Listened to Start the Week on Radio4 this morning as I sorted recycling for the tip. The theme was guilt and shame, and there were a variety of guests. For those unfamiliar with the programme, it consists of a presenter and a round table of topical people who have usually published books or directed plays, talking about a topical theme, or one drawn together from their books etc - or unusually just a series of discussions on the topics of their works.
Jon Ronson, one of my very favourite writers and broadcasters, was one of the guests today, as he has recently published a book about internet shaming. Go and explore his website! There is a lot to enjoy. To be honest I didn't pay very good attention to the other guests which included someone who thought public shaming has its uses, a man who is directing an Arthur Miller play with a related theme, and an academic talking about Judas. If you want to hear the programme it is on the iplayer, available free to anyone in the world on the BBC website, and I believe it is available as a podcast too. Tom Sutcliffe is the presenter, who also presents Front Row from time to time and the Saturday Review, all worth listening to, and they keep me up to date with what's happening/coming out/hot.
They talked about public shaming, and refusing to be shamed, and the feeling of guilt, and whether Judas could be culpable for betrayal of Christ if it was part of God's plan. What they didn't talk about, and what preoccupied me, was the idea that innocent guilt is impossible to assuage. If you are guilty of some transgression you can do penance, apologize all those other things. The sort of thing I was thinking about was survivor guilt, rape victim guilt, the sort of experience which makes you feel guilty even though you have done nothing wrong. I suppose the ironic-tweet-that-everyone-took-seriously IS an example of this sort of guilt.
It occurred to me that the Catholic Church has always been very hot on guilt, while giving people an easy way out of their guilt. Once upon a time you could buy your way out by paying for hapless monks to pray for your salvation, or you could buy indulgences, a sort of get-out-of-gaol-free card for naughtiness. Then there are the other penances that people put themselves through - self-flagellation, doing pilgrimages, walking on your knees to a shrine etc. My mind goes off at a tangent wondering if those count if you enjoy them....
Inevitably quite a lot of the talk was of the internet and its shaming tactics, but it seems to me that those are only skin deep. I'm sure it is an uncomfortable experience to be shamed by the internet, but the ephemeral nature of the medium is that today's scandal is swept up and away through the stream of tweets and on to another thing. It is different when people take their grievances offline too and threaten to kill or rape, or contact a woman's employers and demand that her head should roll. That's of a different order altogether. But for most stupid things said on the internet, they're here today and gone tomorrow.
The other type of guilt and shame... the things we did and regret, the things which were done to us and we feel guilty for, those things are ingrained deeper, but it is possible to let go of them. If it is true that no experience is necessariy good or bad, it is just what we make of it, there must be a way to reframe the experiences which give us cold sweats in the middle of the night and make us hope for a large black hole to swallow us up. Anthony Robbins talks of viewing an experience as though on a tv screen and shrinking it down, enlarging it, changing the memory. Emotional Freedom Technique talks of running through the experience and changing it so that it no longer has the emotional power to control you.
In the end, guilt and shame are all tied in with what you believe about the world, and what you believe about yourself, and thus your way of handling it has to be individual too. People, as someone once said, believe what they believe whether they like it or not. It's true, and especially true of our memories of shaming or painful things. It seems ironic to me that we might have more difficulty dealing with those things we haven't done - far more than those we did, which clearly point to the victim of our action and a means of reparation.
In the case of unwarranted internet shamings, where people have said ironic or sarcastic things and the irony has been lost in the translation, the ability to repair the damage is an ephemeral thing too... for although the twitter stream moves on, it entombs the things we have stupidly said, and they may take on a life of their own in a way that a scribbled note, letter, casual remark in the pub, never would have done.
It's a good programme, thought-provoking, intelligent and interesting. Listen!