I appreciated the way George Yancy talked about guilt in his recent New York Times piece. I have been trying to think through what it means to attempt an ethics in a world where ideal ethical living is basically impossible. Without going all the way with someone like Dworkin, I know that the relationship those of us with partners have as a couple or even those in polyamorous relationships, however loving and supportive and equal we all try to make it, is still structured by patriarchal norms, capitalism, and heteronormativity. I use that example because it is something most of us live everyday and can reflect on easily. In our homes all the problems of nature and culture meet, all the problems of politics and ethics coalesce, and we navigate them the best we can, but we are bound to failure. The failure of our society and our culture. This is true of myself too but I don’t feel guilt about that. Feeling guilt would imply I was doing some individual action that sullied something that was working before. But I do feel uneasy, I do feel a certain sense of shame because of the subject position as male I am recognized as and inhabit in the social world.
This is often how I talk to my students about issues of race as well. I tend to work with this distinction between guilt and shame as derived first from the anthropologist Victor Turner and then reworked by the environmental scientist and theorist William Jordan III (though I suspect there are others more attuned to race that I simply have not yet encountered, this being part of the shame of finitude). (Jordan is a friend of mine who I worked with as an undergraduate at DePaul and then became a major source during my MA thesis on environmental philosophy, specifically ecological restoration.) As he explains the distinction in a way to help think through certain problems in environmental ethics, guilt is about individual acts. This is the standard idea of justice being about correcting relationships. We could think of it as balancing the scales, but it’s also about restoration and so can guilt can even be what is operative in restorative justice contexts. The issues around race and gender and perhaps some other domains, like that between non-human nature and human culture, go deeper. There may be individual acts as part of it, but the broken relationship gets down to the very essence of our existence.
So, the example Turner uses is that of hunting in the Ndembu society. In order to live, members of the society had to kill animals. (As an aide, even as a vegetarian I don’t think I escape this reality. To live I have to destroy other living things. I think there is a qualitative difference between an animal and most plants, but consider the deaths caused by industrial farming, those lost to pollution that I contribute to in what Marxists used to call “objective collusion”, and so on.) The killing of an animal in the Ndembu society isn’t seen as an act one can be guilty for, but unlike Americans with the distance between our food and the animal the food once was, they do recognize that there is something essentially broken about the very fabric of the cosmos that requires an act which is still violent (the killing of an animal) in order for an act that is good (continuing to live) to exist.
There is a fissure in the order of being itself. It is unsutured, as George might want to say. And so there is a sense of shame in the killing of an animal. That shame is related not to guilt as an individual act, but that shame is related to the fact that’s very existence is tied to something “off” about the cosmos itself. With guilt you can do something to restore the relationship, with shame the issue is that the relationship is always already broken (I don’t think the Ndembu have an eschatology, but perhaps we in the Monotheistic traditions, or even just the Fanon-Cesairean one, might say “until the end of the world”). The only way to deal with that shame is to honor it. To attend to it. To literally give it our attention through ritualizing the hunt, the animal that is killed, the entire process. You look at your shame and you learn to love it in some sense (here I wish we had Arabic as there are something like 49 words for all the different forms love takes, I’m thinking here perhaps of the way disability scholars tell us one may come to love their disability as constitutive of themselves, but perhaps that’s the wrong way to go about it and feels somewhat off—we are always in danger of getting this wrong).
Bill gets a lot of pushback for this in his work, but I have always found it compelling. With regard to my own white self, it isn’t guilt that pushes me to attend to the questions of whiteness or blackness, of privilege and social death. All the bullshit that whites say when they get defensive around articles like the one George wrote (“My family didn’t own slaves!”, “My family was poor!”, “I had to work hard for what I have!”) is true of me. My family was dirt poor, a broken home, a history of substance abuse and addiction, poor education, and all those markers for generational malaise. I discovered recently that sociologists have names for people like me! I would ask the reader to imagine that, but as some of our readers are Black and Brown people in America, we both know they’ve had names for others longer. But, you know, I could try to hide behind that. But that would only get me out of the guilt. It doesn’t get me out of the shame. The shame is that my very existence is predicated on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Black human beings and the afterlife of that social death. As a beneficiary of American wealth, I’m living off the initial primitive accumulation of slave labor. Even if I don’t choose it, I live in a world (a very important concept in my work that I take from Laruelle) that says, “you aren’t black, so you can move through this space unharassed.” That’s fucking shameful. My very existence in the schema of recognition is predicated on the (mis)recognition of the Black men and women I inhabit the world with.
Here is where I don’t quite know what to do. So I’m probably going to mess up as I’m learning out loud here. But, the only way I know how to attend to that shame is to give attention to that social death, to give more of my finite time and energy to study the works of Black intellectuals and activists, to attend to the way in which the world is anti-black, and to the cracks in that world where Black people have shown how to live as if free from the world. Unlike Turner and Bill, I don’t think of existence as being static. So I don’t think this distinction between guilt and shame means that nothing can be done, but I do think that it is far more difficult than responding to guilt. I am not sure if guilt can be multigenerational in the way I understand it here, because when you individually do something wrong you can work your whole life trying to restore it (a murder for example). The act can be that big. You may fail, but that’s not something that touches the essence of guilt. Shame, however, is multigenerational. I know that I can’t end the world (again, I don’t mean the physical earth, there is a phenomenological difference between the two). I am not even sure that children living today and my hypothetical future children will. But certainly they have to learn to attend properly to the real problem if they ever hope to turn this shame into honor, whatever that might be after the end of the world.