Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Shame, Guilt, and Tragedy

Tragedy is the art of sharp cultural transitions, stories told to try to make sense of the suddenness of change that just took place at a time when the society and culture have settle down in a short reprieve of peace and prosperity.

The tragic age of the Greeks took place during the long peace of the Athenian hegemony. The tragedies were trying to make sense of -- and celebrate -- the transitions from revenge-based personal justice to court-based third party justice, from shame to guilt, etc.

Seneca was writing his tragedies during the long peace of Augustus. His tragedies were trying to make sense of the same transition taking place in Rome, from an archaic individualism to an idea that humans should be good citizens first and foremost.

The tragic periods of England and of France emerged during the stable regimes of Elizabeth I and Louis XIV, respectively. The tragedies written in these two places, during these two time periods, are attempting to make sense of the transition from the Medieval to the Enlightenment periods. Guilt may have joined shame during the Medieval period, but now shame-avoidance is the name of the game, meaning guilt becomes dominant.

The most recent tragic period took place in post-WWII U.S., during the peacetime of the 1950s. Now not only is shame to be avoided, but guilt as well. Why feel guilty for who you are? Just be yourself!

What we are seeing here is different periods giving rise to different patterns of shame and guilt.
Heroic Individualist Period               -- Shame
Authoritative/Fundamentalist Period -- Shame descendent / Guilt ascendent
Enlightenment/Modernist Period      -- Shame denial / Guilt established
Egalitarian/Postmodernist Period     -- Shame denied / Guilt descendent
What we see here are that the two periods during which individualism is dominant are clearly dominated by a single form of social control, while the two periods during which collectivism is dominant are periods of descending social control. This may seem odd at first, until you understand that individualist ideologies argue that people are capable of self-governance, while collectivist ideologies argue that people are incapable of self-governance. Since shame is a way to govern one's actions, and guilt is a way of governing one's actions, one does not need any outside force (government, God(s), etc.) guiding you. But if these self-regulatory elements are on the decline and/or not yet fully established, then one may look for outside guidance in matters of morals. That may be the Athenian court system or an authoritative government. In other words, depending on what group makes up the majority in a society, either the individualists or the collectivsts are right about our ability to engage in self-governance. The individualists are right that they can, in fact, self-govern, and the collectivists are right that they, themselves, cannot.

One can imagine, then, why there are conflicts between fundamentalists and progressives on one side and Modernists on the other (these being the three dominant groups in the world today, the Heroic Individualists being relegated to urban gangs and teens, mostly). We can also see why the fundamentalists tend toward a certain degree of militantism. They feel both shame and guilt, but the guilt is not well enough established to guide them, and shame is slipping away. The fact that shame is slipping away makes one feel it more intensely -- you fear it will disappear, so you defend it. Thus we can understand why so many fundamentalist cultures are seemingly shame cultures, and why they lash out so violently when shamed -- they are in fact transitional cultures that fear losing what they know and do not yet understand what they are gaining with guilt. In the meanwhile, progressives are denying that people should feel either guilt or shame, though they are equally panicked that they are losing guilt, which is why they lash out against those who make them feel guilt. They defend guilt by trying to make people feel guilty for their food choices, economic decisions, etc. It is the reason they accuse everyone of racism, sexism, etc. It stems from their waning guilt.

All of this really raises more questions than it answers. But I do think we should now be able to make sense of the conflicts we see in the world. The fundamentalists hate both the modernists and postmodernists/progressives, but hate the former more than the latter, since they can relate to the authoritarian tendencies inherent in progressivism. The fact that the reverse is also true helps to explain why it is that progressives side with militant fundamentalist groups against "Western Civilization," really meaning Modernism. It also explains how the U.S. can be dominated by a progressive party and a mixed progressive-fundamentalist party (and how there can even be such a mixed political party, since each has similar aims).

In the end, one has to wonder: if shame and guilt are both denied, what, if anything, will replace them? What will allow us to self-regulate? Do we embrace both? Or do we transcend both shame and guilt?
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I discuss shame and guilt here as well.

For further consideration of what comes after guilt, consider what I wrote here.
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