In his grand and gloomy book Civilization and Its Discontents , Sigmund Freud identified the tenacious sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization. In fact, he continued, it seems that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt. Such guilt made for an elusive quarry, however. It was hard to identify and hard to understand, and even harder to counteract, since it so frequently dwelled at an unconscious level and could easily be mistaken for something else.
Of course, Freud was notoriously hostile to religion, but, in this one respect, he thought it deserved some grudging credit: The worlds religions have never overlooked the part played in civilization by a sense of guilt, which is why they seek to redeem mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin. The same cannot be said of the modern secular dispensation, which often finds itself entirely baffled and defenseless against guilts formidable power. The sense of guilt often manifests itself to us moderns,
Freud argued, not as anything actually resembling guilt but as a sort of malaise [ Unbehagen ], a dissatisfaction, for which modern people seek other explanations, whether external or internal. Guilt itself turns out to be exceptionally crafty, a born trickster and chameleon, capable of disguising itself, hiding out, altering its size and appearance, moving its location. And yet it remains notoriously difficult to dislodge, managing to tighten its hold even as it is undergoing protean and unpredictable ?transformation.
Whatever one finally thinks of Freud”and I count myself among the respectful unbelievers in his fanciful systems”this seems to me a very rich and insightful analysis, and a useful starting place for considering a subject largely neglected by historians: the steadily intensifying (though rarely visible) role played by guilt in determining the deep structure of our lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Such an analysis cannot, for obvious reasons, be reduced to quantifiable data; and it admittedly runs the risk of veering onto the circular path of the non-falsifiable, a Freudian spécialité de la maison . Yet it has a ring of truth to it, both as a diagnosis and as a symptom of the condition it diagnoses. It suggests that what W. H. Auden claimed for Freud over seventy years ago remains equally true today: Even if he was wrong and at times absurd, he stands for a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.
One way of expressing that difference is to say that we live in a therapeutic age; and nothing illustrates that fact more clearly than the striking ways in which the sources of guilts power and the nature of its would-be antidotes have changed for us. Freud sought to relieve in his patients the worst mental burdens and pathologies imposed by their oppressive and hyperactive consciences, which he renamed their superegos , while deliberately refraining from rendering any judgment as to whether the guilty feelings ordained by those superegos had any moral justification. In other words, he sought to release the patient from guilts crushing hold by disarming and setting aside guilts moral significance and redesignating it as just another psychological phenomenon, whose proper functioning could be ascertained by its effects on ones more general well-being. After all, since the superego was for him nothing more than the introjection of parental and quasi-parental authority, experienced as a form of irrational compulsion, it was not exactly a product of sweet Kantian reasonableness, let alone the deposit of Gods law written on the heart.
Health was the only remaining criterion for success or failure in therapy, and health was a matter of managing a tolerable equilibrium among the competing elements in the psyche”less a state of peaceable harmony, or the optimal flourishing of an organism realizing its telos, than the achievement of an uneasy truce or stalemate between intrinsic antagonists, a condition sufficiently pacified to allow for mature and rational behavior, and perhaps even the occasional faint and fleeting glimpse of something like happiness.
This is not to say that all Freuds followers understood him thus. We Americans are always very selective in the ways we appropriate our intellectual imports, and the full gloominess of Freud taken neat was unlikely ever to be more than a minority taste here. His arguments for the easing of Victorian sexual mores, on the other hand, were an early vote-getter, particularly among the most advanced libidos of Greenwich Village. And the nonjudgmental therapeutic worldview whose seeds he planted has come into full flower in the mainstream sensibility of modern America, which in turn has profoundly affected the standing and meaning of the most venerable of all our moral transactions, and not merely matters of guilt.
Take for example the various ways in which forgiveness is now understood. Forgiveness is one of the chief antidotes to the forensic stigma of guilt, and as such has long been one of the golden words of our culture, with particularly deep roots in the Christian tradition, in which the capacity for forgiveness is seen as a central attribute of the Deity itself. It glistens with a hundred admirable qualities, and its purity and moral prestige seem beyond challenge. To forgive others is taken to be a sign of a full and munificent and sacrificial heart, and moreover a heart that wisely recognizes the fleeting nature of life and the universal weakness of all human beings, very much including oneself. For Christians the willingness to forgive has an even deeper source: the simple acknowledgment that we should be willing to extend to others, in a spirit of gratitude, the same forgiveness that God has graciously extended to us.
