Monday, November 27, 2017

What Is Guilt?

Harvey Weinstein has no shame. Charley Rose has no shame. Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey and Brett Ratner and Al Franken and Roy Moore clearly lack a sense of shame.

As of now they have all been called out and exposed. Most of them have seen their reputations obliterated. As we see this we ought at the least to understand that the therapy culture war on shame, its effort to rid our people of their sense of modesty, propriety, decorum and humility… among other virtues… has produced a cultural monstrosity.

Those who have promoted shamelessness believe, to the depths of their marrow, that we can regulate human behavior by enhancing our sense of guilt. And, by the by, with an extra dollop of empathy. In truth the culture of guilt is running wild in America. People are not encouraged to behave well. They are attacked, excoriated, indicted and punished for committing thought crimes—that is, for racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic expressions. Punishing people for getting it wrong tells them nothing about how to get it right.

In many ways the worst part of the current debate is how profoundly ignorant it is. I am not speaking about the man or woman on the street, who does not spend his or her days pondering arcane philosophical matters. I am thinking of psycho professionals, people like Brene Brown, a woman who pretends to be an expert on shame while knowing nothing about it. Brown knows that shame feels bad and thus that we should rid ourselves of it, and of any concern for how we look to others. Take that thought to a logical extreme and you have Harvey Weinstein dropping a bath towel in front of an unwilling aspiring actress and you have a generation of teenagers who have so completely overcome their sense of shame that they are sending naked pictures to whomever.

Of course, there is no excuse for such ignorance. After all, Ruth Benedict defined the terms clearly over seven decades ago in her masterful book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. I wrote about it myself in my books on Saving Face and The Last Psychoanalyst. As for the concept of empathy, which somehow has managed to weasel its way into discussions of shame, Paul Bloom has explained it well in his book, Against Empathy.

And yet, Dr. Perri Klass’s article about how guilt and empathy will naturally produce good behavior bristles with ignorance. She properly chooses to consult with people who are recognized as experts in the field. Yet, we discover that nearly none of them can think straight. Or better, can think at all.

To be extra specially clear, guilt is a form of anxiety. It arrives when you have done something wrong, that is, when you have broken a taboo, when you have transgressed, when you have committed a crime and when you are anticipating punishment. You can of course be pronounced guilty and suffer the punishment without feeling especially badly about anything more than getting caught. And, as I have often pointed out, anticipating punishment does not do a very good job of preventing you from committing crimes. It puts a price on transgression. And it sets down a level of risk. If you are willing to accept the risk and to do the time, you are more likely to commit the crime. Once you have paid your debt to society, as the saying goes, you are free to go out and commit more crimes. Considering recidivism rates, that is what most criminals do.

Freud understood guilt perfectly well and made it the centerpiece of his psychological theorizing. In this theory your wishes, to commit patricide and incest, were criminal. You might control them by feeling guilty but only up to a point. Most Freudian theory involves becoming more aware of your criminal impulses and paying them off by what Freud called symbolic castration… that is, a form of recycled penance. It had nothing to do with empathy.

Guilt does not tell you what you should do. It tells you what not to do. Doing the right thing involves following codes of good behavior, having good manners, being considerate in the terms that your culture dictates. It has nothing to do with empathy.

In truth, as Paul Bloom argued persuasively, feelings of empathy can turn you into a sadist. When you empathize with someone who is being unjustly injured, you will want to punish the person who has committed the injury. Your empathy will turn you into a raving sadist.

At the least, this should be clear. You cannot define the concept of guilt without understanding how it functions in our culture. And since we have a criminal justice system that determines guilt and not guilt, we must if we are to be semi-coherent assure that our definitions are consistent with the way the term is used there.

Unfortunately, such is not the case. Klass looks to child development experts and she finds nothing but confusion. She does not say it this way, but you should compare these theories of guilt with the theory I laid out above:

Guilt can be a complicated element in the parent-child equation; we feel guilty, they feel guilty, we may make them feel guilty and then feel guilty about that. But certain kinds of guilt are a healthy part of child development.

Tina Malti, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has studied the development of guilt in children, considers guilt an emotion similar to empathy.

“Moral guilt is healthy, good to develop,” she said. “It helps the child refrain from aggression, antisocial behavior.”

No mention of breaking laws. No mention of criminal behavior. No mention of anything that makes any sense at all.  No mention of parents telling their children Not to do something. No mention, in other words, of No. No mention of a child's testing boundaries.

At times guilt can deter someone from sticking up the corner bodega, but that involves a complex calculus of risk and reward. What are the chances of getting caught? What are the advantages of committing the crime? What will the price be if he is caught?

