Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Guilt is a Useless Emotion #1

I reckon, if we’re really going to save the world, we have to get shot of all this guilt.

Truth is, there is some comfort in the hair shirt. Punish yourself enough, and you feel better about it. Enter a cycle of sin and repentance and you don’t have to worry too much about putting right your mistakes, let alone doing the right thing in the first place. It is liberating, to accept that you are a repentant sinner; doing any actual good in this life is a bonus.

For this reason, both in terms of my egalitarian beliefs as well as environmentalism, I am strongly opposed to making people feel guilty. If you succeed in making people feel guilty, you have lost them.

It’s like with nutrition. Anxiety about weight and health has created an entirely false morality around nutrition. We talk about the naughtiness of certain foods even though (sorry in all that) there is nothing naughty about a chocolate cake. If it is a stolen chocolate cake, particularly if it was stolen from a small child on its birthday, well that’s pretty naughty. However, if you just bought it with your own money (as opposed to money obtained in an armed robbery), well you are entitled to it. You can eat it all by yourself, every last crumb and they’ll be no thunderbolt. I promise. Cross my heart and hope for a slice.

Unfortunately for those who want to lose weight, this morality around the nutritional value of food (as opposed to its origins, production and transportation which have real ethical consequences) doesn’t dramatically alter the way most people eat. For one thing, it is inconsistent; read enough of the wrong sort of magazines, and you will read every food product there ever was condemned as fattening or bad for your internal Feng Shui or whatever. So folks end up simply accepting that they are bound to feel guilty about their weight, guilty about very much of the food they eat, and little changes. If I lost a pound for every time I heard someone say, “Oh, I mustn’t eat this, but…” I’d be nothing but skin and bone.

I did encounter a chocolate cake at the weekend. Five women in the room ate some, but not one merely accepted the offer without condition.

“Only a very small piece for me, please.”
“Oh I mustn’t, but I suppose it is Easter.”
“Do you happen to know what the GI is?”
“I just know it’ll go straight on my thighs.”
And I, by far the podgiest in the room, declared, “I’ll have as much as is left after this lot, thanks!”

Not really, but arguably, guilt around food does more harm than good because ‘bad’ foods become an indulgence, a digression with which we reward our good behaviour or comfort ourselves. After all, where there’s no straight-forward avenue of repentance, guilt doesn’t feel good; it actually makes you feel extremely sorry and extremely powerless. So we rebel against it.

As with chocolate cake, as with the rest of the universe. It is this rebellion which does so much damage for those of us who believe we can make the world a better place. It is at the heart of all backlash, all denial about privilege, inequality, the impact of our actions upon the environment or any other ethical subject there is. It also cause conflict between those of us who share very similar objectives.

But worst of all, it can stop us from accepting responsibility, which is quite a different creature.


Anonymous said...


Guilt stops all progress-people just get stuck.

I very much approve of your take on "bad" foods.

Anonymous said...

Of course it's a good idea to limit sugary and fatty foods- unless you want to end up with Gillian McKeith prodding your stools.

But definitely regard them as a treat rather than "naughty" (Salman Rushdie has got a lot to answer for. It was he who did "naughty but nice" cream cakes ad). In fact I'm sure a read a study that showed if you enjoy indulgent foods they do you less "harm"...

Looking forward to seeing a photo of the purple goldfish ;-)

Mary said...

"Cross my heart and hope for a slice" had me giggling in tears.

Anonymous said...

Guilt, guilt, guilt--I'm starting to realize that things I feel guilty about are things I feel I can't control. When I do something "naughty" but feel fully in control while I do it, I may feel fully justified, or I may have regrets, but I don't usually feel guilt (i.e., a cringing sensation as my self-worth plummets). So is the guilt a way of punishing myself for not controlling myself enough?