I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of. And, like anyone else, I want people to understand why I did those things. Because I want people to understand that I’m not psychotic or cruel, I just make bad decisions sometimes.
And there’s nothing wrong with providing context for our bad decisions and our bad behaviour. The problem is when that context becomes excuse, which prevents us from feeling the shame that is our due.
The first problem with this is that sometimes we do such a good job of explaining our actions, that we end up justifying them to the point that we feel justified persisting in our bad behaviour. It feels a bit like a cycle: I know that I’m treating this person badly and it’s inappropriate, but I only did those things because they treated me badly first, and they never apologized for the way they treated me, and they owe me an apology, so I’m going to keep treating them badly so that they won’t get away with having treated me so badly.
The second problem is that after having behaved badly for a while, our character becomes increasingly defined by that bad behaviour. And to admit that the behaviour is bad feels increasingly like admitting that we are bad. So we become increasingly invested in our bad behaviour. What had been behaviour that was justified becomes behaviour that is excusable and, eventually, behaviour that is avant guard or daring or radically honest or some other bullshit. Doling out our own cheap form of vigilante justice, we can make ourselves the heroes instead of admitting that we might be the villains.
One of the major impetuses for this phenomenon is that there is very little social capital in apologizing. Just because you apologize doesn’t mean you get to keep your job and it doesn’t mean that people will forgive you and it doesn’t mean that you are redeemed. By contrast, there appears to be far more social capital in Offering No Apologies. It offers the chance to become a folk hero to some part of the population who want to excuse some comparable behaviour.
But what does a society of people who feel no shame look like? What are our prospects for personal and societal advancement when we lose the ability to distinguish not only right from wrong but better from worse? What is to come of us if we valorize our worst impulses?
Posted in: Progress