I previously wrote, decrying the modern tendency for personal development gurus and psychologists to deplore the emotion of shame. Shame stands alone, among all the emotions, as being known as the ‘wrong’ emotion. These same professionals of emotional state, tend to honor guilt, although may make a distinction with extreme guilt. I believe the confusion around the vital emotions of shame and guilt lies in a failure to fully appreciate the internal affective state that we experience as shame and guilt.

Unable to appreciate the affective states of guilt and shame, has lead to some exerts asking about shame “What’s it for?” Previously I discussed how shame is a very important human emotion to our ‘fitting in’ to the tribe from the earliest human evolutionary period, and also for survival within the tribe that is mostly to have a psychopathic leader with sycophantic seconds who had a tendency toward swift justice towards slights against them.

Shame and guilt are not two distinct emotions. They are founded on the emotion of shame, with guilt having the added emotion of remorse. Shame is an inherent emotion activated by the early child’s observance of ‘how things are done’ by their parents and siblings. It is foundational to the child behaving as ‘fitting in’ without any other necessary education, although parental and sibling reinforcements through language and demonstration are certain enhancing of the shame feature. The shame emotion is setup as a predictive emotion. It has an activation through future thought and imagination. Shame is like a tonus running everyone’s life. Building on early objects of shame, for example nakedness or talking loudly and freely, other complex objects eg sex outside of marriage, doing well academically at school, might be raised in family or social education. Indeed, in our complex society, there appears to be competing shaming among children, youth and adults, in the organisation of economic and social sub-tribes or cultures. Ridicule is the main form of complex shaming designed to elicit a ‘fitting in”. Low level ridicule is a constant and obvious tone from the mainstream of society. For those who don’t ‘fit in’, the shame elicits an avoidance reaction leading to the person finding another ‘tribe’. The ‘right tribe’ is the one that utilizes a ridiculing of characteristics that don’t apply to the person enrolled into that tribe, but may apply to the mainstream social group.

Some objects of shame can apply across all social groups eg not murdering others, not stealing from others. Not all objects of common shame are felt equally. For example, people have greater or lesser shame responses to being naked in public or on stage. At one end of the human shame spectrum are people who are burdened by deep bouts of shame that incapacitates them. At the other end of the spectrum, are people who have little shame around a certain behaviours. Psychopaths are people who are genetically predisposed to a lack of empathy, manipulation of others to their personal ends, a lack of shame and guilt. Psychopaths have a capacity to act, quite literally, shameless. Intelligent psychopaths are found in control roles in, probably, all public and private sector insitutions and businesses, large and small. However it would be inadequate to blame shameless behavior on psychopathy and most acts of: bullying, damaging, over use of reward stimulation, and a falling away of responsibility for the social group, is performed by very ordinary people as part of the natural ridiculing tendencies. Some shameless behavior is quite harmless and may even have a contributive role in society eg in artistic expression,as a mechanism for looking at the implications of specific taboos. Social and cultural taboos are noted for their induction of shame upon trespasses.

Guilt is a subset of shame that occurs on the trespassing on the object of shame. Guilt is an emotion that rises from a past event as a combination of shame and remorse. The shame comes from the ‘knowing’ that the trespass has been committed. In a sense, shame is felt by moving the memory of the past event into the present or future. If the shame registers without remorse, then it cannot be said that guilt has been elicited. Sometime remorse is elicited as an internal state, and sometimes only with the disclosure to others of the trespass.

Guilt as an emotion should not be confused with legal guilt. Legal guilt defines an objective state of trespass. The ‘guilty’ party may or may not feel guilty or may experience any of the combinations of feel shame or not feel shame, with feel remorse or not feel remorse.

Shame is a valuable social tool, for assisting people to fit in our complex society in a workable manner. Like all emotions, shame works best a low to medium level, and can set up behavioural dysfunctions at medium to high levels. If there is a problem with shame, it is that our complex societies continue to add competing objects of ridicule as a point to that we should be behaving or allowing certain previously taboo behaviours to become mainstream, without that we really can evaluate which of these objects are unworkable or workable. So we might be persuaded to enter activities that conflict with more important values or just be shown to be unworkable.



“Mistakes were made (but not by me)” by Tavris and Aronson is a punchy 240 pages about a fundamental driver of our human identity: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort that occurs when we have two opposing ideas operating in our mind. For example, I think I am a good person, good people don’t yell at their neighbours, I yelled at my neighbours: so, either I am not a good person or there must be something about my neighbours that justifies a good person to yell at them. And thus also determines the way to war.

