19 November 2009

Guilt Complex

Excerpt from the New Internationalist, 1 November 2007

'It’s time to dismantle the guilt industry, argues Adam Ma’anit – or else be smothered by its monopoly on our lives.

In his thought-provoking essay The Happiness Conspiracy (NI 391), John F Schumaker described the damaging psychological and social effects of a society single-mindedly fixated on the pursuit of personal happiness above all other concerns. ‘No-one is less able to sustain happiness than someone obsessed with feeling only happiness,’ he observed.

By chance, Schumaker’s essay appeared in the NI special issue on carbon offsets (CO²nned), in which I alluded to guilt as one of the possible motivating factors behind people’s desire to ‘neutralize’ their ‘carbon footprints’. The implication was that the drive to offset was partially fuelled by people’s guilt feelings about their individual environmental impacts and/or lifestyle. This seemed to chime with Schumaker’s characterization of ‘happichondriacs’ obsessed with personal satisfaction.

Thankfully, offsets have had a lot of bad press since that magazine came out, being criticized as a voluntary ‘guilt tax’ or a ‘modern-day indulgence’. But despite this, the industry still grows, with major deals having been announced with the likes of Land Rover and Qantas. With regular negative publicity on the ecological impacts of SUVs and air travel now common, people are turning to the palliative of offsets in droves. This made me think about the nature of guilt. Is there substance to allegations of liberal guilt? If guilt is a factor in an ethical person’s psyche, are our efforts to get rid of it compromising our ability to effect lasting and positive social change?

In the past year, we’ve noticed at the New Internationalist that there seems to be something of a resurgence in the use of exploitative images of impoverished children by child-sponsorship agencies – something the NI has campaigned against vociferously in the past. The pitch goes something like this: ‘For only pennies a day you can save Tommy/Elizabeth/Some-Western-sounding-name-so-the-donor-can-relate, from a life of disease and poverty...’ If it’s on television it’s accompanied by dramatic music that implies impending doom for this cute wide-eyed child you’re looking at now, if you don’t hand over the dosh. The overwhelming emotion many conscientious people feel when confronted with such messaging is – GUILT. Huge, heaped shovels full of the stuff. The more privileged your life and the greater your awareness of that privilege vis-à-vis the misfortune of others, the more likely you are to feel it kick you firmly in the keister.

This is guilt marketing. Charities do it because it works (to a degree at least). They seek to engender (with the best of intentions) an aching sense of compassion for the less fortunate, which can have the side-effect of triggering an overwhelming sense of guilt in the more fortunate. This preys on the consciences of their intended audience so much, that at some point they’ll desperately want to assuage it and turn to these bastions of goodness for relief, however fleeting. In our hyperconsuming society, if it can be boiled down to a simple purchasing decision, all the better...

The syndrome tends to be more severe among liberals, which is why conservatives love to paint liberals as ‘guilt-ridden wusses’. US activist David Morris explains why: ‘Conservatives and liberals take a fundamentally different approach to politics. Conservatives are driven by rage; liberals by guilt. Conservatives attack. Liberals equivocate. Liberals inhabit a world painted a thousand shades of grey. Conservatives live in a black and white world. Conservatives believe they are battling evil. Liberals believe they are struggling to overcome human frailties.’

Psychologists might argue that the source of conservative rage may in fact be guilt too, it’s just that they then quickly move on to anger as a reaction (not the healthiest of coping strategies, but a coping strategy nonetheless). White people feel guilt when they learn about the mechanics of racism. Men feel it when they are confronted on their sexism. The rich might get a pang or two when they pass homeless people by. How they react may be determined by ideology, but guilt is too often a source of tension in the conscience of all.

Institutionalized religion and guilt certainly seem to share a cosy communion. The Catholic Church is probably most well known for its litanies on guilt and original sin (an existential guilt) and its attendant infrastructure of confession and absolution. But almost all religions have some grounding in this most complex of human emotions. Hindus and Buddhists fret about their negative karma. There is a huge body of literature on Protestant guilt. I write this not long after Yom Kippur, the Jewish ‘day of atonement’ which is usually one of the most angst-ridden holidays of the Jewish calendar. Atonement is also a central theme in the month-long Ramadan of Islam. Ironically, such festivals often generate more guilt as people struggle to live up to some perceived standard set by themselves, their family, community and society. ‘Religion is mainly based on the idea of sin, or the feeling of guilt arising from an inability to fulfil prescribed standards. Without this conception, religion has no meaning,’ observed the psychologist León Grinberg.

