There’s a long history of using guilt and shaming — I mean going as far back as we have a human written record. People and institutions soon became experts at spreading guilt among those they felt needed their control.
It’s been quite an effective tool to get people to do what the powerful want — maybe even as effective as fear. And when the two work together, as they most often do, their power is enormous. LGBTQ+ people know how both have been used against them.
What makes it so easy is that people can be made to feel guilty in very passive-aggressive ways.
Think of those old bumper stickers that bragged: “I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS.” The implication for those following that car was: “What’s wrong with you that you hate animals and don’t have my moral righteousness to display the same bumper sticker?”
Or take that fish symbol brandied about on the back of vehicles testifying: “I’m a real Christian.” Ironically, its origin was as a secret insider code in times of Roman persecution. It disguised that a location was a place where Christians met, only letting insiders know.
Whether wielded passively or self-righteously, guilt is seldom purely a moral idea. It’s mixed with the power-plays of people and institutions that wield guilt.
There’s a difference, of course, between being guilty according to someone’s standard and feeling guilty. Just think of your immediate reaction when you look into the rear view mirror and see that police cruiser behind you — no matter how lawfully you’re driving.
Of course we first think of religious institutions dominating the field of guilt. But feeling guilty, whether or not a person is really guilty of some real offense, isn’t just a well-worn tool of religions.
It’s a control mechanism that’s useful to focus the person who feels guilty on themselves rather than confronting larger issues that might call the standards themselves into question.
Think of legal systems — the guilty who have enough class or racial privilege to control, populate, buy, and otherwise affect the legal system are judged by a different standard than those who don’t.
Justice is hardly ever a blind application of “you do the crime, you do the time.” Some are declared not guilty when they are or guilty when they aren’t.
When you know the right people, have enough money, or are a potential plea-bargainer who’s got beans to spill about the powers that be, there are completely different ways to relate to guilt. And if you’re into such power, you won’t even feel guilt at all.
The previous occupant of the White House, so many in his political party today, and the good ol’ rich boys surrounding them don’t consider lies as guilt-raising but as shrewd means of doing business and getting ahead. If there’s any key to their entire life, it’s that it’s about little more than knowing, and being bailed out by, the right people.
Still, these people will use it against others because guilt is a useful tool of the elite. It keeps those they control occupied with themselves and working not to feel guilty by self-controlling.
As a tried and true way to maintain control, promoting guilt and feeling guilty work on a number of levels.
By doing so, people who promote the guilt feelings assert and maintain their positions of power over those whom they encourage to feel guilty. Guilt feelings bind people to the one they believe has the authority to free them from guilt.
Using someone’s guilt to get them to do what you want, such as protecting you from criticism of your own deeds, has become an art. It’s one of the reasons our leaders love the idea of guilt.
They use the words “personal responsibility” to invoke it. And they know that that phrase itself triggers those they want under their control.
But they never include in “responsibility” the responsibility a member of society has to the whole of the community and the least of its members.
Preachers know how successfully getting people to feel guilty brings in more souls along with those souls’ pocketbooks. And the guilt feelings keep followers dependent upon preachers for the salvation from the guilt.
Religious guilt-promoters might talk about a god saving the guilty, but those preachers are the real dealers of that message. So guilty people become as dependent on those preachers and their messages as on any drug.
Remember: people caught up in dealing with their personal guilt feelings are distracted. Preoccupation with personal guilt keeps them so focused on it that they have little energy or time to threaten the powers that be. They’re too obsessed with their guilt.
So, guilt feelings keep the powerful and prejudices in place. The system loves it. The rich and powerful thrive on the guilt of others. And the beat goes on.
Yet, guilt feelings don’t just come from outside us through religious and political leaders. We come to learn to use guilt to control our personal environments.
Our comfort with feeling guilty hardly needs leaders to trigger it. We’ve often so internalized our guiltiness that most of us actually embrace feeling guilty in order not to face the fact that life and the actions of others are really out of our control.
Trying to control everything, after all, is a protective mechanism we learned as children. Back then we couldn’t control the adults around us. And those adults could at times be responsible for quite negative responses to us. So we wisely saw that we’d better learn how never to let things get out of control.
Today, if we can just feel that we’re in control of the environment around us, we believe it’s less likely to hurt us. And much of the time we can pull this off.
But illness and accidents happen. And instead of embracing the fact that we’re not in control of the universe, instead of learning to welcome surprise and growing in the process they provide for our lives, we’d rather dwell on “what we could have done.”
Our guilt over what we coulda, woulda, shoulda done to prevent a death, an accident, an illness, or a negative response from others is easier to embrace than admitting that we’re not able to control most of these events or many people. Our guilt somehow comforts us.
An illusion of control is a recognized mark of addictive thinking. The desire to control an addict is a mark of those who enable the addiction to thrive.
A fear that the world is full of chance and serendipity drives people to religions and systems that comfort people that there really is some Controller, no matter how accidental things look.
So guilt, a seemingly noble expression of justice, is a useful control mechanism for those protecting their power and prejudice. And even for the less powerful, dwelling on one’s own guilt helps us feel that we’re in control of what we probably are not.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.