I got to thinking about guilt yesterday - something being raised catholic taught me a lot about. It was during a seminar on social sustainability and diversity at York University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). (Here’s a pdf document that describes the seminar.) Barbara Rahder and Patricia Wood made an excellent case that sustainability (a popular buzz word for almost 20 years – going back to the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987 and perhaps about to get new life from the Millenium Report), which usually gets talked about only in ecological and economic terms, is completely linked with the social. But I can’t report on the seminar without risking misrepresenting it badly. I take very wacky notes.
Barbara or Patricia (I can’t recall who) criticized the One Tonne Challenge as using “guilt” to do public education. I wanted to cheer. And, as I said above, it got me to thinking about guilt (and its close cousin “shame”). I don’t want to diss the One Tonne Challenge (who knows, it might make a difference). But insofar as it relies upon (even promotes) guilt to get people to change their behaviour I think it is flawed. I’ve certainly had my moments of heralding the horrors around us and those to come in the hopes that it might change peoples’ minds and actions – but I also learned early in my career as an activist that guilt (and shame) achieve the exact opposite of education. I think I first learned this from John Berger in his famous essay Photographs of Agony. He reflects on the publishing of violent images from the Vietnam War (images of people in agony).
Many people would argue that such photographs remind us shockingly of the reality, the lived reality, behind the abstractions of political theory, casualty statistics or news bulletins. Such photographs, they might go on to say, are printed on the black curtain which is drawn across what we choose to forget or refuse to know. (in About Looking, 1980, p.38)
Berger makes an eloquent and persuasive case that the reaction to these photos is not what we might think according to that always tricky beast – common sense.
The possible contradictions of the war photograph now become apparent. It is generally assumed that its purpose is to awaken concern. The most extreme examples - as in most of McCullin's work - show moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern. Such moments, whether photographed or not, are discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves. But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war. Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance - of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or to UNICEF.
In both cases, the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.
Confrontation with a photographed moment of agony can mask a far more extensive and urgent confrontation. Usually the wars which we are shown are being fought directly or indirectly in "our" name. What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to confront our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist, we have no legal opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name. To realise this and to act accordingly is the only effective way of responding to what the photograph shows. Yet the double violence of the photographed moment actually works against this realisation. That is why they can be published with impunity. (in About Looking, 1980, p.40)
Curiously, in looking back at this article for the first time in many years I see that Berger doesn’t use the word “guilt” though my memory has long associated the word with this piece. Feelings of “guilt” are certainly one of the things Berger is referring to. Starting with having read this piece by Berger 25 years ago, I have come to believe deeply that guilt is a terribly negative emotion (or disposition). When we provoke feelings of guilt in people whom we fancy we are educating, it is the guilt that becomes the object of attention, not the issue you are trying to bring attention to. Guilt has two relatively simple solutions: penance and denial – neither of which necessarily has anything to do with changing things that are wrong with society. Using guilt gives people the terribly easy out of displacing their discomfort (or “shock” or horror or grief) from the cause of that discomfort to the more private domain of ones feelings (of guilt). And so, not only does guilt displace attention, it can further obscure that which needs changed.Remember Cassandra? Cursed by Apollo to speak the truth and yet be ignored? This ancient myth could be an early warning about the efficacy of making people feel bad as a means of getting them to change. Cassandra’s truth was met with denial. (Oddly, people today use the term “Cassandra” as a synonym for doomsayer. And, ironically, should you call someone a Cassandra, you’re simultaneously recognizing that they are speaking truth and planning to disbelieve that truth. Calling someone a Cassandra is about as useful as poking yourself in the eye. So is guilt.