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shame and virtue

I am a very casual fan of American Survivor. I don’t watch every season, but I’ve seen a few, and it’s a hoot. One of the more notorious seasons of recent years was Survivor: Game Changers, mostly for a by turns gross and heartening tribal council where Jeff Varner attempted to discredit fellow contestant Zeke by outing him as trans. I say heartening, because he was immediately and universally condemned by his fellow contestants in a way that was clearly sincere. It’s difficult to understand what Varner believed would happen – it seems he thought the others would view Zeke’s decision to keep this private as a form of deceit. But he had completely misjudged it, and the visceral shock and horror they expressed clearly caught him by surprise.

In some ways though, the worst was yet to come. When I saw the tribal council that started it all, I was one of the few people I knew who thought it was fundamentally great. As gross as the scenario was, I was deeply gladdened to see everyone react with some variation of “uh what sorry why are you doing this??????” I was struck by how immediately and viscerally the entire cast reacted against Varner, how they supported Zeke, and how Zeke salvaged what could have been an extremely negative experience and turned it into something powerful. Survivor is full of counterfeit emotional displays, but across the board the reaction was of genuine horror and confusion, followed by affection and empowerment. But at the season finale, broadcast live several months after the incident took place, Varner used the platform to elbow in a shout-out for his own book, Surviving Shame. A book about how he coped with the criticism he faced in the aftermath. Seeing him mischievously peddle a cruel and calculated betrayal as his personal, in-stores-now tragi-redemptive story, I felt deeply, deeply cold.

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I have been through a few forms of therapy, and they were mostly helpful. But with a single exception, there was a strange core of what I can only describe as selfishness to them. Whether it was intended to serve a need that was conceived as unattended, or deliberately designed to harness selfish engagement, I cannot say. Either way, this coddling of the self strikes me as a generalisation from models of genuine abuse, but applied to personal conflict in general (in fact, I would go so far as to hazard that it sometimes results in the placation and reinforcement of abusers). There is a tendency to talk about regret and remorse as unproductive obstacles. This is usually phrased as something like “what is that feeling doing for you?” The obvious implication of this question is that by itself, one’s guilt is not directly doing anything for anyone else – how could it?

And yet, guilt, remorse, and shame can be powerful motivators for initiating reformative and restorative actions. They are in my view a necessary starting-point for making amends. Of course they can be poorly directed and self-destructive; they can also be harnessed and manipulated by The Powers That Be (consider the instrumental role of guilt and shame in societies dominated by religious orders). This is definitely a real problem and represents one extremity of the ethical-emotive spectrum. It has justifiably been talked about a great deal, and modern therapies correctly don’t seek to make people feel terrible for being different, or having done bad things, for the retributive sake of it. It’s good that we have (mostly…) moved away from punitive judgement as a form of treatment. But I have begun to wonder if we have ended up at another extreme, with a mirror set of problems and risks.

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One of my core convictions, one of the things I believe the most deeply and sincerely, is that “we are the things we do, and the words we say” (quote: me). I hold this in a kind of caveated-contrast to phrases like “no regrets” and “what’s passed is past”. I think part of virtue is acknowledging vice, and that what distinguishes the righteous from the self-righteous is admitting wrong and making amends. Nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes, and so a virtuous life will inevitably involve owning up to those mistakes and making things right.

And this is where I start to worry about the shift toward therapy and treatment that focuses on the client’s feelings, needs, and wants. Because a lot of people on the proverbial couch are there precisely because they have been focused on their own feelings, needs, and wants, at the expense of other people in their lives. Full disclosure: I DEFINITELY did this, and coped through justification-gymnastics and LOTS of compartmentalisation. But I never really believed any of it; I could only fuel my addictions in spite of my better judgement by spinning these excuses to myself and then IMMEDIATELY putting them in a box waaaayyyy over there where I couldn’t see them. I also came into therapy having spent a lot of time thinking about fairly stringent consequentialist and virtue-oriented accounts of ethics. So when I encountered some of the more ‘indulgent’ responses from therapists, I had a sort of base resistance to letting myself off the hook. Sometimes they were right, and I was wallowing in non-productive guilt. But other times I was correct to push back – I could not just say “no regrets” and “accept” the past and move forward. There were actionable ways of making things right and I owed it to others, not just myself, to engage with them.

