Ask Dr. Salvo
August 1, 1995
Your latest offering was not bad, and it did start the cereberal wheels to roll, who knows where to. I already feel more kindly toward Oedipus and more wary toward God. I now recall more of his weird little games with people like Cain and Abel, Abraham and Issac, Job, et. al. The only conclusion I can arrive at about God's attitude to David is "contributing to the deliquency of a minor."
All those seemingly cynical tales may simply be reminding us of the problem of scale. We can't expect to understand what a minor human-scale event such as guilt signifies on the scale of the Universe. Have you ever been severely scolded by a fire ant?
Thanks for your kind letter and the suggestions for further study. I will resume this correspondence with: Brazilian Analysis Part II: Individual and Collective Guilt,
Guilt vs. Shame. Collective Guilt.
It is doubtful that many humans are capable of feeling guilt over violating some general ethical principle. Ethics are remote, bloodless, and intellectual. Philosophers may dispute them at length, or arrange them in systems, but the man in the street is mostly concerned with morals, and with the inward and outward consequences of an immoral act. Far from an abstract rule for high conduct espoused by dedicated academics -- morals are tense with sweat, and tears and semen -- sometimes blood. Morals are plain and clear -- or at least they once were, so we are told. The term comes from mores, a good latin word in its own right, and meaning: the fixed (morally) binding customs of a particular g
roup -- one should add "at a particular time and place in history." Secondary and tertiary meanings are "moral attitudes, or habits, manners." That about says it; nothing deep there to provoke much pondering. It was the realization by anthropologists and philosophers of the time- and place-bound essence of mores that led to a movement of moral relativism that is still going on today. This is not necessarily a bad thing, considering the likelihood that one day we will all live in the United Nations of the Earth!
Ethics - The small-dictionary definition of ethics cannot dispense with the word moral:
"1) The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
2) a set of moral principles
3) a theory or system of moral values."
Note that morals offer no system, theory, or descipline. They are simply house rules: If you speak to your mother-in-law without joking, you will be shunned for one month. And until recently in some parts of the world, a true man must have collected at least one head from the enemy by a certain age. Failing that he is a moral deviate. Consider youth gangs today, and the similarities.
Within a mere lifetime one can see these rules changing, first in a liberalizing then in a constraining direction. For instance, the practice once so scandalously recommended by Judge Lindsay in the 1920's as "trial marriage," vulgarly known in my youth as "shacking up," became quite ordinary during the past several decades. Now I read, and hear from patients that premarital or extramarital sexual behavior is losing its popularity, that girls and some boys are beginning to prize virginity before marriage. It would seem that during the years of free sex, both sexes grew to resent the strictures against saying "no." Just as they'd resented those against saying "yes." No doubt the Pill, genital herpes, hard to treat V.D. and finally, AIDS, all helped to take the fun out of sexual freedom.
What about "public morals," or the folkways of those in the corridors of power and high finance? In this country, for example ever since the Nixon administration, it has appeared to become more respectable for public servants to be indicted, convicted, and marched off to the more comfortable white-collar prisons. This trend was once again in bold evidence in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Far from suffering guilt (or shame) over their transgression against fellow citizens and their breaches of public trust, many of these luminaries quickly sit down and write books, give lectures at high fees, and sell film rights to their story sometimes before entering the prison gates, or rather lobbies in Montgomery and similar spas.
The tendency to become scandalous in Washington has not shown itself exclusively during Republican administration. It is just that there have been so many of them. Lest one fall into the error of excessive lamentation over this apparent falling off of standards, the history books should be consulted. Graft, corruption, bribery, and all forms of chicanery were even worse a hundred years ago, we are told. In the "Gilded Age" most of the Senate was owned by a handful of wealthy financiers and manufacturers, and no one minded very much: "We have the best Congress money can buy," they boasted. So long as office can be bought by campaign contributions there will be candidates who succumb and are bought and sold thereafter.