In the face of our shared human frailty, forgiveness expresses a kind of transcendent and unconditional regard for the humanity of the other, free of any admixture of interest or punitive anger or puffed-up self-righteousness. Yet forgiveness rightly understood does not deny the reality of justice. It is not a mindless erasure of all standards. To forgive, whether one is forgiving trespasses or debts, precisely means suspending all the just and legitimate claims we have against the other, in the name of the higher ground of divine love and human solidarity. That is why forgiveness, if properly understood, is both costly and rare. It affirms justice even as it suspends it.
Scan the self-help shelves of American bookstores today, however, and you will find something very different. You will see that there is a lot of interest in forgiveness, but embodied in books bearing such titles as Total Forgiveness , and Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get On with Your Life , and Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom , and Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All . Dozens of websites devote themselves to the subject, including a website called Forgive for Good by one Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., director and cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project (and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness ), who declares that forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else. Even the respected journalist Gregg Easterbrook has posted an article on the Beliefnet website entitled Forgiveness Is Good for Your Health.
I dont mean to disparage these writings in a blanket way or label them utterly wrong. There is a great deal to be said for any effort to release the soul from captivity to hateful emotions and encourage the more noble and expansive side of our natures. But the shift in emphasis is notable. In the new dispensation, forgiveness is all about the forgiver and his or her well-being. And the motivation sometimes borders on the suspect. As Luskin puts it, in arguing for the health-giving benefits of forgiving, Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge . . . . Forgiveness is about personal power.
This puts a rather different cast on the idea that the forgiving heart rises above that which wounded it. In seeing forgiveness as a locus of power, even a means of revenge, we have come a long way from Shakespeares Portia, who spoke so memorably in The Merchant of Venice about the unstrained quality of mercy, which droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven and blesses both him that gives and him that takes. And an even longer way from Christs anguished cry from the cross, Forgive them, for they know not what they do. And perhaps even further yet from the most basic sense of forgiveness, the cancelling of a monetary debt or the pardoning of a criminal offense, in either case a very conscious suspension of the rightful demands of justice.
We still value forgiveness, but we are very confused about it, and in our confusion we may have produced a situation in which forgiveness has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight as well as its moral meaning and been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of release it brings us. Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have no meaning. Forgiveness makes sense only in the presence of a robust sense of justice. Without that, it is in danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and empty. A sanctimonious way of simply moving on.
We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.
Forgiveness cant be understood apart from the assumption that we inhabit a universe in which moral responsibility matters, moral choices have real consequences, and justice and guilt have a salient role.
Forgiveness in its deepest sense is something different from letting go of anger so that we can individually experience wholeness and healing. It involves an extraordinary suspension of the normal workings of justice: of the normal penalties for crimes, and the normal costs for moral failings. By definition, it is something that can be done only rarely without undermining the basis on which it rests and without creating an entirely different set of moral expectations. The famous admonition from Tuesdays with ?Morrie that we should Forgive everybody everything is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the childs dream that every day should be Christmas.
So there is a problem with the understanding of guilt and forgiveness in our day, a transformation of them into floating signifiers without any clear connection to the antecedents to which they once corresponded. As Ive noted, this state of affairs arises partly out of the influential therapeutic view that the experience of guilt does not involve any genuine moral issues but rather the interplay of psychic forces that do not relate to anything morally consequential. One might call this position an assertion of the fundamental unreality of guilt.
But that is not the only thing that confuses us. There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and it is a surprising by-product of modernitys proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.
In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes ever better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more ?powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our ?potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions. In an ever shrinking and ever more interconnected world, it is theoretically possible for every living person to go anywhere that he or she wants to go, and to be made literally, or at least virtually, present to any other person, in ways that promise to become ever more vivid and high-definition in the future.
In such a world, where there are few intrinsic limits to what I can do, there is almost nothing for which I cannot be, in some way, held accountable. I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television and know for a fact that, if I cared to, I could travel to that remote place and relieve that childs immediate suffering. Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it is never as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.
Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation”theres an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. The demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imaginations ability to conjure them. And indeed, as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally sensitive individuals who have the weakest commonsense defenses against such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities”assaults that may amount to little more than propagandizing and manipulation, particularly when questions of environmental sin are at stake.
One of the most widely circulated videos in use in American secondary schools today is a breezy little confection called The Story of Stuff (found at www.storyofstuff.com ), designed to bring every guilt-inducing possibility to the attention of the young, and leave a significant deposit of hard and unassuagable guilt in the minds of the unfortunate kids who pay attention to it. Or consider the subtly coercive signs one encounters on the campuses of small, well-endowed American liberal-arts colleges, saying simply: Confront Your Privilege. Which is a fancy way of saying: Feel guilty. (And pay us $50,000+ a year so that we can certify the very privilege for which you are apologizing.)
So excessive is this propensity for guilt, particularly in the developed nations of the Western world, that the French writer Pascal Bruckner, in a courageous and utterly brilliant recent study called The Tyranny of Guilt (in French, the slightly different La tyrannie de la pénitence ), has identified the problem as Western masochism. The lingering presence of the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation, Bruckner argues, holds even secular philosophers and sociologists captive to its logic, so that the more [they] proclaim themselves to be agnostic, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious beliefs they are challenging. As a consequence, most of modern Western thought is little more than a mechanical denunciation of the West, in which remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances and has instead become a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency, manifested in the nonstop duty of repentance.
Nietzsche could not have said it better. But as much as I admire Bruckners analysis, I think it may be defective, simply because the problem may go even deeper than a mere question of alleged cultural masochism arising out of vestigial moral reflexes. It is, after all, not merely our pathologies that dispose us in this direction. The pathologies themselves have an anterior source, if I am right, in the very things of which we are most proud: our knowledge of the world, of its causes and effects, and of our power to shape and alter those causes and effect. One thinks of T. S. Eliots famous question: After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Unless one takes the position that guilt is to be banished entirely from the human condition”a position both silly and horrible”one will have to face the fact that, in a world of ever growing knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough and how much is too much.
Ive spoken of two factors”the therapeutic unreality of guilt paired with the crushing ?hyperabundance of it”that would seem to be diametrically opposed. How can something illusory also be something omnipresent ? Are we guilty of nothing”or everything? But in practice the two tend to reinforce one another. The utter disproportionality of the latter leads to its being managed by means of the former. Not knowing how to cope with the monumental scale of our infinitely extensible guilt, we dissolve it into a Woody Allen joke. But what cannot be laughed entirely out of existence is a tenacious sense of moral incompleteness, and a weighty sense of moral burden, a burden that all of us, except perhaps the sociopathic, share to a greater or lesser extent. And as Freud knew, this sense can hide for a very long time in the dark, moving the chess pieces around the board with its invisible hand.
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is ever looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be right with the world. One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it has to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Which brings me to a very curious story, full of significance for these matters. It comes from a New York Times op-ed column by Daniel Mendelsohn, published on March 9, 2008, and aptly titled Stolen Suffering. Mendelsohn, a Bard College professor who has written a book about his familys experience of the Holocaust, tells of hearing the story of an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked two thousand miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves. The story was given wide circulation in a 1997 book, and its veracity was generally accepted. But it was finally discovered to be a complete fabrication, created by a Belgian Catholic woman named Monique de Wael.
Such a deception, Mendelsohn argued, is not an isolated event. It needs to be understood in the context of a growing number of phony memoirs, such as the notorious child-survivor Holocaust memoir Fragments , or Love and Consequences , the putative autobiography of a young mixed-race woman raised by a black foster mother in gang-infested Los Angeles. These books were, as Mendelsohn says, a plagiarism of other peoples trauma, written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Interestingly, too, he notes that the authors seemed to have an unusual degree of identification with their subjects”in fact, a degree of identification approaching the pathological. Ms. de Wael for example declared, rather astonishingly, that the story is mine . . . not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.