The psycho theorists believe that guilt makes children treat people kindly. They are wrong. It might tell people not to hurt each other, or not to break the dishes, but guilt does not teach them the good manners, the considerate and tactful customary behaviors that constitute kindness. Children learn to behave well because they want to belong, because they emulate their betters and because they want to grow up.

Guilt might play a part, but the wish to grow up is far more important:

… around age 6. By then, she said, most children report guilt in response to transgressions, and that can help them treat other people kindly. “There’s lots of evidence that healthy guilt promotes children’s prosocial behavior,” she said.

It doesn’t. Guilt does deter some forms of antisocial behavior, if the price of getting caught is too high. But it does not teach prosocial behaviors.


Shaun F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shaun F said...

Prisons are a boot camp for becoming a better criminal. I knew a prison pastor, and know some people that have served time. So I expect recidivism. Usually emotional children are the ones who can be shamed. Mature adults usually have some conscience - so they have, at least the ones I know, some sense of guilt. I don't know what to say about a younger generation that has no shame and no guilt. But in a world where the family unit is largely destroyed, and the prescriptions of good conduct are dictated by what causes you embrace and what makes you feel good - well - what does one say?

Ares Olympus said...

As always, I appreciate the attempt here, but there's still so much that doesn't communicate well to me. I'll agree confusion is everywhere. For me the issues come down to conscience and integrity, and when you can't maintain a good conscience, you risk behavior that corrupts your integrity, and then you can't even trust yourself.

I'll agree guilt has the effect of discouraging action that risks harm. So guilt might make you feel "I can't spank my child because it will hurt him" and from there the only way to over come that guilt might be through fear, seeing "If I don't spank my 2 year old when he tries to run into the street, he may be killed." And similarly "Spare the rod, spoil the child" is a saying that attempts to overcome one guilt with another.

For me the primary problem with guilt and shame is that these encourages coverups. If you see people punished for telling the truth of their transgressions, you're going to teach that clever lying is a superior skill as protection. So if there are punishments for behavior, somehow it needs to be stronger against the liar than the honest thief. OTOH, dishonesty is also confusing, where sometimes it is prosocial.

What's missing here is projection. Like if you're critical of another person in some way, and they come back about the transgressions of others, you know that person has a guilty conscience, but you can't necessarily know what's going on inside them, that they must deny, to feel good about themselves. I read recently this is called Whataboutism. It's good to recognize in others, but even better when you can identify this defense mechanism in yourself.

Anonymous said...

I have been following the Roy Moore case closely since I live in Alabama. I'm suspicious of the timing and substance of the reporting. Roy Moore is a very polarizing character. Although many who like him would not believe anything negative, those who dislike him have an intense hatred. The election in Alabama was very negative, I originally voted for Mo Brooks but he didn't survive the millions of dollars spent for negative adds by Luther Strange; during the run off election the negative add barrage shifted to Roy Moore. Most of these adds were dishonest and it is very hard for me to believe that the Washington Post could come from out of state and find something that Luther Strange would miss after running what I found to be a ruthlessly dishonest multimillion dollar negative campaign.

Suddenly a few weeks before the election a series of accusations from approximately 40 years ago, which were never previously reported, suddenly appeared.

The most serious accusations are the alleged assault of the 14 and 16-year-old girls. The first has a troubled history with the most concerning being multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by ministers. The second has produced a yearbook as proof but there is suspicion that this is a forgery, others who worked at the restaurant at the time don't recall her working there and local police officers, who attended the restaurant frequently, knew Roy Moore and say they never saw him there.

Less damaging claims is that when he was in his 30’s he dated younger woman slightly above the age of consent. None of these women report any disrespectful behavior and contact was limited to a consensual kiss. Typically age of consent is applied to marriage and consensual sexual activity but there are no claims of any sexual acts with these dates.

There are also unsubstantiated rumors such as being banned from a mall; but there is no documentation to corroborate these rumors and others dispute them with equal or greater credibility than those reporting these rumors.

Also there have been no scandals over the last 38 years, which does not seem to be consistent with a psychopath, pedophile or a severe personality flaw.

I'm not saying that Roy Moore is innocent but I don't see enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that convinces me that he has character flaws disqualifying him from office. After the election a fair investigation can be done and it there is anything substantial he can be removed from office and another special election called. His party has already turned on him without strong evidence of guilt so I don't see anyone trying to keep him in office it any wrong doing is proven.

Mark Levin and the American Thinker Blog have been covering these accusations against Roy Moore and are good places to find more information about this topic.