Cognitive dissonance seems to sit at the interface between our higher mind and our baser mind. The higher mind is a great space for virtuous idea and creativity. The base mind is all our instincts for survival. Both of these minds interact through our language centres and therein become our thought and our being. However, our baser mind provides hard wired outputs so that we can survive. Our higher mind requires educational sources, nurturing. So our baser mind can express in action almost quicker than we can think about what we are doing ie putting it into language eg be angry when feeling threatened. When an action from our baser mind expresses itself, we will most likely find ourselves at odds with our own higher mind. We experience a terrible discomfort, perhaps a deep guilt. This is cognitive dissonance. However, because we don’t like the feeling, we get rid of it by justifying our behaviour.

Self justification is behind good people doing even more terrible things. A man embezzles a million dollars from his company to pay his gambling debt. He starts by just a small amount which he pays back. But as he gambles, he takes more, and he can’t pay it back. Yet, he justifies, I will win big and all will be restored and I am a good person and I will give up gambling. But he never wins and eventually he is discovered. The small mistake, when justified, will lead to a greater and greater misdeed. Tavris and Aronson’s straightforward unfolding of the elements of Watergate, provide a strong lesson for all of us.

Tavris and Aronson identify several ways to deal with cognitive dissonance.

  1. Don’t be too ready to resolve it. Have sleepless nights. Turn your discomfort over and over. Where might you be self justifying, being right, making someone wrong. Where might you need to make a hard decision that is ethically the right one.
  2. If you have made a mistake, own up to it as soon as possible. If the mistake made a mess, you have to clean it up. You have to take the consequences. But the early mistake and consequences will be mild compared to an escalation of mistake and consequence through self justifying.
  3. Learn from the mistake. In fact live for the mistakes you make, the people who can alert you to them, and what you can learn. This will ensure that you become a great learner, a successful person, and avoid making very big mistakes with big consequences.
  4. I would add, encourage others for the effort they put into trying things, making mistakes, and particular, learning from them. Help others see mistakes, not to be right, but that they can try again, even if they fail again. This is accountability, this is empowerment. This is the place in which there is no failure, just (paraphrasing Edison) a million discoveries of what didn’t work so well, and, in looking at each one clearly, finding a great opening of possibility.

Remember, says Tavris and Aronson, you are a smart, capable person who made a mistake. You remain a smart, capable person. The mistake remains a mistake.

For a Treaty

My middle class status, career, wealth, comes from that my grandfather was able to get away from the early 20thC steel mills of Hull, UK and come to Australia where he could pull down a forest and take up farming. The family stories tell that indigenous people’s roamed through that land, they knew the new farmers, and then were picked up by government officers and placed on missions. My life, as it is, is the life created by divesting indigenous people of their land with no agreement or recompense. There are some who believe that they can make this work without attention. I caution against this as the view of disassociation. Perhaps under hypnosis we can cut gouges out of our body and pretend we are ‘okay’, but we will surely become debilitated with the loss of our life force that ebbs from the wounds. To me a treaty is the only healing act, an honouring in financial recompense for the resource we stole, a belated conversation in attempt to come to an agreement about who we are to each other, and what we can be for each other. “Sorry’ was the first step. However there is no true sorry without cleaning up our relationship messes to the satisfaction of those we have distressed.

in Australia we have the benefit of just having to look at a very immediate past and it’s ramifications for the people living today. We can address this immediately and completely, if we choose. Otherwise, all over the world, people are in conflict around deep ancestoral issues because we refuse to entertain the notion taught and stood for, by all the Great Educators1, that some call radical forgiveness2. Even here, though, radical forgiveness can only truly take place when every cruelty is owned and spoken.

Any harm, not resolved, causes an ongoing conflict in the body politic. That will occur many generations after anyone even knows the original harm. LOOK CAREFULLY at the human dynamics that are unleashed with every instance of harm, and you will realise that the major harm been done to the indigenous peoples of Australia, is, right now, both overtly and insidiously, eating away at the possibility for Australians to achieve their greatest potential. It is a disease like having a bacterial infection. Ignore it at peril. Our ‘body’ is ringing alarm bells every day and trying to fight the attack. But, being unsupported by the neglect of “nothing happening here’, the disease encroaches. The burden we carry both spiritually and materially because we haven’t been responsible for the damage, has slowed the whole nation down into a sloth of failure to create or produce. As soon as we waken to that our future is completely founded on our recompense for the harm and theft that we are living off, we will embrace our responsibility with enthusiasm. Not because we are doing something special, but because we will be bringing our body politic into full performance.

