Guilt is a strange phenomenon, undoubtedly necessary for civilization, but strange in our age of self-professed enlightenment. I encounter so many people who feel it necessary to inform others of what they should feel guilty for. It’s not enough to acknowledge what they’re saying and change your behavior accordingly—no, you have to feel bad. More than that, they have to witness you feeling bad. Don’t try and rob these people of their schadenfreude—they’ll just get more irate.
The ostensible reason is that your pain is the only indication of internalizing your ignorance and therefore making “amends”. This is wholly false, however. One does not need to feel guilty about their behavior in order to change it. Guilt is actually a hinderance to lasting behavioral change, despite our insistence that it’s necessary. No one’s going come out and say that, but just look at our approach to behavioral reform. It’s all based in punishment and puritanical-style public shaming (Scarlet letter anyone?).
I think the real reason that the projection of guilt is so pervasive—both on an institutional level as well as an individual one—is that it gives those projecting it a sense of power and perverse justice. You “make” me feel bad, therefore I’m within my rights to “make” you feel bad (to whatever degree I feel is appropriate). We are all Hammurabi’s running around enacting our highly own highly individualized punitive code. We can’t make any assumptions about anyone’s else’s sense of justice either. Dig too deep into the why’s of someone’s penal code and you quickly fall off a cliff of highly contextualized personal trauma.
Our time, this exciting, incredible age of connectivity and DIY ethos has an underlying vein of helplessness. We secretly feel powerless and untethered. We’re without a master to make sense of it—no proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. Yes, this is an amazing time, but it’s equally disorienting. We’ve lost some standard baseline of guilt and it’s a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the guy standing behind you at Starbucks.