two types of guilt

yesterday i started presenting joyce trebilcot’s dyke ideas, where she talks, among other things, about guilt. the topic yesterday was identity guilt, the type of guilt we can feel for who we are. trebilcot contrasts this with “official guilt”:

what i call official or polite guilt stems from some particular violation of laws or rules (not from who one is) and belongs to legal and moral systems that provide for its elimination: one is (found) guilty, takes one’s punishment, and that’s the end of it – the guilt, which is mainly a matter of being guilty rather than feeling guilty – is designed to be temporary. also, the specific punishment is prescribed and administered primarily by official representatives of the system, not by the guilty themselves.

shame has no role in this sort of guilt, for an officially guilty person is expected to stand up “like a man”, not to cover himself and hide … unlike identity guilt, it is a fit subject of dinner-party conversation in the homes of the powerful.

official guilt differs from identity guilt most strikingly with respect to the role of retribution. an analogy with market places is relevant here. in a market, a monetary price is paid in exchange for some commodity. in guilt, punishment is the price paid in exchange for the elimination of guilt. in official guilt, as in the market, the price, once agreed upon, is specific and finite.

but in identity guilt, the punishment is not like a market price but like endless extortion. because identity guilt is primarily a matter of who one is (or who one is supposed to be), no payment short of death can ever be enough to end it; strictly speaking, no payment is possible, yet we who suffer such guilt flagellate ourselves endlessly in futile attempts to pay off our debt and/or to transform ourselves into something more acceptable.

it is as though we imagine that we are in a rational system where we can be tried and convicted and sentenced and then work off our debt to society – but we’ve been tricked, we’re not in that sort of system at all.

in polite guilt, peers are reunited with peers after a period of estrangement; in the guilt of oppression, those who impose the guilt and those who suffer it are not and never can be peers.

okay, let’s recap

official guilt

  • being guilty rather than feeling guilty
  • one is (found) guilty, takes one’s punishment, and that’s the end of it
  • specific punishment is prescribed and administered primarily by official representatives, not by the guilty themselves.
  • the price, once agreed upon, is specific and finite.
  • temporary
  • shame has no role in this sort of guilt

identity guilt

  • a matter of who one is (or who one is supposed to be)
  • the punishment is like endless extortion
  • no payment can ever be enough; maybe no payment is possible
  • we torture ourselves endlessly in futile attempts to pay off our debt and/or to transform ourselves into something more acceptable
  • we imagine that we are in a rational system where we can be tried, convicted and sentenced and then work off our debt to society but we’re not in that sort of system at all
  • those who impose the guilt and those who suffer it are not and never can be peers.

as i’m contemplating this, the most crucial sentence seems to be “we imagine that we are in a rational system where we can be tried … and then work off our debt … but we’re not in that system.”

what do you make of this so far?

6 thoughts on “two types of guilt

  1. Hayley

    So if one has identity guilt is there anything that can be done to rid oneself of it? For example, my son has a lot of psychological and academic problems that I believe I caused. This may or may not be true, but I can’t help believing that I am to blame. I can never change what I have done and he will be living with these issues for the rest of his life. And now I am living with guilt. I have developed coping mechanisms to deal with this on a day to day basis, but is there any way to ever banish the guilt? I can’t imagine there would be.

  2. isabella mori

    hello hayley, and welcome to this blog.

    let me just say that i know people who have banished guilt of that sort.

    i will talk about that in my next post.

  3. marja bergen

    In the Christian tradition I follow, Christ paid for the things we did wrong, and we are forgiven. Knowing that God forgives, we should be able to forgive ourselves, though that is still easier said than done. We can find peace is that.

    I found the last statement an interesting one:
    ” those who impose the guilt and those who suffer it are not and never can be peers.” That’s a horrid thing, isn’t it?

    marja bergen’s last blog post..Life’s flow

  4. isabella mori

    hello marja, great to see you here!

    yes, most spiritual traditions have ways of helping with that, it’s really important to remember that.

    i love the passages in the bible where jesus says “go and sin no more.” it is an invitation to free ourselves from the guilt, to go and start anew.

    this freedom is available to everyone, i believe, also people who are not christians – but it is true – such a strong message of forgiveness is, as far as i know, not found outside of the christian tradition.

    the last statement about the inability of the “guilter” and “guiltee” meeting as peers really puzzles me. i haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet. my gut reaction is that i don’t agree. but i found it thought-provoking so i thought i’d throw it in the mix …

  5. D

    The statement, ‘those who impose the guilt and those who suffer it are not and never can be peers’ is quite interesting. As related to “identity guilt,” it is my understanding that judge and victim are one. In that sense, they are peers–one can not exist without the other.

  6. isabella mori

    thanks for your comment, D.

    i would probably agree more with you than with trebilcot. first, you point out the obvious. also, in restorative justice for example, the aim is precisely that – to remind everyone that they ARE equal, and therefore peers.

    i should try and dig out that book and look at the context in which she was saying that. however, i suspect that her stance on this has something to do with her feminist background. in most feminist approaches, it’s important to make a very clear distinction between female and male, oppressor and oppressed, etc.

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