Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Primacy of Guilty Feelings

It comes up again and again. It surfaces in thousands of articles, dramas, speeches, sermons; in millions of conversations and prayers: we are responsible; we are guilty.

The West carries a presumption of guilt. Whence comes this presumption? I was speaking to a committed Christian just recently and he assured me that the doctrine of Original Sin is alive and well within the body of Christ – His church. He even described it as the “guilty gene” as something intrinsic to our nature.

Christianity has made a virtue out of thinking ill of oneself; it has taught us to see ourselves first and foremost as sinners who have the opportunity to find redemption through Jesus. This teaching has engendered a widespread inclination in Christian civilisation to see the acknowledgement of guilt and sin as the foundation of morality: to be moral is to be aware of one’s fallen state; the more moral you are the more you are aware of your failings.

There is a way out. The Christian can acknowledge his inherent sinfulness, seek repentance, and seek salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus. It’s a mind-boggling doctrine but there is a way.

The idea that we are fundamentally sinful and guilty has been part of our culture for at least 2000 years. Are we to suppose that it has left no impression? Surely not. I see it surfacing again and again. In conversations with the politically correct and well-meaning it breathes like an undying assumption.

One facet of political correctness is the notion that we owe a debt to certain groups of people: those who can be seen as the victims of past and present imperialism.

In a peculiar twist of reasoning we are deemed responsible, guilty, of things done by our ancient forebears long before we were born. This guilt is not personal, it is collective. We all share it and yet it belongs to no-one in particular. There is no way to finally redeem oneself from this guilt; it is simply there as an ever-present legacy of the past. We are guilty by virtue of our membership of one group rather than another, regardless of our personal conduct. Conversely, those belonging to victim groups are wholly innocent and cannot be held accountable for anything. They are pure victims and to suggest otherwise is oppressive.

We see this tendency expressed in the never-ending apologising of the West, in the obligations felt towards the Third World, even towards that nest of imperial vipers known as the “Muslim World”. In fact this nest of vipers has learned how to play on this tendency very skilfully.

There is no escape from this guilt or its obligations because it is collective and impersonal.

We have been taught to examine our behaviour from an early age and some of this is a healthy form of taking responsibility for our actions. This is quite different to the impersonal guilt of the collective.

The tendency to attribute guilt to the “we” often has the effect of absolving the “they” or the “other” of any guilt or responsibility. To suggest “they” bear any responsibility would be to undermine their status as pure victims.

We saw an example of this recently when the odious George Galloway said in the British Parliament that we were to blame for British Muslims going to fight for ISIS because we had not been good enough to them. Unfortunately this way of thinking, even if not articulated so clearly, is very prevalent in the West, particularly on the Left.

This phenomenon is sometimes given the label “white guilt”. This is indeed an aspect of it. However, the prefix “white” implies a mainly racial dimension as if it applies to the treatment of non-white peoples. The phenomenon is actually far more general than this and underlies the sense of obligation towards any group that can be defined as “other” or “not we”.

Repentance is a major theme in Western culture. Within Christianity repentance is a key element of salvation. Indeed, one can see in psychological terms that there can be little possibility of personal change unless there is a willingness to acknowledge where one has previously gone wrong. Through repentance we achieve forgiveness in the sight of God. God loves a repentant sinner most of all.

But in the collectivised guilt of the politically correct how is one to repent? No personal wrong has been done to any particular person so reconciliation cannot be sought there. Repentance thus tends to take the form of taking the side of the “other” of showing solidarity with the right victim groups or of doing endless penance through endless accommodation. By identifying with “pure victims” guilt-ridden westerners can associate themselves with their guiltlessness.

The “Palestinians” spring immediately to mind in this context because they have been elevated to the world’s pre-eminent victim group and all that this implies: unaccountability and guiltlessness. Those Westerners who are fully signed up to the collective guilt paradigm enjoy any opportunity to share in the “suffering” of the Palestinians. An especially egregious example of this solidarity was shown in the placards bearing the slogans “We are all Hezbollah” and “We are all Hamas”.

One approach to explaining the psychology of this behaviour is to acknowledge the primacy of emotion in the mind. Jonathan Haidt describes the reasoning part of the mind as a rider on a much larger animal mind which he likens to an elephant. The elephant represents all the automated responses of the mind: urges, feelings, snap judgements, pre-conscious perceptions and so on which provide so much psychological momentum.

The reasoning part of the mind can forward plan and guide to some extent but the elephant, in any given moment, has generally already decided which way to turn and takes the rider with him. The reasoning mind then provides the rational justification for moving in that direction, of adopting that stance. What this means is that we will find explanations for our behaviour that match the feeling-state we have.

If our feeling-state has a large measure of guilt, as many Westerners do, we will provide explanations which are consonant with that guilt. As Westerners many of us are riders of guilt-ridden elephants. We are experts at finding justifications for these guilty feelings. They have become tenacious aspects of our “nature” and culture.

The guilty feelings are there as primary mental facts. The rational mind has to account for them and does so by means of thinking up spurious notions of collective guilt.