«1 Shame and Guilt In Waiting for the Barbarians, one of Coetzee’s finest novels, forces of an unnamed imperial power torture not only ...»
Torture and Collective Shame
1 Shame and Guilt
In Waiting for the Barbarians, one of Coetzee’s finest novels, forces of an unnamed
imperial power torture not only “barbarians” captured in their colonial frontiers but also
the insubordinate mayor of the colonial outpost in which most of the story takes place.
By having the mayor as narrator, Coetzee affords himself occasions for representing and
musing on the shame, humiliation, and diminishment endured by victims of torture.
These sensitive reflections cohere well with contemporary philosophical analyses of shame as the experienced public exposure of one’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, or flaws, particularly one’s inability to control the aspects of oneself that one presents to others.
Under repeated exposure to torture, the mayor is reduced to a putrid, feeble animal that impotently writhes and howls, wholly at the mercy of others.
In Coetzee’s most recent novel, Diary of a Bad Year, torture and shame reemerge as central themes, but the focus of discussion is different. Whereas in Waiting for the Barbarians there are long passages on the evil of torture and what it does to its victims, all this is simply taken as given in Diary of a Bad Year, which instead poses the question how Americans should respond to the shame, dishonor, and defilement brought upon them by the Bush administration’s practice of torture in what it ridiculously calls the “war on terror.” The subject is no longer the shame of the victim, or even the shame of the perpetrators, but the vicarious shame, or collective shame, borne by the perpetrators’ fellow citizens.
Unlike the shame of the victim of torture, the shame of being somehow implicated in the practice of torture is closely related to moral guilt. Among the differences between shame and guilt is that shame arguably requires the presence, or at least the imagined presence, of observers. One can be ashamed of oneself, but not shamed only to or before oneself. Suppose, for example, that Robinson Crusoe carries a burden of secret guilt to an uninhabited island from which he can never escape, and that there is no possibility that anyone he has left behind will ever discover the wrongdoing of which he is guilty. In these conditions, there is nothing that could be added to his guilt, which is and must remain entirely private, to produce a distinguishable state of shame. Yet when one’s guilt is exposed to others, shame can be its public face. This is the basis of the practice of public shaming as a means of punishing the guilty – in some cultures, for example, by branding criminals, particularly on the face, or in Puritan American by locking sinners in public stocks. The thesis suggested in Diary of a Bad Year is that Americans are objectively shamed by the Bush administration’s wrongdoing in torturing its suspected enemies – that is, they are shamed before the world whether they feel shame or not – and that among their moral burdens is an imperative to cleanse themselves of the shame and dishonor entailed by their membership in a nation that tortures its enemies.
It is unclear what the book’s claims about collective shame imply or presuppose about collective guilt. The example of Robinson Crusoe suggests that there can be circumstances in which it can be rational to feel guilt when there is no occasion to experience shame. But it is possible that Americans might be shamed or dishonored by the Bush administration’s embrace of torture while being individually and collectively guiltless. Diary of a Bad Year vacillates on the relation between shame and guilt and on whether Americans are shamed because of their guilt or despite their innocence.
Although the references are mainly to shame rather than guilt, there are passages in which the two notions are treated as equivalent. It is said, for example, of those white South Africans who “will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name,” that they “might learn a trick or two from the British about managing collective guilt. The British have simply declared their independence from their imperial forebears. The Empire was long ago abolished, they say, so what is there for us to feel responsible for?” (44) This is an implied accusation of bad faith: the British still bear responsibility for the crimes of their imperial forebears (just as, as we will see shortly, contemporary Germans still bear responsibility for the crimes of their Nazi forebears), and collective responsibility for criminal action entails collective guilt. Yet if the contemporary British bear collective guilt for the crimes of the Empire, and postApartheid white South Africans can learn from them some effective techniques for evading collective guilt, the implication is that the shame the South Africans bear for crimes that they did not commit but that were committed “in their name” has its basis in their collective guilt for those crimes. And a further implication is that Americans shamed by the tortures perpetrated in their name bear collective guilt as well.
Most of the pages of Diary of a Bad Year are divided into three sections. The middle section contains a continuing narrative – the diary, perhaps – of an elderly writer.
It is concerned mainly with his relations with a younger woman who becomes the typist for a collection of short essays he is writing. The section at the bottom of the page contains a parallel narrative by the typist. Throughout most of the book, the section at the top of the page, which is usually much longer than either of the others, comprises the essays in the writer’s book, which bears the same title as the collection of Nabokov’s interviews and essays: Strong Opinions. The views about torture and shame articulated in the book are primarily in the essays, and as such are presented as the views of the writer. Are they Coetzee’s views? They echo themes in Waiting for the Barbarians and in certain of Coetzee’s other novels, particularly Disgrace. And some of the other views in the essays, such as those concerning human cruelty to animals, are ones with which Coetzee is identified. Finally, the writer is teasingly characterized in ways that suggest that he is simply Coetzee himself. He is, for example, a South African writer living in self-imposed exile in Australia whose initials are J.C. and who has written a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians and a book of essays on censorship that was published in the 1990s. It is, however, unimportant whether the views expressed in the essays within the novel are Coetzee’s own. They are the views of a great many people. They are the views, in particular, of people of a certain familiar type, people generally on the political left who are earnest, decent, and humane. But in my view the beliefs about collective shame that these morally admirable people share with Coetzee’s fictional writer are mistaken, and my aim in this short essay is to explain why. I will attribute them only to “C,” which is how the writer is referred to in the novel. Whether they are also Coetzee’s is immaterial.