On the other side of the picture, sometimes collective nationwide guilt in the hearts of citizens forces the politicians to change their ways for a time at least. The anti-Vietnam war movement comes to mind. Enough young citizens were moved by guilt to move this country out of Vietnam. To do so they had to contend with the bellicosity and jingoism of the military industrial complex, and the several administrations. These parties were so ashamed of our military failures, they felt obliged to persist in a hopeless course, or to shoot sitting ducks like Panama, Grenada, and Nicaragua. Desert Storm was meant to provide macho points for the President. This was curious, since Iran -- not Iraq -- was the state that humiliated the US in the hostage episode.
By contrast, many respectable German citizens, along with other Europeans, the British, and some Americans -- all failed to feel exercised about what was happening to the Jews until it was too late, back in the '30's and '40's. Many Germans still deny collective guilt for the Holocaust.
Similarly, the whole civilized world stood silently by while King Leopold of Belgium, through the agents of his personally owned corporation, slaughtered about 15,000,000 Congolese. The reason? Cutting off of hands, and/or heads was the Company's method of encouraging higher production of rubber and ivory. Also, one could count hands for a body count. After about a generation of carnage, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness made it impossible for the whole world to continue denying its collective guilt over the crimes of Leopold, and his company was liquidated. He, of course, died old, rich, honored, and respected.
To my knowledge the near successful genocide of the Armenians by the Turks has never been given the attention it deserved, except in a few callous jokes. That was between World Wars.
It would appear that the human capacity to feel guilt over wrongdoing is a very late and fragile achievement, requiring a level of civilization we are far from attaining. Or, being fixated at the level of tribalism, we are moral, honest, and compassionate toward some: Our tribal members.
When Mark Twain wrote letters and essays over the atrocities perpetrated by our troops in the Phillipines, he did not awaken a wave of sympathy or contrition. Many good Americans regarded him as a traitor to his country. Yet, at least one of the episodes he recorded makes My Lai look like a prank carried out by wayward boys. This was the carefully planned and executed massacre of a whole village full of people who had been trapped in a mountain crater. The proud perpetrator received a medal of honor.
Only recently has the literate and reading American begun to realize and feel guilty about the sorry record of our dealings with the American Indian. Treachery, deceit, larceny, fraud, and a long train of broken promises by great Americans in positions of public trust was the order of the day for generations. And still is. Is this because history is written by the winners? It is warming to realize that the losers will eventually have their say, and show us how our mock heroics appeared to them. Quite recently we've begun to read about what we did to our Japanese citizens in WW II -- only 40 years late. And, we have many congressmen still objecting to and obstructing the legal reparation payments.
All these instances of collective brutality, injustice, and generally antisocial behavior on the part of nations lead into a rarely mentioned and little studied question: What is the connection between the grande folie of nations and rulers versus the petite folie of the private citizen? Dr. Salvo has reflected upon this riddle for years and will return to it in future columns, not to answer it but at least to reflect upon it.
But before leaving the subject now, a few reflections on the current scene. Americans are beginning to say "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist." And also, "Is a bombing raid that kills women and children and other innocent civilians any less terroristic than the suicidal act of a car bomber who explodes his bomb himself, and several hundred nearby soldiers and civilians?" To his supporters, or even his nation, he is a hero. Do we feel our bombardiers are heroes? (Yes, till Vietnam.)
It is right on this very keen edge that private and public madness meet -- grande and petite folie -- and merge. When that merger is a happy one, as in war time, the tyrants and militarists wax fat and happy. Most of them (Nuremberg trials aside) are never charged, much less caught and punished. Still it is of some comfort to reflect that the Universe is in its early stages of evolution -- only 15 billion years or so, and that humankind has an even briefer tenure -- say 3-4 million years. Our age old hunger for transcendence, mostly assuaged with war and intoxicants and a rare tincture of truly spiritual religion, is now spreading into the solar system and beyond. Swiftly as the outer skin of the Universe expands and flies from us, we now dare to imagine we will reach it and return to tell about it!
So, our past is bloody and sordid; and our future is entirely possible; and maybe glorious.
Soon my readers will roux the day!
-- August 1, 1995