "toxic shame", that can never be looked at, but causes havoc unseen for lifetimes and perhaps even between generations.

My dad as a single child seemed to have problems with guilt, and he distinctly remembered rejecting the "hell and brimstone" minister when he was 8 and told of original sin, and that we were guilty because of what our ancestors did. My dad felt morally wounded by the idea he was sinful in this way, and my guess was as a single child, he had less opportunity to see his own dark side in sibling rivalry. So anyway he took a new age philosophy that said we don't have to feel guilty about anything since we are all spiritual being and we're all beyond harm at a spiritual level, so we can't possibly harm anyone.

Perhaps Harvey Weinstein also followed that philosophy? But we'd also say Weinstein was shameless since he found it okay to pull out his penis and masturbate in front of women . And after the fact, I understand Stuart would say his payoffs were just like the Catholic indulgences of old, and that it enabled his bad behavior to continue.

The word sin itself seems tricky, whether it is about guilt or shame or what. Some say sin means "to miss the mark", which sounds harmless because it means you can see the mark, what is good behavior, and you know where you've failed, and you can strive to do better. But "original sin" says something different, something that has to be carried forever, and can never be cleaned away, but of course maybe it just says none of us are gods, and all of us stray from the path, and if we depend on the ego to stay on the path, we'll fail just like our ancestors, so we have to depend on something higher to remain an impartial judge, and maybe not to condemn us, but just to give us an honest mirror to see ourselves, like the concept of external self awareness.

Anonymous said...

"At the least, shame gets us to go out and correct a bad impression by creating a good impression. The only way to do so is to do the right thing."

Or you murder those whose action expose your shame. If unknown, there is no shame. But guilt is always known to you.

Christopher B said...

This is certainly a different interpretation of guilt and shame than I have seen before, and have to agree with AO that our modern definitions are a muddle because we often use the words interchangeably. I'm inclined to prefer the view that a culture which prioritizes guilt as an emotional state brought on by the internal recognition of committing wrong is preferable to one that is organized around shame as the emotional state brought on by the external recognition of a wrong being committed. In other words, a society that primarily feels guilty when wrong is done is somewhat self-correcting, as guilty people seek to do penance and be forgiven, while a shame based society will continually seek to cover up wrong doing and is more inclined to extract revenge for slights since the offender is assumed to feel no remorse unless the wrong is brought to wide attention.

The situation does get trickier when one speaks of attempts to manipulate our emotions but I think in the end guilt would still win out in this case. Though we use the term 'guilt trip' the liberal attempts at manipulation are more directed at creating a sense of shame based on external factors (race, gender, citizenship) than guilt over specific actions. My 'white male privilege' isn't based on anything I have done or not done, it is totally external to me. Those who wish to shame us for these things, as you point out, aren't really looking for change or to provide forgiveness as much as they are looking for revenge. When US society has been truly guilty of bad behavior (Jim Crow, for example) the guilt cycle has produced positive change (expanded civil rights).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

For the record and for those who care I have written extensively about these topics in my last two books, Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame and The Last Psychoanalyst.

James said...