1. Great Educators is a broad term for the founders of the major religions who all stood for justice and forgiveness as cornerstones of healthy and progressive societies. Continue reading

Sex and Power

The social philosophy program on the ABC Radio, THE MINEFIELD, tried to discuss the socio-political effect of the sexual abusiveness of powerful men, mostly in media, but some in politics. It was almost shocking to me to hear the striking inability of the guest on that program to deal with the biological imperative of sex, seeming to relegate sex to a social construct. My own 58 years on the planet and conversations with many men and women, suggest that trying to sideline the biological imperative of sex is most of the cause of our modern challenge around sex. If we are to understand ourselves and sex, at all, we need to take on the whole picture of human being-ness and history.

We must accept the biological nature of sexual urge, as in the same category of thirst and hunger. Unlike thirst and hunger, we will not actually die from not satisfying the sexual urge. However our brain’s biology is not set up for ‘actually’. It is set up for ‘as it will’. From the point of view of biology, to achieve an action, the brain is set up for the imperative ‘as it will”. Regarding sex, the human biology is set up as that ‘we will die’ without it. ‘Actually, it is our species that will die without it. Biology doesn’t account for this distinction.

Understanding the biological imperative, we can then begin an historical exploration  with a view of our pre-homo sapien sapien behaviour. Taking non-human primate behaviour as reflecting that history, we can conclude that the early human social group was dominated by the alpha male who bullied other males to their possible death, and strictly controlled his own access to females for sex. Females also, in the main, capitulate to this social formation as access to sex and other emotional rewards.

Through these alpha males, what we could now call, psychopathic, from about 100,000 years ago, the groups journeyed across the world, establishing new groups and new territories. This journeying is continuing today, and the European colonial movement that we get caught up with in many political expositions, today, is just the recent and largest, lead expeditions. Since then, the psychopath has lost a lot of power, although to understand today’s conundrum around sex is to understand the current imposition of the psychopathic male and his ability to draw sycophants, both men and women, around him.

It is important to understand that the key transformative mechanisms that allowed human society to move from those alpha dominated groups to today’s yearning for an egalitarian society, has been the development of religious concepts and structures. Religious structures, being often built parallel to pre-existing political structures, have created access for men and women to sex and social power in new ways. Somewhat like an adolescent primate, religion has maintained only just enough ‘cheekiness’ to be allowed by the alpha, while eventually building up challenging levels of power that become alpha, and taken over by alphas (psychopaths) who wield their power across both religious and political spheres. Periodically, a new religious view would emerge to support another, more egalitarian view.  Over millenia, the play between religions and social politics and, eventually empire building, while not over-powering the psychopath (because it would take a psychopath to over power a psychopath), created a greater and greater sense of egalitarianism. Today’s complaint against sexual abusiveness must be taken in the context of that as modern yearning being built over thousands of years.

In a certain way, the broad spread complaint against sexual abusiveness (a badly kept secret the whole of my life from Marilyn Monroe’s suicide and movies being part of my childhood; noticing that adolescent males I knew who had been exploited by older gay men and many of whom died of AIDs in the 1980s; to the litany of allegations from workplaces), is part of the final movements of the world of humanity towards an equality of men and women.

Fundamental to that equality are that the mainstream of human society transforms on three fronts: being clear about sex, sexuality, and that equality means independence of men and women agreeing on monogamous sexual relationships (in otherwords, marriage); transforming economic systems by striving for independence, removing support for slavers, and other sycophantic behaviours, and ensuring equitable resource distributions; transforming political systems by supporting participatory democracy, education, and powerless attitudes in unity.

Stand for Discourse

While the great religions have been attractive to a certain type of person, mainly men, who see it as career, status, and power, the great religions have always fostered an idea bigger than that, and so we can also see that the great discourses and services to humanity have come out of religion.

The inability for many of us, religious or not, to reckon with the forces of culture – the normalisation of social behaviours that might exploit or disadvantage or even attempt to annihilate another group; and the failure to be able to provide access to everyone in the discourse, is at the heart of disenfranchisement and leaving so many people vulnerable to the ‘wolves’ of this world.

Nonetheless, there is a huge well-educated class of people who can foster discourse among ourselves in a vulnerability about our own experiences and beliefs, without fear or rancour. That is there for us to be, and when we can be that discourse among each other, then there is no one with desire for power, political or status, that will not be moved to be at least that their welfare is tied to openness and participation and equity.