New Internationalist

Guilt complex

Issue 406

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?

Guilt marketing

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.

Another example… an animal rescue charity in the US called dogsindanger.com has a novel approach. Their website shows you a picture of some cute anonymous dog next to a countdown showing you how long it has to live before it gets euthanized by an overcrowded animal shelter. The slogan at the top warns that this is your ‘last chance to save a life and gain a buddy’, and is accompanied by a heart-rending photo of a sweet little chocolate Labrador puppy staring right at you, daring you to look away. To top it all off, there’s a counter that updates itself, reminding you that for the length of time you’ve been looking at the site, x many puppies have been killed.

‘the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’

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.’1

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.

Built on guilt

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.2

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’.

The guilt economy

Sigmund Freud wrote at length about guilt, arguing that it was a result of the conflict between internal desires (ascribed to the ego) and the authoritarian prescriptions first of our internalized image of our parents and then later on of society and its rules (the super-ego). Such guilt could be wholly unconscious – manifesting in some nagging but generalized sense of anxiety – but might through analysis be uncovered as some tension between the ego and the super-ego or ‘conscience’.

In his seminal work Civilization and its Discontents, he saw guilt as ‘the most important problem in the development of civilization’ and declared that ‘the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.’3

The self-righteousness of the self-flagellators can quickly lead to judgement of others

By this point Karl Marx had done some thinking about how relationships in society are governed by economics. He suggested that all human beliefs and structures, including religion and ‘morality’, were the product of material forces – that the economic foundations of society itself determined and influenced the development of its various institutions, be they legal, political or cultural. These institutions’ primary function was to disseminate ‘ideology’. This ideology was so pervasive that it seduced both ruling classes and working classes into what Marx called a ‘false consciousness’.

This opened up the philosophical floodgates to thinking about how ideology – that is, value systems, ‘norms’ and prejudices – is transmitted. This has been a preoccupation of thinkers ever since and is important if we are to understand just how guilt is manufactured.

Marx also saw how capitalism tends towards ‘commodification’ – whereby things that were previously not considered in economic terms became subject to economic value. These were not just physical objects, but ideas (intellectual property), culture (music, art, literature), even gender (many feminist economists expanded on Marx’s ideas to describe the commodification of women’s bodies, for example). The Catholic Church’s market in ‘indulgences’ was guilt commodified. Today’s carbon offsets have been likened to ‘modern-day indulgences’.4 Because of ‘false consciousness’ we don’t even necessarily notice these processes happening and just accept them as ‘natural’.

Post-modernist intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida preferred to talk more about ‘power’ than economics, arguing that it was a truer representation of the relationships between peoples. Foucault’s studies of prisons, insane asylums and ‘sexual deviants’ led him to conclude that if enough people accept certain knowledge as ‘common’ then this group will exercise power in society by defining what is ‘right’ and what is ‘normal’ and therefore who is ‘wrong’ and ‘abnormal’.

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.’5

Chain reaction

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’.

By engaging each other on equal terms within strong frameworks of human mutual understanding and co-operation, everyone benefits

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.’6

The self-righteousness of the self-flagellators can quickly lead to judgement of others. As the French playwright Albert Camus wrote in The Fall: ‘The more I accuse myself, the more right I have to judge you. Even better, I make you judge yourself, which comforts me the more.’ And it’s not just the dedicated activists that feel this way.

A poll conducted by Norwich Union in the UK found that ‘be good guilt’ is leading Brits to exaggerate their ethical lifestyles rather than change their behaviour. According to the poll, 7 in 10 Brits say ‘being seen to be green’ is the new way of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and 9 in 10 people admit they tell ‘little green lies’ to pretend to live more ethically. The poll also suggests that many people are ‘overloaded by ethical pressure’, with one in five saying that they ‘have no idea how to live more ethically’, while over half say that they will not change their lifestyles ‘because of a combination of confusion, lack of time, or refusal to be told what to do’.7 Another survey found that 20 per cent of Americans suffer from ‘green guilt‘.8 Evidence suggests that rather than feeling empowered by new insights into how our behaviour affects the environment and society, most people experience a sense of unworthiness, with some simply giving up altogether because, well, what’s the point?

Ditch the guilt, keep the conscience

In the context of social change, it strikes me that all this guilt is not doing us much good. It seems to confirm Schumaker’s assessment that we are a society of malignant narcissists obsessed with ourselves and how we feel, even if the focus is on ‘higher causes’. This ‘me, me, me’ ethic may be holding us back from achieving our true potential. We even seem to perpetuate feelings of guilt by holier-than-thou one-upmanship. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The philosopher Erich Fromm suggested that there are two forms of conscience. The first and most exercised is what he called an ‘authoritarian conscience’. Its universe is a fearful one, dominated by angry gods of insecurity, low self-esteem and conformity. It metes out punishment and drives us towards actions that temper its wrathful flames, including consumerism (‘retail therapy’) and malignant narcissistic behaviour like that of Schumaker’s ‘happichondriacs’. For Fromm, guilt was firmly part of this authoritarian conscience: ‘When most people feel “guilty”, they are actually feeling afraid because they have been disobedient. They are not really troubled by a moral issue, as they think they are, but by the fact of having disobeyed a command.’9

The other and less utilized conscience, he argued, is a ‘humanistic’ one. Its universe is one of genuine solidarity with humanity and nature, empathy, individual freedom, non-conformity and what Fromm called ‘love’. Fromm wasn’t talking about love in a pop-culture sense. He defined it as an ‘interpersonal creative capacity’ rather than an emotion and argued that our need for it was at the root of all our existential yearning. By engaging each other on equal terms within strong frameworks of human mutual understanding and co-operation, everyone benefits.

Child development specialist Penelope Leach echoes this sentiment from the perspective of good parent-child relationships: ‘Guilt is the most destructive of all emotions. It mourns what has been while playing no part in what may be, now or in the future. Whatever you are doing, however you are coping, if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to make things right.’10

Soil and stardust

Defending the truth is not something one does out of a sense of duty or to allay guilt complexes, but is a reward in itself (Simone de Beauvoir).

I’ll end with an anecdote a friend told me recently. For years, she had been feeling guilty for not composting her organic waste. Her lifelong dedication to activism and numerous good works on many social and environmental issues over many years had not inoculated her against this persistent nag in the back of her mind. But it didn’t compel her to take action either. She simply wore the guilt like a hair shirt and was semi-paralyzed by it. Whenever she thought about how she should be composting – and she knew all the ethical arguments chapter and verse – she nonetheless shut down and couldn’t move past it towards taking meaningful action.

One day, after a trip to the planetarium, she 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. A kind of happiness of which I’m sure Schumaker would approve.

  1. David Morris, ‘Conservative Rage vs. Liberal Guilt’, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 21 January 2001.
  2. León Grinberg, Guilt and Depression, Karnac Books, 1992.
  3. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W W Norton, 1989. Translated by James Strachey.
  4. Kevin Smith, ‘The Carbon Neutral Myth – Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins’, Carbon Trade Watch, The Transnational Institute, 2006. www.carbontradewatch.org
  5. Roland Barthes, Leçon, Editions du Seuil, 1978. Translated by Richard Howard.
  6. Mary E Gomes, ‘Working with Activist Burnout’, www.parkc.org/activist.htm
  7. ‘“Be good guilt” leads Brits to tell little green lies’, 24 August 2007, http://tinyurl.com/yv9gbt
  8. www.rbrc.org/call2recycle/releases/PR_04192007.pdf
  9. Erich Fromm, On Disobedience and other essays, Seabury Press, 1981.
  10. Penelope Leach, Your Baby and Child, 1977.

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