The Western Guilt Complex

April 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v6-4-My VoiceA majority of today’s world is not pragmatic, it is emotional. A majority of societies are still based and controlled by shame, not guilt. Japanese society, Muslim societies, and developing Latin countries including Honduras, decided that shame, or getting caught doing something socially unacceptable, outweigh individual’s feelings of guilt. What is lawful is more important than what is ethical, or moral. As long as you don’t get caught, it’s OK.

Shame is triggered when someone finds out about you, or the people associated with you, breaking public norms and accepted standards. Guilt, however, is a much more sophisticated and retrospective thought. Guilt produces a sense of discomfort and responsibility in a person who believes they’ve done something wrong, whether legal or not, whether anyone else knows about it or not.

Shame is a much more primitive, basic feeling compared to guilt. I can shame my dog into not eating garbage. But I have no illusion that he will ever develop a sense of guilt which will prevent him from eating garbage when I don’t know about it.

Some societies suffer from “the guilt complex” to a greater degree: French, English and German lead the way. While the French are still dealing with their responsibility in Algeria, Algerians I’ve met have no qualms about confiscating French properties, or kicking out and massacring any French wanting to stay in Algeria after independence. The same thing goes for the Italians kicked out from Libya in 1973. While Palestinian occupation is an everyday headline, no one raises an issue of compensation for about one million Jewish properties confiscated and lost when Jews were kicked out of Muslim countries in 1948. If you haven’t heard about these injustices, it is because the victims have accepted the results without raising a fuss.

I do feel that there are genuine and good acts of contrition. Over the last 18 months alone Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has delivered an apology to Aborigines for past assimilation policies, the Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he feels “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade, and the Polish president has apologized to the 15,000 Jews expelled in 1968.

Pope Benedict XVI apologized for offending Islam in quoting a Byzantine emperor Manuel II: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Yet no one discusses if the Manuel II was right–if Islam is a religious belief based on fear. The discussion is focused on whether Islam was offended and what can be done to not offend it in the future. Every time Islam is mentioned, someone self-flaggingly and with guilt admits: “Christianity has done no better.”

When Gillian Gibbons, an English teacher in Sudan, apologized for offending Islam by naming a class teddy bear Muhammad, the only discussion in the Western media was whether she should have named the teddy bear and did she knowingly offended Islam.

“No good deed will go unpunished,” and as western Europeans try to repay debts to slaves, they fail at making others accountable for their share in the burden of responsibility. Don’t expect apologies from Muslims for occupying the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years, for taking Constantinople, or for occupying the Balkans for 500 years. Many societies are unwilling and unable and not expected to exalt expressions of contrition. Americans are more hesitant to apologize, or feel guilt. Don’t expect any time soon any US congress or president apologizing for slavery, dropping napalm in Vietnam or using depleted uranium in Iraq. Arabs won’t apologize for slave trade, Muslims for destroying the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Chechens for slaughtering children of the Beslan School, Middle Easterners for honor killings.

Western guilt which has dictated political and military responses is directed towards religious and racial minorities who are perceived as weak, disadvantaged and unable to defend themselves. However, many of these groups are doing quite well in defending and imposing their own interest on the west. They don’t hesitate to take advantage of the feelings of responsibility in the western mind. In Jordan I talked to an Arab Muslim man who mentioned that “Western Guilt” concept with a smile. “I know you have it,” he said.

Well, I am a bit different. I was born in Easter Europe and don’t feel this “Western guilt” as much. Eastern Europeans, for the most part, have not developed sophisticated mechanisms of rationalizing and internalizing the injustices they’ve committed, but instead have focused on the suffering and wrongs done to them. They are still caught in issues mostly dealing with shame, not guilt. The self flagellation of Western societies is not accepted by their eastern neighbors.

Political correctness has brought a shift in Western self-perception and understanding. The Crusades is a great example of a shift in western thinking over time. While the Crusades was a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reopen pilgrimage access to the Holy Land and help an oppressed Christian majority living there (Christians were still a majority in the middle East of the XI century), today many westerners perceive the Crusades as an unholy, greedy land grab.

Guilt and shame are important, valuable feelings that control the actions of individuals as well as entire societies. These feelings are there to keep feelings of anger, revenge and apathy from exploding into destructive violence. What is sometimes ignored is that guilt and shame, if used in excess, can be counterproductive, even self destructive. [/private]

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