April 22, 2019
By Fintan O’Toole
What use is shame? In the Dáil last Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the mother-and-baby home report as “gruesome reading” and said that “as a society we inherit a deep shame for what was done back then and we must now endeavour to learn, to atone and to put things right”. But what has this inherited shame done for us? Nothing much. It is ocean-deep: the shame of the torture and rape of children in industrial schools, of the kidnapping and enslavement of women in Magdalene laundries, of the dumping of dead babies in anonymous holes, of the claiming of the corpses of poor children by our most respectable medical schools.
But what have we done except wallow in it? It has become part of our gross national product – we produce more shame than we can consume locally and we export some of it for consumption by the international media.
So enough of shame – what we need is guilt. Shame and guilt are not at all the same thing. The first is about how you feel; the second is about what you’ve done. Shame, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, is “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances”. Guilt is “a failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin … Responsibility for an action or event.” One is about how we perceive ourselves, the other about what we have done, or failed to do, to other people. Though we tend to use the words interchangeably, it is quite possible to have one without the other.
We learn (yet again) from the latest report of the Ombudsman for Children that homeless children are tormented by a sense of shame – even though they are guilty of nothing. We know, conversely, that people who were guilty of wrecking the country in the banking crisis of 2008 felt (and feel) no shame.
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