So central was this emotion to religious doctrine in the Middle Ages that the powerful Catholic Church developed a sophisticated economy literally built on guilt. Catholic doctrine maintains that the time you spend in Purgatory after you die is related to how much sin you have accumulated in your life. If you want to cut down the waiting time, you need to unload some of that sin by submitting yourself to some form of repentance.

The Church hierarchy – adapting to the rise of a new mercantilist ethic that was transforming feudal society in Europe – came up with the idea that they could make guilt itself a tradable commodity. The thinking was that the clergy were so righteous and had so few sins, that there was effectively a surplus of good deeds in the Church. They figured that all this surplus ‘good’ sloshing around wasn’t doing much good, so why not sell the excess as ‘indulgences’ to the masses who led more sinful lives?

The Church appointed ‘pardoners’ – such as the one immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – who would be the primary brokers of this fledgling guilt economy. Those who could afford it could essentially buy a ‘get-out-of-Purgatory-free’ card. The infamous pardoner Johann Tetzel is said to have kept a chart listing the price for each type of sin. Tetzel’s infamy was recorded in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: ‘soon as the gold in the casket rings / the rescued soul to heaven springs.’ The Eastern Orthodox church had a similar system that traded in the currency of ‘Absolution Certificates’.

The Catholic Church’s doctrine of indulgences was one of the primary factors which led to the Protestant Reformation. But even for Luther’s Protestants, there was still a debt to be paid – and if you didn’t pay up, your spiritual legs got broken. ‘If we understand [God’s] law properly and comprehend it in the best possible way,’ he wrote, ‘then we will see that its sole function is to remind us of our sins, to kill us by our sins, and to make us deserving of eternal wrath.’ This debt, accrued through our accumulation of sin, could only be paid by Jesus. So, according to Protestantism, if you want to be free from debt, you have to sign it over to Christ. Make a deposit into God’s savings account and you will be ‘saved’...

In the context of morality, those we deem to have higher morals than us (activist leaders, visionaries, revolutionaries, martyrs), may – whether consciously or unconsciously – have the power to induce feelings of guilt in others for not making the grade. As French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote: ‘I call the discourse of power any discourse that engenders blame, hence guilt, in its recipient.’

All of this has profound implications for our understanding of the mechanics of guilt. But what does it mean for social change? Guilt certainly does motivate some people to take action, but in the end, does it do more harm than good?

Guilt activism employs a similar dynamic to that of guilt marketing. Activists of whatever political stripe hold themselves and society to high standards. They often fail to meet those standards, and so often find themselves wracked by guilt. They might then throw themselves even more firmly into activism in order to help assuage some of that guilt. The more intensely they work, and the more dedicated they feel they are to ‘the cause’, the more they might feel able to purge some of those guilt feelings – or at least alleviate the symptoms. Trapped in a cycle of guilt, regret, repression and then more guilt, they might repeat these patterns for years and gradually become ineffective (or in extreme cases self-righteous); or they might suffer ‘burnout’, just as aggressive guilt marketing by charities might result in so-called ‘compassion fatigue’...

Psychologist Mary E Gomes, in her study of burnout, found that guilt was often the drug of choice used by activists to keep themselves going. The ‘activist super-ego’, she said, ‘requires endless personal sacrifice and is an almost sure-fire route to burnout.’ She described how overwhelming this could be. ‘They typically responded to incipient feelings of burnout by rigidly adhering to their activism programme, or even pushing themselves harder, using guilt as a motivator. Along these lines, a former peace and social justice activist described the hardest thing about being an activist to be: “the voices that I carried with me – you’re not doing enough, you have to do more. There’s no time to stop. There’s poor people, there’s starving people, there’s homeless people. That constant feeling that I didn’t deserve a life until everybody got life.”’

Gomes also expressed concerns about how such activists affect others in their social networks and peer groups. ‘As activists internalize an unrealistically high work ethic, they may begin to pressure other activists to work beyond their capacity, setting up a chain reaction of guilt and pressure...

One day, after a trip to the planetarium, [a friend, who felt guilty for not composting her organic waste] experienced an overwhelming sense of joy at the revelation that we are all essentially stardust. So moved was she by this simple realization that she began to see composting in a different light. Rather than seeing it as her moral duty, she saw it as an affirmation of life and existence. This narrative of soil and stardust inspired her to action more than any guilt-tripping ever could. Her humanistic conscience fully engaged, she’s now getting into urban gardening, has become an avid bird watcher and amateur historian. She’s also happier than I’ve seen her in a long time, more motivated, and healthier – radiating a kind of confident positivity that is downright infectious...'

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