The debt of shame

How does a system of domination maintain its hold? If it wants to stand the test of time, it will need to use multiple strategies. For those who are expected to implement and enforce it, a system of domination will use some combination of rewards and moralism — the latter to make sure that the elites believe that they and their subordinates all deserve what they get (or don’t). For the bottom rungs of society, it will rely on force and the ever-present threat of deprivation, sometimes seasoned with a discourse of victim-blaming.

Yet these methods are not sufficient, because no system of domination that was so starkly divided into oppressor and oppressed would long endure. A buffer group is necessary, a vast middle that can simply “go with the flow.” The most durable orders of domination have controlled this middle group through a combination of impotence and guilt. These two ingredients will be apportioned differently to each individual. For some, the sense of impotence will be so strong as to completely eradicate any sense of moral responsibility — all we can do is try to provide for ourselves and our families. For others, guilt will lead to a ritual of self-sacrifice, morally distancing the protestor from the current order while also rendering unthinkable the idea of actually exercising power. Most of the middle is, suitably, stuck between these two extremes, or rather, constantly bouncing between the two as the occasion demands.

In any case, the combination of impotence and guilt leads to shame: the sense of being morally stained by something one cannot help. It feels like guilt because it is reflected in what we choose to do or omit — to turn a blind eye to that homeless person, to show a “reasonable” skepticism about accusations of sexual harassment or assault, or more generally to go along with something that you can’t feel good about. It feels like shame because the magnitude of the problem expressed in each particular instance is overwhelming and debilitating — it’s not as though I can end homelessness, or stop all future sexual harassment or assault, or make the world a better place.

Every time we make that compromise, a debt of guilt builds up inside us. We know we are not merely passive observers or victims, that we do make choices and could have done otherwise. We feel shitty, and we get tired of feeling shitty, and that makes it harder to do the right thing the next time — because doing the right thing would be a tacit admission that we had been wrong all those many times before.

And so guilt shades into impotence, as the system paints us ever further into a corner of moral complicity. We come to resent those who do the right thing as hypocrites — because doing the right thing is impossible — and scolds — because the only function of moral discourse is to make people feel bad and assert superiority. We become defensive, whether we cringe in anticipation of a punishment that we believe, at some level, that we deserve or whether we lash out preemptively in order to redirect that punishment onto someone else (someone equally deserving, if not more so).

The burden of shame can become so great that the only way to alleviate it is to lean into it and do something truly shameful — but such gestures always carry a ring of patheticness, as we quickly realize that we’re such fuckups we can’t even transgress properly. Or we claim to be the “real victims,” to draw attention to ourselves and our plight — but our obsession with ourselves and our plight is precisely the problem we’re trying to escape. Or we make it our occupation to say all the right things and hold all the right opinions, so that our Father who sees in secret can judge our pure intentions and reward them — paradoxically tainting the very intentions that we are relying on to save us.

The problem is that we can’t recognize that the problem is not each of us individually, but all of us in our concrete relationships to one another — or rather, in the complex articulation of those relationships that we call society, which has become a machine for making the vast majority of us hate each other because we hate ourselves.

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