I am not trying to present myself as an especially ‘moral’ person. I am in fact a cosmic fuck-up. I’m just lucky enough that outside of my addictions I’ve been reasonably-well habituated, I’m not especially self-confident, and that I ended up studying ethics before I landed in therapy. Maybe it was chance, maybe it was somewhere in the wiring, but whatever the cause I sure as hell had very little to do with it. But what would happen if someone more self-assertive, less self-critical, more narcissistic came into therapy? What if these are all traits that the wider cultural environment encourages anyway, such that most people are predisposed to view things in highly individualistic terms? What if those traits are, downstream of said cultural context, the main reason they ended up in therapy to begin with?

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In the developed world, people’s socio-economic lives and relations revolve almost entirely around self-fulfilment and the creation and satisfaction of artificial needs. Probably the most popular pastime or form of ‘entertainment’ on the planet today is social media, in which consumers are offered free use of platforms which are, by design, addictive and hyper-individualist. Their expressions of individualism are then by turns sold (think celebrities/influencers) and harvested (think typical users offering up data) in pursuit of advertising revenue, which of course comes from companies trying to aggressively and specifically target said consumers in order to create and fulfil consumerist desires.

As I’ve said before:

To be absolutely clear, this isn’t about judging people and how they spend their time on the internet. That would be horseshit. Rather, it’s about stepping back from a world where the public sphere has been gobbled up by global megacorps whose bottom line depends on stimulating certain kinds of discourse and behaviour within that sphere.

The point is that these platforms are rat parks, and that the full current of social expectation and normalcy flows through them. Bucking this stuff means swimming upstream or getting out of the river, and a lot of people do not have the bandwidth, resources, and indeed privilege, of being able to do that. And hell, it’s not as if while they’re doing this they’re on some ethical-egoist hedonic pleasure cruise. It’s making people feel shit. What’s more, as if you didn’t have enough real problems to worry about, hyper-individualism makes people feel bad about completely absurd stuff: their weight, their appearance, their achievements, whether they are ‘interesting enough’ (as a comparison, note how beauty magazines apparently make people feel ugly – marketed individualism is the commonality between these two platforms). These are not real problems, though their affects are terrifyingly so. They are socially constructed, perverse consequences of industries creating needs they claim their products can satisfy. They bore a hole in you and then sell you shit to fill it with. Why is social media so void of any authentic sense of community? Could it be because real communities are about shared identity and expression, not our individuality? And, you know, buying shit in isolation and spending all our time pressing buttons on an advertising platform? Search your feelings, you know it to be true!

So what does any of this have to do with virtue, shame, and therapy? Well, given the above, and assuming this is why a lot of clients end up on the couch, is focusing solely on their wants and needs really going to help them? I’m not so sure. But if you think about them as customers rather than clients, and how you could satisfy or even create an individual need… I think you see where I’m going with this.

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What follows is entirely speculative, possibly wrong-headed, and almost certainly inaccurate or incomplete (whatever else you think about this piece, you surely have to admire the totality of this disclaimer). But I have a vague sense that an entire field (industry?) has developed around allowing people to ‘move on’ from past experiences, where ‘moving on’ often means returning to profitable functionality in contemporary individualistic consumer-capitalist society. Let me be clear: the role of therapy and health professionals more generally is and should be to help people cope with and seek fulfilment within the world as it exists. I do not blame organisations for taking this approach if it is associated with independently good outcomes. But I have this nagging, unsettling feeling that the result is that the dominant socio-economic model has begun to seep into our therapies. The tail is wagging the dog; the disease is describing the cure.

