What guilt does

I was just out jogging as as usual was listening to a BBC In Our Time podcast (and old one, about empire and slavery) and near the end one of the panelists, a woman, said (without, alas, having time to elaborate) that she didn't like guilt because it encourages amnesia. Another panelist just had time to insert a quick word about guilt being good because it encourages us to do better before the host had to wrap everything up. I've long been bothered by those grandiose public apologies political leaders make on behalf of everyone for things people did in the past. I've always disliked them because in my book, in order for your apology to mean something, you have to feel genuinely contrite about something you did that was wrong. You are genuinely sorry to have mistreated someone, you apologize for it, and hope they forgive you, then move on - doing your very best to behave better.

That form of guilt does not, I don't think, encourage amnesia. Au contraire. To forgive is not to forget, right?

On the other hand, when a political leader apologizes to a group of people for something wrong people who are no longer around to apologize themselves did many years ago, what does that do? I don't feel personally bad about the mistreatment, in the sense that I'm not the one who behaved badly. Not that I'm above bad behaviour and no, I can't guarantee I would have been one of the good guys if I'd lived back in those days, but for all that I don't feel guilt in my heart about, say, the residential school program. Yes, it was bad. And yes, some people are still suffering because of it. We should help them, absolutely. But what does it mean for me, through a prime minister, to apologize to them for something I neither did nor encouraged? Isn't it fake and meaningless?

I think those apologies are more self-serving than anything. They exist to make us feel better about ourselves - as if we were saying we are such splendid specimens of moral rectitude that we would never have done such a thing. And what's more, we are so good that we're going to wash away other people's sins with this cleverly crafted bunch of words and grandiose ceremony. There. Now stop griping and everybody just move on.

I think maybe this sort of "guilt" is what the first panelist was referring to. The kind that makes you offer non-genuine "apologies" for other people's misdeeds. But maybe I've got this wrong. Either way, now I've got this idea stuck in my head and will continue to ponder. If you have something to add, please do so in the comments.

Simple-minded memories of love

Picking up math tricks in a stalled Tube train from an Alabama teacher