There has been a lot said lately about people of privilege behaving badly. You remember; Nikolas Delegat getting a sentence of community service for seriously assaulting a female police officer; the Chiefs and Scarlett, the woman they hired at their mad Monday bash who subsequently made accusations about player behaviour that no-one appears to have backed up; and no one appears to give a damn about, hiding behind their corporate identity, (while she loses her job). Then there has been case of Losi Filipo. As is well known by now, he beat 4 people up on one drunken night, quite severely and received a conditional discharge without conviction (now under appeal). The public, including me, have been exercised over these events. One interesting theme comes up again and again and again: “what about consequences?! How are these men ever going to learn good behaviour if they face no bloody consequences?”
On a parenting 101 level this makes sense right? We have to model to our kids that if we do something wrong, we have to ‘fess up, we have to face a penalty, and we have to Make Good.
So the criminal justice system gets the usual kicking; white men from rich families, rugby players with “rugby privilege” (OK, that was new one for me) get off while brown poor men get shown the slammer and non-Rugby players have to take the real medicine.
At one level, all of this palaver seems curiously one sided to me. I do understand the privilege arguments, I also understand what other commentators have been saying about not chopping young people’s prospects off the knees (but I still cheered when Paul Henry gave Steve Tew his BEANS on breakfast telly the other morning.) The reason I think this is a kind of sterile debate is that we are expecting the criminal justice system to do what it no longer can in our modern and diverse mainstream culture. Perhaps it never could. (Warning: lots of potboiler generalisations coming…)
We expect these young people to ‘man’ up to consequences, on the one hand, while feeding them, and ourselves, a pretty consistent diet of of guilt denial on the other. I’m choosing my words deliberately here; not “responsibility”, not “ownership” not “accepting their part”. I am talking of guilt. Old-fashioned, gut-churning, ashen-faced “what have I done??” guilt.
Actually, guilt is flipped; what we want is guilt-free. Like ice-cream, we can choose our actions and inactions in such a way as to expunge the possibility that we might just have completely betrayed someone, something, or our very selves.
Our shared (to the extent that it is) idea of modern society now eschews the very notion of ever actually feeling guilty for something we did. Done something bad or inadequate as a parent? Don’t feel guilty; that’s not constructive. Instead you “learn from your mistakes”. Done something bad an an employee? Don’t feel guilty, the employer holds too much power over you for that; don’t ‘fess, don’t tell, don’t accept, maybe file a PG. Treated an employee badly? Well, wait till the employee files a PG then make the right noises. Had bad sex with someone you don’t even like the smell of? It’s just one of those shared human experiences that forms us: move on. Chalk it up to Experience. For goodness’ sake don’t lie awake at night feeling guilty about the devastating breach of your own standards; this is what we are supposed to do. How else are we to learn and grow?
I’m not suggesting guilt has been eradicated as a phenomenon; of course not. Instead our shared mainstream culture tells us incessantly that guilt is a Bad Thing that gets in the way of the good (read: pleasurable) life. Instead we have to be individual responsible adults, we have to manage our way out of our self inflicted crises; we have to own stuff, and then move on to other stuff. Which sounds OK, really. Except how do you own stuff when you are not encouraged to feel guilt about that ‘stuff’ in the first place? How do you have the maturity of “be responsible” for what you do when you have never perhaps been taught to be still and listen to the enormity of what you have done and the harm you have caused?
Perhaps this problem exists because we have a less clear idea of what is bad in the first place, we are less able to see lines before we have crossed them. Instead, systems are there to tell us when we have done something wrong. Systems exist upon which to displace our guilt, and our true blame. Let the systems creak into action, while we think about something, anything, else. And when it all goes terribly wrong, the system can bear the fault again. It is perfect self-sustaining…(heh) system. There is always a process (a la Steve Tew) or a bureaucracy that can intercede to stop us from really seeing ourselves for what we really are: not denizens of liberated light at all; but flawed and sometimes bad, often good, usually mediocre creatures.
So these young men mentioned above screwed up; they are all guilty of something, but do they even know what they are guilty of? Forget the offences, or the broken guidelines, or rules. Forget the breaches of systems. Do they know what they have done? Have they been left in the silence of their thoughts or in the uncomfortable scrutiny of their heartbroken families to face the truth of who they really are? Or have they been lulled by the phone-calls of lawyers, by the obfuscation of dissemblers, by the spin doctors, by sheer and simple denial, into believing that they don’t have to face that? Guilt is so overrated, so…dys-functional.
The odd and apparently contradictory thing is, we now live in a climate whereby social shaming has become de rigeur, where we feel entitled to vilify, and hate and point out the morally blameworthy aspects of stupid and wrong things that people say and do. I’ve done it myself; and boy is it satisfying. Being right is just so self-fortifying, and helps me avoid facing those moments when I am, in fact, egregiously wrong in some way. But social shaming has no interest in guilt. We keyboard warriors are not interested in whether our target lies awake at night mortified by his or her doings; we don’t give a damn. We crave the satisfaction of making our moral superiority known, and the delicious possibility of a craven backdown or grovelling apology by our target.We don’t give a crap about anything real. We just want some kind of surface accounting that we call ‘justice’.
I’m speaking in broad brush terms, of course, and there are many souls in our society that no doubt do understand and feel guilt for what they have done. Perhaps the young men I have mentioned do too. I don’t know, I have no more access to their internal worlds than they do mine. And guilt, not expiated and resolved can lead to terrible psychic anguish and pain. Guilt is not a ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ state; it is merely a way in which we are forced to become familiar with the good and bad within each of us; to know ourselves. And maybe, to become better. I can only hope that we all seize that opportunity if it comes to us. It just seems that knowing and seeing ourselves is the last thing our mainstream culture really wants us to do.
[This post first appeared in a slightly edited form on E-Tangata]