Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Can There be Collective Shame?

I've read a good number of writings lately that make the case for collective shame. As Americans, we are told that Guantanamo Bay is ''Our Collective Shame''. We share the ''shame'' of our elected officials, the ''shame'' of the President, the ''shame'' of limiting habaes corpus, the ''shame'' of our foreign policy, the ''shame'' of abortion... It's hard to believe that we have time to do anything but atone. However the issue of atonement raises an important question about collective shame: is collective shame worthwhile, or even possible?

I think not. It seems to me that the nature of shame is that it is not just individual; it's individualizing. Shame removes us from our fellow men and makes us painfully aware of our isolation in the world. It is, in this sense, experienced in much the same way as the ancients experienced fate. It is ours to carry, if we choose to accept it. It's also what makes us moral beings, and perhaps we could argue that the Judeo-Christian revolution was to replace the concept of fate with that of shame.

Then what of guilt? Shame seems to me to be the reflective form of guilt. We accept guilt as individuals, and what this guilt illuminates inside of ourselves we call shame. Guilt says something about our actions, but shame says something about us for commiting those actions. Therefore, I think that collective guilt might also be impossible. I suspect that only the individual can accept guilt, and that this guilt may, or may not, cause shame to arise within him.

Collective responsibility might be more worthwhile. A group of people can accept collective responsibility for a crime or transgression, even if guilt can only be accepted on an individual basis. But what does collective responsibility mean when the whole nation accepts it? Nearly as little as collective pride, one would guess. For instance- if all of Germany accepts responsibility for the Holocaust, what distinguishes Eichmann from a butcher in Hamburg who really was unaware? And what distinguishes any of us in this era from a torturing guard at Abe Ghraib? Or from al-Quaida, given that we have all failed to prevent al-Quaida's actions? Is it evident how meaningless this can become?

One would hope that something distinguishes us from these people because we need to be able to assign blame, and hence guilt, to those people who actually commit transgressions. What does it mean to say that we are all just as responsible for the war in Mesopotamia as Donald Rumsfeld is? If everyone is to blame who's to blame? All of this comes dangerously close to suggesting that people who commit actual atrocities, as in the case of Eichmann, were no more guilty than anyone else in Germany, which is to suggest not guilty at all, as they couldn't have done differently.

I've been wondering for some time why so many Holocaust memorials make me uncomfortable, and I think it's because so many of them try to implicate the visitor in the Shoah. They tell us that this is where intolerance leads, as if there is some innate human trait that we should all be ashamed of. And yet, there's a difference between my intolerance of my rude neighbor, and Jew hatred. And, inevitably, human beings do evil because they decide to do evil; not because they fail to control some innate foible. We need to be able to remove the genuinely guilty from human society, not look for ourselves in them.

I assume that these collective shaming exercises are intended to inspire us to action, and yet shame is a horrible motivator. Ultimately, it requires us to feel innate shame, and even species shame. When collective shame is spread too broadly it becomes something more like disgust, a free-floating loathing of other human beings. Disgust is also alienating, but not in the same way as shame. The only atonement for disgust is death, and so there is no atonement. Shame is the inability to live with one's self, and disgust is the inability to live with others. Both are inevitable in the course of a life, but disgust seems to be inescapable in some way. Disgust acted upon is murder.

And so, I think that something like collective shame cannot exist, nor collective guilt; but perhaps something like collective responsibility is possible. Yet, given that collective responsibility tends to flatten out individual responsibility to a benign gray area, I think the most honest way to respond to transgressions is to assign individual responsibilities, and in turn to accept individual responsibility.


Holly said...

I know this is old news at this point, but I've just now taken the time to read your ideas with concentration, and I have a thought.

A group doesn't have *a* mind, and only a mind can experience shame or any other emotion. Therefore, when someone assigns shame (or any other emotion) to a group, they are pressuring the members of the group, specifically on the basis of membership, but individually. Humans love to belong to groups, and respond quickly to the threat of expulsion. If your group is doing X, and you're not, that puts you outside the group. This is no different from a preacher saying "You are all sinners" to the congregation--it gives them all something in common. Saves them the trouble of actually having to find common ground. Suddenly it's not a roomful of scary strangers.

So, even if collective shame isn't a real thing, talking about it is a great team-building exercise.

On a more pragmatic level, distribution of responsibility is a great ass-covering tactic. If ONE guy decides to do something, he can be held accountable. If (to pick a random example) the Department of the Army decides to do something, they cannot be held accountable. For the same reason that group shame doesn't work -- there's no mind. You can't put the Department of the Army in jail for war crimes or what have you.

Rufus said...

Well, exactly- I think my major problem with collective shame is that I'd much rather be able to blame each and every person who is part of a group crime for their individual role in that crime. That might mean that no one person is responsible for the totality of an atrocity (although usually there is a person who gives the call); but it also means that guilt is more specific and penetrating because we don't get to the other extreme of saying that the entire "world community" is responsible for the Rwandan genocide, for example.

However, this brings up the question of guilt of non-action. And there is a very specific guilt there, especially in the case of Rwanda and the non-response of the Clinton administration. But, again, that guilt is centered on very specific people, or it should be.