Do Johnson, Corbyn and Trump feel guilt? Or, come to that, shame? If they do it is undetectable. But the Conservative and Labour leaderships are demonstrably great practitioners of blame. And these three, guilt, shame and blame, are surely alternatives, one arising in default of the other. How bad is that?
Guilt has had a bad press since Freud but most people’s instinct would be to say that guilt is somehow morally better than shame. After all it is a private, individual feeling and ours is an age of individualism. I’m not so sure. Why should a social emotion like shame, fear of the consequences of being found out and exposed, be less good than individual pangs of self-disgust? Or is it that an internal, private feeling of guilt – nobody need know about it - holds the promise of remorse, doing better next time, being “delivered from temptation?” to paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer. Guilt at least implies you have hit the ignition button of your conscience; and having a functioning conscience is usually considered a good thing. Whereas shame suggests you had better try harder not to get found out next time, and the skill of deceit is not widely applauded – unless you are a spy. Of course, acts that result in public opprobrium may shame you, with many people knowing, but being ashamed without anyone knowing borders on guilt.
If guilt and shame are denied or missing, the default position is blame. And why is blaming someone, something else, such an effective get-out-of-jail card - let’s be generous to Mr. Johnson - for the guilty heart, the joker in the pack of cards dealt by a Joker Prime Minister?
Instead of failing miserably to answer these questions, I will tell what I hope is an instructive as well as a true story. During the anti-apartheid struggle I got to know a young Catholic married couple who were ANC activists in Johannesburg. Repression had cranked up and was intense. Many were being arrested and jailed. The risk of detention was high. The couple faced difficult moral dilemmas. They wanted a child but would it be right to bring one into the world when there was a real risk of them being jailed and separated from their baby? They were afraid. ANC activists were being assassinated by a special unit of the security police, prisoners were brutalised, and jail sentences long. There didn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel. They later came to London, by chance at the same time as Jon Sobrino S.J. a liberation theologian from war-torn El Salvador. Of six Jesuit colleagues, their housekeeper and her daughter, only he had survived a bloody massacre at the hands of El Salvador’s military dictatorship in November 1979. When he got news of the murders Sobrino went straight back to his Jesuit residence on the campus of the Central American University in San Salvador where they had died.
Things had reached a violent head in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was shortly to be released. The two young South Africans, like Sobrino, had experienced fear of violence from unaccountable State agents themselves. They wanted to ask a famous liberation theologian why he had returned to danger and how he had dealt with his fear. We all were expecting a theologian’s answer, Christological and lyrical, in the style of Sobrino’s books. There was a pause after the question. Then he said: “Oh, I would have been too ashamed to have stayed away. What would my brethren have said?” I am still not sure whether he was referring to the Jesuit martyrs who had died or the living members of the Society of Jesus to which he belonged (as does the present Pope). I wondered if Sobrino wanted to present and encourage shame as a virtue, or was he simply in the habit of telling the truth. I think the latter. It was a lovely moment. Our weighty earnestness was punctured like a balloon. I almost laughed. We all felt there should be no shame in admitting human weakness and human pride. We all felt we had permission to be human.
So how does someone such as Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn handle shame? I have never seen two political leaders so shamed in public, derided and ridiculed for their pretensions. Perhaps the hope-filled, idealistic or feckless adulation of their followers is for them wrap-around mental body-armour. Donald Trump is another story. He shows most characteristics of narcissism and sociopathic disorder. He warns Turkey that he will devastate their economy if in “my great and unmatched wisdom” they appear to take advantage of his abandonment of a loyal US ally, the Syrian Kurds, whom he has left to the tender mercies of Erdogan’s armed forces. Estimates suggest that the Kurds lost over 10,000 troops fighting ISIS. And we also know how Trump handles being shamed. The brash, crude, nouveau riche boy on the New York block, shunned by the elite, rubbished and shamed by an upstart black President in front of his peers, seems to crave the comfort of cheering crowds, his tweet followers, and campaign banners. Obama’s ridicule probably resulted in Trump attempt’s to reverse every single one of the former US President’s achievements. Beyond Obama, Trump doesn’t go in much for blaming. He abuses and punishes.
Dealing with shame and guilt is not a matter of personality only, of inadequacies, of things missing from character and leadership. The absence or denial of guilt and shame is a growing element within our political culture, the medium in which such individuals now thrive, a medium which encourages the idea that lack of guilt and shame, apparently missing from political leadership, is of no consequence, that the blame game, part entertainment, part outlet for anger and resentment, is what matters. It does matter but because it removes responsibility from the executive. We are in trouble if we get used to this state of affairs. From the Left the blame falls on Blairites and international capitalists, from the Right it has fallen on Remainers and then the judiciary, it fell on EU negotiators, on Parliament, and then on the Irish, and then, eventually…. it will fall on you and me.
See also TheArticle 09/10/2019