Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rethinking Beliefs, Thoughts, and Actions

This could also be titled: "Guilt and Shame," but I'm trying to escape the dichotomy between those two and get to a more accurate discussion of what people mean when they say that either guilt or shame is bad, or analyze whether a culture is shame or guilt based.

There seems to be a pendulum swing with guilt and shame. Every few generations, one or the other is declared to be "bad" while the other is declared to be "good" and everyone is encouraged to try to change their language while the underlying architecture of human interaction is left unchanged. It's like the shifts in taboo language - so long as the underlying interactions are harmful to the participants, new words will pop up to take advantage of the underlying assumptions and prejudices of the people involved.

I believe the struggle with language about guilt and shame is that we 1) need a means to police and control human behavior and 2) people police and control human behavior both in ways which try to minimize harm and in ways which try to inflict harm. Harm here is being defined as anything which injures a person, physically or emotionally, and denies their basic importance as a unique person (This is a working definition, so expect to see modifications in the future). Axiomic to this discussion is that harm is "bad" and minimizing harm is "good".

Analyzing this system is made more difficult with language because language is designed to minimize or disguise our mistaken desire for inflicting harm within the language of minimizing harm. We often even think in terms of this language - the entire idea of "tough love" or "let that be a lesson to you" is about how the harmed person deserves the harm due to their own actions, and if they only changed their actions then they would not deserve harm and thus would not be harmed. I believe the basis of victim blaming is here, in our internalization of shame/guilt and the magical thinking inherent in the belief that we have a 100% causal relationship to everything in our lives and nothing is correlational (at a later point I want to tackle the problems with "The Secret" and other "you create your universe" POVs, but not today; for the moment, please accept as axiomic that we do not cause every event in our lives). The substitution of minimizing harm language in inflicting harm circumstances is also in a response to our views of ourselves as people who do not actually want to harm others (we'll leave the people who want to harm others out for the moment, if you don't mind).

Most people have a set of half-conscious characteristics of "proper behavior" (often with sub-categories based on race, gender, socio-economic level, degree of able bodied and mind-ness, etc...) which are an amalgam of what they were taught and what they observed throughout their life. Keep in mind, there's fairly solid evidence that children learn much more from observation and interaction than from explicit and conscious teaching; this is how unconscious biases transmit themselves through the generations - a powerful positive feature of our psyches with some negative side effects which do not respond to conscious, reasoned argument. 

Instead, from a young age, parents use guilt/shame to control their children and socialize them.

It begins, often, with physical violence. The use of spanking, slapping, the belt, the paddle, etc... to discipline a child has an emotional component as well in communicating that someone is a "bad person" and "should be punished". I remember a conversation with a co-worker once where she failed a math test and her father took his belt to her. She explained very urgently that she had to have the secondary physical punishment (in addition to the social punishment of a bad grade) in order to "teach her a lesson" (paraphrased), and she valued much lower in her memory the actual teaching her grandmother did to show her how to do the math she clearly didn't understand.

That is - the actual cure for the failure/ignorance was valued less in her memory that punishment for having failed, and she believed the latter demanded the presence of the former despite them coming from completely different sources, and despite saying to me that she thought she would have paid attention when her grandmother taught her without being beaten. Indeed, that question (about whether she could have learned form her grandmother without being beaten for failure by her father) ended our conversation, as she suddenly became very upset and changed the subject.

What I'm trying to point at here is that our defense of guilt/shame being used against us (and by definition everyone) is a very basic aspect of most of our minds - including mine. It is pre-verbal and tied into our primary relationships with our caregivers (caregivers here is much broader than most people seem to use it - I actually would include my friend's father and grandmother under the category caregivers even though her mother was in the picture as well, and even though her father was violent and not "care-giving". One could argue his version of care was violence - and I think this is an important part of my point, that caregiving can include violence and neglect). For whatever reason, children seem particularly susceptible to the perception that they directly cause all aspects of their lives; this includes within it a need to reform punishments and harm to the child as being caused by the child - as in the prior example, my friend needed to be beaten because she was beaten, so therefore she must have needed to be beaten. The logic is circular, and thus carries both the illusion of reasonableness (that is: it seems as if it has been reasoned into despite actually being axiomic) and a resistance to being reasoned out of. My friend's response to even the gentlest questioning that she needed to be beaten with extreme anxiety and a topic change, which clearly indicates to me how powerful it is within out minds (yes, I'm generalizing from a single example - but I am trying to use this in more of a parable sense than a data sense; that is, I'm counting on you, the reader, being able to apply a similar situation to yourself in your defensiveness about how your parents raised you, whether it involved beatings or not).

Hopefully this has established not only that our early experiences of caregiving have a powerful effect on our minds, but also that these points of view have not been reasoned into but often carry the patina of reasonableness and "common sense". I also want to put up a reminder that the language around inflicting harm versus minimizing harm is muddled due to how often language of the latter is used to cover up the former. Next post I want to get into the positive roll guilt/shame plays in terms of community building and ethical individualization.

1 comment:

yaed said...

I really like how your brain works. Its tasty.

Yes it would seem what happens to us in general, and specifically when we are young, we try to rationalize all that as we work through it and let it become our being. Meaning we try to make some sort of halfassed logic about why it happened. At some point we need to be able to giver our own view on things. Which means we should be able to tell your friends father he is actually being abusive, even though he probably does not think so himself. Admitted it is doing some violence to one persons worldview (your fathers friend), but given that we live in the same place (earth, the universe), this is unavoidable. At least it is unavoidable if we have ANY sense of justice.