The result is a kind of egoistic feedback loop. These dominant socio-economic forces want us to identify and behave and consume as individuals. Because we’re social mammals, this fucks us up, and so we end up feeling terrible and going to therapy, where once again the focus is all about satisfying our individual wants and needs. And because most therapy is for-profit, it is exposed to the same perverse incentive to create needs and then satisfy them for a rolling buck. So you go to therapy because you’re a selfish, self-obsessed asshole, you emerge with a whole new language and schema for justifying and projecting your self-obsession, then come back every week and ‘share’ how your friends and family just don’t seem to get it.

I have seen this in several people. They might come out of counselling or therapy a bit better at managing their anger or being less stressed etc etc. But they are still completely self-absorbed, only now their self-absorption is practically religious. Everything becomes about how they feel, their perspective, their experience. These terms have their place, but their value is being debased by people using them as a cloak for selfishness, behind which they can engage in what should be shameful (!!!) behaviour without being challenged. And they are learning this terminology from their counsellors and therapists, and then using it to proselytise their own selfish needs and desires.

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Obviously there are good counsellors and therapists doing good work out there. I say that from personal experience, although it’s interesting that the best counsellor I ever had was a professional working in a free service. Whether that was a factor I don’t know, but I do know that she was willing to challenge me in inconvenient ways. She was willing to accept and work with my resistance to framing things in terms of my own wants and needs, whilst also insisting that I did have wants and needs and that they would need to be part of the equation. She didn’t truck any destructive self-flagellation (which I am prone to, and which if you think about it is actually a form of selfishness), but she accepted that I wasn’t willing to treat myself in isolation. I should say as well that at this point I was already wary of therapeutic narcissism, so I was on guard for that right off the bat.

Most importantly, she thought that the solution to some of my problems would involve taking steps that were difficult for me. In particular, that I would need to tell people things that weren’t about expressing my own wants or needs, but about making amends or expressing love and appreciation that I had kept hidden. Maybe I wasn’t ready for that straight away, but I would ultimately need to face them. Over a year later and I have done some of these things, but not all of them, because – well – they are hard.

There are no two ways about it: this was moral guidance. It wasn’t just about taking failures and failings and dressing them up as another triumphant scene in my own personal narrative, or dumping my emotional baggage on someone else because “it’s what I need”. I felt bad about these things because they were wrong, and that was appropriate and correct. Doing the right thing might make me feel better, but that wasn’t why I should do it. I should do it because it was the right thing to do. I should stress that my counsellor mostly listened, subtly drew this out of me, and let me come to my own conclusions. And perhaps this was just a clever way of satisfying my needs and wants via a framework I would more readily swallow. But I don’t think so, because other people were always equivalent in the conversation, rather than just existing in relation to me. It was always implicit that at some level I had obligations toward them, and that a large part of my self-loathing was to do with not living up to those obligations. That was part of the programme, and I think that’s how it should be.

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To me, shame is not some vestigial emotional response that we should excise like a burst appendix. When we do bad things, things that are morally wrong, it is good and appropriate that we feel ashamed of ourselves. The virtuous and just response to shame or guilt is to make amends and attempt to live better lives from there on out. It’s true that there is nothing virtuous about wallowing in our shame, but we can’t just shrug it off either. I consider that self-deception, and whilst it might get you out of your funk and back to being a thriving consumer-citizen, it does so by taking a shortcut around making amends. And once you start taking that shortcut, it becomes easier and easier to keep doing it. What happens when more and more people start taking that shortcut? What will the world look like then? Do we already know?

I treasure my capacity for shame. It is my own proof that I hold myself accountable to others, independent of self-interested calculation. It is personal evidence that I am a moral being. Shame is not a virtue, but it is an appropriate response to our own moral failings provided we resolve it through virtuous action. If we simply ‘feel it’ and then move on, like a storm to be weathered or ‘survived’, then what we are cultivating is shamelessness. And that is a vice.

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