I should acknowledge that I am aware that there is a vast literature on shame – or, rather, a number of vast literatures: a philosophical literature on the concept of shame and its relation to concepts of responsibility and guilt, a related philosophical literature on the role of shame in ethical life, and further extensive explorations of shame from anthropological, historical, sociological, psychological, and even literary critical perspectives. I confess that I know very little of this literature beyond what I cite in the endnotes. There is also a vast literature on collective responsibility and a sparser though significant literature on individual responsibility for collective action. I am not well acquainted with these literatures either. This essay is therefore an amateur foray into these issues, neither scholarly nor systematic. But in this respect my strong opinions are no different from those they confront. For C’s reflections are also not the arguments of a systematic theorist.
2 Collective Identity as a Basis of Collective Shame I begin with some facts. I am an American. I have never tortured anyone. I am not in any obvious way an accessory to torture: I have never conspired to engage in torture, never instigated, aided or abetted, or been in any other way an accomplice to an act of torture, never failed to prevent an act of torture that it was in my power to prevent, and so on. Yet according to C, I have a lot to answer and atone for. I bear the shame of the tortures committed by the agents of my government. Unless I do something to purify myself, I will remain forever dishonored and “appear with soiled hands before the judgment of history.” (41) I find it curious that C’s accusatory finger points toward me primarily, or even exclusively, because of my country’s practice of torture, which was done in secret without public debate, had a relatively small number of victims, and involved methods near the milder end of the spectrum of modern torture techniques. By contrast, my country’s war in Iraq was extensively debated in public, approved by Congress, and supported by a large proportion of the population, who immediately decorated their Sport Utility Vehicles with magnetic ribbons urging their brethren to “Support Our Troops,” by which they meant “Support Our War,” a war in which more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. If I am weighed down with shame for the acts of my country, I doubt that the proportion attributable to the policy of torture constitutes more than a small part of the total load.
There are, however, many who feel an especially acute sense of shame for the acts of torture committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and there are even more who say they do, for we do tend to talk this way. Just as I was beginning to formulate my ideas for this essay, I read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, written in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai late in 2008, that urged Pakistanis as a nation to say to the terrorists among them: “What you have done in murdering defenseless men, women and children has brought shame on us and on you.” So I concede that the sense of vicarious shame, and in particular collective shame, is very common. The question is whether it is rational, and if so on what grounds, and on what occasions.
C’s remarks suggest that wrongdoing is, or can be, an occasion for shame, and that if the wrongdoing is sufficiently egregious, those who are responsible for it, either as perpetrators or vicariously, are not only shamed but also dishonored. The medium through which shame is transmitted vicariously is, he suggests, membership in a collective.
Consider, for example, what he writes in the concluding paragraph of essay 10, “On National Shame,” about both pride and shame:
A few days ago I heard a performance of the Sibelius fifth symphony. As the closing bars approached, I experienced exactly the large swelling emotion that the music was written to elicit. What would it have been like, I wondered, to be a Finn in the audience at the first performance of the symphony in Helsinki nearly a century ago, and feel that swell overtake one? The answer: one would have felt proud, proud that one of us could put together such sounds, proud that out of nothing we human beings could make such stuff. Contrast with that one’s feelings of shame that we, our people, have made Guantanamo. Musical creation on the one hand, a machine for inflicting pain and humiliation on the other: the best and the worst that human beings are capable of.
When he says that a Finn would have felt proud that “one of us” had written such triumphal music, it seems that “us” must refer to Finns. But the next clause in the sentence seems to expand the reference to include among “us” all human beings. Yet in the sentence that follows, the reference is again restricted, presumably to the relevant national group: Americans. The suggestion seems to be that national pride and national shame are precisely parallel: they both make sense and they are both grounded in the collective identity shared by all members of a nation or, in these cases, a nation-state.
One might wonder whether C’s view implies that even little children are somehow implicated in the deeds of their conationals. It is, in fact, commonly accepted that they are. Most people take pride in the deeds of their ancestors. A Finn who was only a year old when Sibelius’s fifth symphony had its premier, or even a Finn who was born decades after that, might find that her pride swells with the music whenever she hears it.
C claims that the grounds for national shame, like the grounds for national pride, are transmitted across generations, as the nation itself survives through generations. He quotes, with apparent approval, Jean-Pierre Vernant’s reference to “the ancient religious conception of the misdeed as a defilement attached to an entire race and inexorably
transmitted from one generation to the next,” and then writes, later in the same essay:
“Young Germans protest, We have no blood on our hands, so why are we looked on as racists and murderers? The answer: Because you have the misfortune to be the grandchildren of your grandparents.” (49-50) According to this view, one’s unchosen and ineffaceable identity as a member of a certain nation can make one the bearer of shame for the deeds of others. Even if I can somehow cleanse myself of the shame and dishonor I carry, my grandchildren will nevertheless inherit a burden of shame for what the Bush administration and its hirelings have done.
This understanding of collective pride and collective shame is untenable, indeed grotesque. As I will suggest in Section 4, there may be some collectives that have features that distribute responsibility, and thus perhaps pride, shame, or guilt, to all their members on the basis of action by only some of the members. But if responsibility gets distributed in this way, it must be by virtue of more than the mere fact that the members all share a certain collective identity. Even putting aside the issue of transmission across generations, the implications of the idea that shared collective identity is a rational basis for collective pride and shame are thoroughly implausible even in quite pedestrian cases.