Guilt: “A bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.”
Well, that is Webster’s definition of guilt. I believe most people think guilt hurts, but serves a higher purpose; even Freud said that guilt is what kept society together as it caused people to feel bad if they did something contrary to the established norms of society. However, while it may be that it does serve as a “policeman in the head” of the average person, can it be taken to pathological levels and used to control society beyond just maintaining the notion of not hurting others?
Children learn guilt early on. As a toddler a child feels mommy and daddy are perfect – what they say is basically on par with God. And as a child is weaned from its mother’s breast and introduced to other nourishment, so to speak, the child soon is introduced to society by the parents and told to follow certain rules, whether they make sense or not. And while the rules may interfere with the child’s pleasure, the parents will scold them for disobedience; and as children do not want to displease the parents they generally incorporate the norms taught and, if they later are faced with violating them, they will feel bad – thus guilt is born…and it keeps us in check.
As the child grows the society they live takes on the parental role. The child now attaches to new parental figures, their religion, their school, and later the government. And while the individual feels independent, they subconsciously carry the values they incorporate from society, and feel the same discomfort as adults, though again without most truly recognizing why, as they did as children when they felt bad for making mom or dad angry or sad when they sought to do something contrary to the rules.
Governments, political groups, and even individuals can and do manipulate guilt in order to get people to agree with what they feel is right, or merely to get the people to buy things, give up rights, and conform. In my first book, “Freedom from Conscience – Melanie’s Journey” I address this issue. The heroine, Melanie, is somewhat psychopathic and, thus, rejects norms that are imposed on her. In one instance she gets into a heated exchange with a teacher who is teaching collective guilt in regards to history. She notes that she feels no guilt for anything she had no responsibility for. So in a sense the history teacher is acting as an agent of the society that seeks to control the inner-most psychology of its citizenry, and she will have nothing to do with it. So yes, while the story is a psychological thriller, the deeper plot is to ask how far should an individual be able to do as they wish, and not be dominated by the proverbial policeman in the head.
One aspect of guilt that is often overlooked is its influence over highly empathetic people. If one feels they have to atone for a sin, real, imagined or created by some external power, they can be manipulated by the powers-that-be to commit horrific atrocities, all the while feeling completely justified. The people who create totalitarian regimes, or want to restrict freedom in general, are quite often malignant narcissists or psychopaths, but their minions who carry out the dirty work are likely to be empathetic people wishing to bring goodness to society. Ironically, such people can go to extremes to punish the people they feel have gone astray.
People should not hurt others and that is the foundational principle of any viable society. However, the individual should ask if what society says they must do, what they must believe, is really worthy of incorporation into their moral and ethical framework. There is no reason to beat one’s self up over violation of norms that are there only to get people to fall in line. As Benjamin Franklin once urged we must always, “Question authority.”
Editor’s note: If you are into science fiction that challenges one to think about deep psychological and philosophical issues then check out my latest work, “The Destiny of Our Past” at Amazon. Link: https://www.amazon.com/Destiny-Our-Past-Michael-Cross-ebook/dp/B01MY4WASN