Got Guilt?

I was prompted by a friend to read the book, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Brunckner, which reflects on the problem the West finds itself in as it wallows in the sins of its past to the point of becoming ineffectual against the problems of the present and the future.  Bruckner argues that guilt has become a pathology, and indeed, it seems in many respects he is correct. As the West battles internally with its demons – one side refusing to acknowledge them at all and the other side consumed with guilt over it – out there lay other evils and challenges that are not going to wait for us to get our collective shit together.

We have monumental mistakes in our past; slavery, the holocaust, genocide, economic injustices, wars, subjugation of women, homophobia. The list goes on and much of it is still going on in our times. There’s lots to feel guilty about if we’re so inclined to it. Bruckner makes the case that this is counterproductive. Guilt makes us silent and less likely to step in when we see other cultures making the same mistakes we did. We call it moral relativism (not to be confused with cultural relativism), but really, it’s our own guilt over these past sins that keeps us from interfering.  When I taught Ethics, I would have students ardently defending the practice of female genital mutilation because it was the practice of a particular culture and “who am I to judge?” My response was often, “You are a rational, thinking, human being, tell me what you think of this practice.” They had a hard time with it. They found it abhorrent and knew it harmed girls and women, but they couldn’t bring themselves to say it was wrong for another culture. “Let’s try this again,” I would say. “Would it have been okay for the Nazis in Germany to only kills the German Jews? Did it only become a problem when they invaded other nations and killed those Jews too?” Sometimes the light would go on then that there was a problem in their relativism. Sometimes not.

I am finding more and more that there is a cultural guilt in Western society that keeps it from acting on great problems. “Who are we to make those decisions?” seems to be the motif among a growing contingent. And as a backlash in the opposite direction, we have the growing shadow of those refusing to even acknowledge the past. The “I’m not responsible for what happened a century ago!” crowd.  On the other side of guilt breeds the Shadow. These are those people disgusted by the acquiescence and silence of those who have succumb to the guilt. In their plight not to be associated with the weak ineffectiveness of their counterparts, they cause all sorts of chaos.  These are the two sides of the malignant guilt coin.

According to John Lamb Nash in Not in His Image, the Gnostics saw embracing the redemptive aspect of suffering as a sign of madness in early Christianity (p. 20)

Perhaps we are witnessing the legacy of a culture built on the redemptive aspect of suffering. Christianity as it is practiced today, is built on the idea that suffering is good for us. We find in our suffering that there is salvation at the end of the tunnel. In this sense, there is a self-serving aspect of it. We can cleanse ourselves of our sins – not by correcting our mistakes and growing from them – but rather through suffering in-and-of-itself. Atonement via flagellation.

Guilt, then, is inherently selfish. I don’t know many groups who have suffered under White European oppression that want our guilt in response to their own suffering. Our guilt leads to worse things, like our projections of what we think oppressed groups want us to do to fix the world rather than actually doing anything to fix the world. Say for instance, by truly inviting these oppressed people to the table to make changes together, rather than us making the changes we think they want on their behalf. No matter how much we say we want to help Black people and indigenous cultures, people of color, and women, a ridiculous disproportionate amount of all political power and commerce is still controlled by White men of European descent.

Our precious guilt redirects the suffering back onto ourselves, rather than the harmed Other. It is the roundabout racism of liberalism found in white European culture that we don’t want to address. Freedom for all! But not in our backyard! Let us lament the struggle and our failures, and all the work ahead of us! This is our great burden! This is the proverbial black mirror that is all too terrible to look into. Suffering for the greater glory, even in a secular context, is a special kind of narcissistic evil.

If we want to build a better world, it’s time to exorcise the guilt and integrate that shadow before we consign ourselves to a worse fate. How do we do that? We face our past mistakes, not with guilt but with action. We stop tolerating those behaviors that are wrong in ourselves and in others. We stop hemming and hawing and get on with it. We dare to grow from the past and stop wallowing in it. We stop making the victims of our atrocities and mistakes, the victims of our guilt also. We opt for true diversity of opinions on how to move forward in our world by embracing what helps us all, rather than the disingenuous apology after the plundering of resources.

There are other evils out there and wallowing in guilt will not allow us to defeat those. The West is not the only problematic culture and there’s plenty of shitty behavior to go around. We are facing monumental problems in our future, not the least of those is climate change which is bound to change the political, social and spiritual landscape radically. To meet the challenges, we will need to grow up, face reality and meet it head on.