Mendelsohn goes on to draw pertinent conclusions from these stories, about how we have lost a sense of reality and have been taken in by the claims of empathy in our culture. But I believe there are perhaps even profounder inferences to be drawn from this strange phenomenon. There have always been stories about stolen valor, about those who inflate their standing with others by boasting of wartime exploits that never occurred. And it is not hard to understand the motive behind such fraudulence: the desire to be thought a hero and identified with heroic virtues. But this is different.
What these authors are appropriating is stolen suffering , and the identification they are pursuing is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How to account for it? What is motivating it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public?
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims , as a category, in the contemporary world?
The explanation is traceable to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution, to discharge ones moral burden, and to the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution”or even of keeping the range of ones responsibility for ones sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries”are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or to identification with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted and ones innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as these authors. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously.
In the modern West, that moral economy remains deeply tied to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the fundamental truth about sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that sin must be paid for or otherwise discharged. It can be neither dissolved by divine fiat nor repressed nor borne forever. In the Jewish moral world in which Christianity originated, and without which it would have been unthinkable, sin had always to be paid for, generally by the sacrificial shedding of blood; its effects could never be ignored or willed away. Which is precisely why, in the Christian context, forgiveness of sin was specifically related to Jesus Christs atoning sacrifice, his vicarious payment for all human sins, procured through his death on the cross and made available freely to all who embraced him in faith. Forgiveness has an enormously high standing in the Christian faith. But it is grounded in fundamental theological and metaphysical beliefs about the person and work of Christ, which are in turn traceable to Jewish notions of sin and how one pays for it. It makes little sense without them.
But how, in a society that retains its Judeo-Christian moral reflexes but has abandoned the corresponding metaphysics, can a credible means of discharging the weight of sin be found? This is the problem at the core of the pathologies described in Bruckners book. One workable way to be at peace with oneself and feel innocent and right with the world is to identify oneself as a certifiable victim”or, nearly as good, by identifying oneself with victims or with the cause of victims. This is why the Mendelsohn story is so important and so profoundly indicative, even if it deals with an extreme case. It points toward the way in which identification with victims, and the appropriation of victim status, has become an irresistible moral attraction. It suggests the real possibility that claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing ones sense of fundamental moral innocence.
Why should that be so? The answer is simple. With moral responsibility comes inevitable moral guilt, for reasons already explained. So if one wishes to be innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes. When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who, by definition, is not responsible for his condition but can point to another who is responsible. The medicalization of bad behavior is a close cousin to this strategy, since it casts the victimizer not as a person but as a disease .
But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor and, in projecting that guilt, lift it off his own shoulders. The designated oppressor plays the role of scapegoat, on whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, one can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this should have become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt. At least in the short run.
There is no doubt that none of this would have happened absent the influence of Christianity. Such a story would not have been credible in ancient Greece or Rome, for example, whose pagan virtues did not notably include compassion, humility, and willingness to forgive. There would be no moral status there to be drawn from identification with the victim. Indeed, such reflections cause one to remember the shocking contrast between the proud glories of the classical world and those of this strange emergent Jewish sect, which believed in an incognito God who came into the world as the least among us, emptied of all majesty, and submitted without resistance to a horrifying and humiliating death. As the German philosopher Jürgen ?Habermas has insisted, the great moral reversal wrought by Christianity was the indispensable source of most of todays commonplaces about universal human rights and human dignity, equality, sympathy, compassion, generosity, and much else that the secular world proudly claims for itself.
So this new sensibility is a product of Christianity, but one should quickly add that it is a perversion of Christianity, a religion that in its orthodox form has no way of understanding forgiveness independent of sin, or of the earthly ministry of Christ and our human response to it. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the cult of victimization in our culture corresponds fairly exactly with the decline of Christian orthodoxy. As Nietzsche predicted and Freud confirmed, the sense of guilt that Christianity sought to alleviate has not disappeared. But the nature of the demands has changed. Identifying with the poor because Christ commands it is a very different matter from caring about the poor because the cult of victimization demands it and offers psychological rewards for doing so and sanctions for failing to do so.
