Guilt Is Such an Effective Tool of Control that We’ll Use It on Ourselves

The human race has a long history of guilt and shaming. People and institutions have become experts at spreading guilt.

It’s been a successful tool for getting people to do what the powerful want, maybe even as sucessful as fear. And what makes it so easy is that people can be made to feel guilty in very passive-aggressive ways.

Think of those old bumper stickers that bragged: “I break for animals.” The implication for those following that car was: “What’s wrong with you that you don’t and that you don’t have the moral righteousness to display the same bumper sticker?”

Or take that fish symbol brandied about on the back of vehicles testifying: “I’m a Christian.” Ironically, the original fish symbol was meant as secret insider code in times of Roman persecution to disguise that a location was a place where Christians meant.

Whether wielded passively or self-righteously, guilt is seldom purely a moral idea. It’s mixed with the power plays of people and institutions who wield it.

There’s also a difference between being guilty according to someone’s standard and feeling guilty. Just think of your immediate reaction when you look into the rear view mirror and see that police cruiser behind you - no matter how lawfully you’re driving.

Feeling guilty, whether or not a person is really guilty of some real offense, isn’t just a crucial tool of religions. It’s a control mechanism that’s useful to keep anyone who feels guilty from confronting larger issues.

Even legally, the guilty who have the class privilege to affect the legal system are judged by a different standard than those who don’t. Justice is hardly ever a blind application of “you do the crime, you do the time.” Some are declared not guilty when they are or guilty when they aren’t.

When you know the right people, have enough money, or are a potential plea-bargainer who’s got beans to spill about the powers that be, there are completely different ways to relate to guilt. And if you’re into such power, you won’t feel guilt at all.

The current occupant of the White House and the good ol’ rich boys surrounding him so assume rich-boy privilege as the way things are that lies aren’t considered guilt-raising but shrewd means of doing business and getting ahead. If there’s any key to their entire life, it’s that it’s about little more than knowing, and being bailed out by, the right people.

Guilt is a useful tool of the elite. It keeps those they control occupied and self-controlling.

Using feelings of guilt is a tried and true way to maintain control. And feeling guilty works on a number of levels.

By doing so, people who brandish the guilt feelings are asserting and maintaining their positions of power over those who they encourage to feel guilty. Guilt feelings bind people to the one they believe has the authority to free them from guilt.

Using someone’s guilt to get them to do what you want, such as protecting you from your own deeds, has become an art. It’s one of the reasons our leaders love the idea of guilt. They use the words “personal responsibility” to invoke it. And they never include in “responsibility” the responsibility a member of society has to the whole and the least of its members.

Preachers know how successfully getting people to feel guilty brings in more souls along with their pocketbooks. Use of guilt feelings makes followers dependent upon preachers for salvation from the guilt.

Religious guilt-promoters might talk about God saving the guilty, but those preachers are the dealers of that message. And guilty people become as dependent on those preachers’ messages as on any drug.

Remember: people caught up in dealing with their personal guilt feelings are distracted. Preoccupation with personal guilt keeps them so focused on it that they have little energy or time to threaten the powers that be. They’re too obsessed with their guilt.

So, guilt feelings keep the powerful in place. The system loves it. The rich and powerful thrive on the guilt of others. And the beat goes on.

Yet, guilt feelings don’t just come from religious and political leaders. We too learned to use guilt to control our personal environments.

Our comfort with feeling guilty hardly needs our leaders to trigger it. We’ve often so internalized our guiltiness that most of us actually embrace feeling guilty in order not to face the fact that life and the actions of others are really out of our control.

Trying to control everything, after all, is a protective mechanism. As children we couldn’t control the adults around us. And those adults could at times be responsible for quite negative responses to us. We quickly saw that we’d better learn how never to let things get out of control.

So, today, if we can just feel that we’re in control of the environment around us, we believe it’s less likely to hurt us. Much of the time we can pull this off.

But illness and accidents happen. And instead of embracing the fact that we’re not in control of the universe, instead of learning to welcome surprise and growing in the process they provide for our lives, we’d rather dwell on “what we could have done.”

Our guilt over what we could have done to prevent a death, an accident, an illness, or a negative response from others is easier to embrace than admitting that we’re not able to control most of these events or many people. Our guilt comforts us.

An illusion of control is a recognized mark of addictive thinking. The desire to control an addict is a mark of those who enable the addiction to thrive.

A fear that the world is full of chance and serendipity drives people to religions and systems that comfort people that there really is some Controller, no matter how accidental things look.

So guilt, a seemingly noble expression of justice, is a useful control mechanism to remain in power. And even for the less powerful, it helps us feel that we’re in control of what we probably are not.

© 2018 Robert N. Minor

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org

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