All of this creates enormous problems, especially in our public life, precisely because it does not deal honestly with the problem of sin but merely plays a game of projection and displacement, of off-loading our toxic wastes onto one another, a game in which everyone is pinning his own guilty tail on someone elses vulnerable donkey. One sees some of these problems in, for example, the public apologies for the institution of slavery, such as the one put forward a while back by the United States Senate. Not that such an apology is necessarily a bad thing in every way. It is important, and in the national interest, to find ways to achieve reconciliation on such matters of long-standing pain and woundedness. But when one is apologizing for something for which one had no direct responsibility, one is seeking absolution at anothers expense, scapegoating those who are not even present to defend or explain themselves.
Perhaps it will be said that an apology in this instance is also owed by the living because of all the ways that present-day nonblack Americans are privileged economically, socially, and politically, thanks to the prior existence of slavery. Leave aside the fact that a highly profitable industry has been erected around the unchallengeable truth of this assertion and its continued promulgation in schools and in the workplace. Consider instead how completely it serves to support the infinite extensibility of guilt, an empire without boundaries, in which no feature of American life is so remote or intimate as to be immune from that charge. In that realm, nothing can ever be forgiven, because moral responsibility is everywhere and nowhere, too pervasive and diffuse ever to be located, let alone answered.
Journalist Jonathan Kay of the National Post offered a particularly instructive account of his attendance at a whiteness workshop. The attendees were themselves all earnest opponents of racism: graduate students, community activists, equity officers, womens studies instructors, and the like. Not a single Ku Klux Klansman in the bunch. Yet, Kay reported, they spent much of the workshop unburdening themselves of their own racial guilt. They seemed consumed by their own sins, regarding their pallor as a sort of moral leprosy. And Kay went on to offer a perfect description of the tangled moral state of those caught in the entrails of infinitely extensible guilt:
While politically correct campus activists often come across as smug and single-minded, I realized their intellectual life might more accurately be described as bipolar”combining an ecstatic self-conception as high priestesses who pronounce upon the racist sins of our society, alongside extravagant self-mortification in regard to their own fallen state.
As this account suggests, some of the most poisonous effects of this changed sensibility and the cult of victimhood are visible in academe, where both the unreality of guilt and infinite extensibility of guilt are widely held tenets, where common sense is often weak to nonexistent, and where the atmosphere is often charged with a half-mad level of moral electricity. Faculty gatekeepers and administrator watchdogs leap with alacrity upon would-be transgressors who fail, even in slight and well-meaning ways, to observe the regnant pieties regarding race, class, gender, ethnicity, and other differentia in their public statements.
Such watchdog figures are not only policing discourse in a way that conflicts with the very purposes of the academy but, in so doing, they are, as Jonathan Kays account so vividly suggests, working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They are seeking justification for themselves, and protection for themselves, through identification with a victim, or putative victim, and by establishing the distance between themselves and the oppressor. If there is no evident oppressor, one must be invented. By attacking the scapegoat oppressor (who is often merely a hapless and vulnerable colleague) forcefully and ostentatiously, they displace their guilt onto him and prove to all the world their own relative innocence. Upon his head are placed the sins of the community, enacting one of the most ancient acts of moral transference, leaving the community purified thereby. It is an ugly and corrosive little ritual, and in the end serves only to exacerbate differences and erode the very possibility of civility. But at bottom it is driven by a general moral compulsion, the pursuit of innocence that operates in most of us, even if we do not see or sense it.
That pursuit is endless, and one should not want it to end, even if an end were possible. The ability to feel guilt is surely one of the essentials of our human makeup, the very core of moral responsibility, and a spur to many of the noblest acts in human history. We should not want to hector it or narcotize it into oblivion, for we would not be human at all anymore without it. But surely there are better, more honest, more self-aware, and less illusion-prone ways of handling our pursuit of innocence.
One way of beginning might be to heed the biblical injunction to remove the beam from ones own eye before pointing accusingly at the mote in ones neighbors. In the end, too, those who have viewed the obliteration of Judeo-Christian metaphysics as the modern ages great and signal act of human liberation may want to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Either that, or accept the dismal prospect envisioned by Freud, in which the advance of human civilization brings, not happiness, but an ever mounting tide of guilt in search of ever more elusive forms of absolution.
Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of the First Things editorial and advisory council.