Guilt Is Good, but Responsibility Is Better

It happens every
semester. Not long after midterm week, a young man comes to sit in my office.
He comes to talk with me about the work he’s doing in my intro to Women’s
Studies course, or perhaps in my Men and Masculinities class. We usually start
by talking about the reading, or about his term paper assignment.

Almost inevitably,
things soon get personal. He shares his own feelings about what he’s hearing in
my lecture and from his classmates during discussions. He’s been hearing about
male privilege, and the objectification and dehumanization of women in the
past—and in the present.  And he’s starting to feel guilty.

Like virtually all
those who teach gender studies, I go to great lengths to distinguish between
the Great Crime of patriarchy and the complicity of individual men. But as guys
come to grips with the ways in which those who share our biology have
mistreated and abused women, it’s not surprising that some of them are left
reeling. The more obtuse ones are snarlingly defensive; the more sensitive ones
are often strikingly overwhelmed by guilt.

In nearly 20 years of
college teaching, I’ve heard “male guilt” come up many different ways.
Sometimes, it’s in the form of a question: “Should I feel guilty
because I’m a man?” Or, slightly more provocatively, “Why should I
be made to feel guilty because I’m a guy?” Sometimes the student wants guidance
as much as clarity: “What can I do about this guilt I’m feeling?” And
sometimes, it’s not a question at all, just a declaration: “I’m angry because I
feel like I’m supposed to feel guilty about being male.”

At this point, I often
tell my students about John Bradshaw’s famous distinction between guilt and
shame. Though there are a great many different ways to distinguish these two
feelings, Bradshaw’s is perhaps the most useful. He writes: Guilt says
I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not
good; shame says I am no good.

There’s little good we
can say about shame. It’s soul-corroding, because the person suffering from
shame comes to believe in his innate worthlessness. Guilt, on the other hand,
is both necessary and useful. When we hurt someone else, we ought to feel as if
we’ve done something wrong. Good emotional health means being
able to acknowledge having done something one shouldn’t have done without
believing that one is, at the core, a bad person. Guilt is about actions (or
the failure to act); shame is about identity.

When they come to talk
about feeling guilt (or, less often, “being made” to feel guilty), my students
are really talking about shame.

Male shame is real. It
is toxic. But it’s not caused by taking a gender studies class or reading a
feminist website. It’s not caused by overbearing mothers or demanding
girlfriends. For most of these students—and for so many other guys—the shame is
rooted in the absence of loving male role models.

In a world where the
discussion of emotion is gendered (grown men aren’t upposed to cry, or talk
about feelings
other than rage or lust), boys grow up with little sense of what goes on inside
other men. Reminded by pop culture that “men are simple, women are
complicated”; reassured by evolutionary psychologists that they are “hardwired”
to be violent and unfaithful; taught by coaches and peers that manhood is
defined by athletic prowess, sexual conquest, and heaps of cash, it’s little
wonder that so many gentle, kind, sensitive young men end up feeling deeply
unhappy about their own masculinity. They feel ashamed of the ways in which
they’ve fallen short of the manly ideal—and they come, in time, to feel even
more ashamed about pursuing that straitjacketed ideal in the first place.

In my Men and
Masculinities classes, I sometimes assign Chuck Palahniuk’s wonderful Fight
. Anyone who read the book or saw the Edward Norton/Brad Pitt film
adaptation remembers the iconic line: “the first rule of fight club is you
don’t talk about fight club.” But “fight club” is a proxy for all the toxic
rules of hypermasculine American culture. 

The first rule of
being a “real man” is not to question, or even talk about, the rules of
manhood. The moment you question the “man law,” your “man card” gets pulled. So
boys learn to stuff their emotions, medicating their pain with pot, escaping
into the ironically named Call of Duty, or—for the athletically
gifted—knocking each other down on the football field.

It’s in gender studies
courses (and on sites like The Good Men Project) that these rules of manhood
get exposed and challenged.  It’s in places like this that we delineate
the harm that an inflexible masculine culture does to women – and to the many
men who fall short of its ideals. When we name the problem for what it is, the
feelings often come rushing to the surface. And without any alternative roadmap
for how to live successfully in a male body, many young men become angry,
depressed, confused—and ashamed. It’s little wonder that some end up blaming
the messenger.

There is nothing either
guilty or shameful about living in a male body. There is nothing wrong with
wanting sex with women, liking football, or enjoying beer. There is something
wrong with deriving one’s self-worth from how many women one takes to bed, or
how well one plays football, or how much beer one can drink. And there is
something very wrong—something worth feeling guilt over—about promoting that
narrow definition of masculinity to other men.

 “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your
responsibility!” I often quote that line from Arthur Miller’s Incident
at Vichy
 to my students who complain of feeling male guilt. I try to
always say it with a smile to soften what would otherwise come across as
unsympathetic hectoring. I’m not so old I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a young
man overwhelmed by a troubled conscience, unsure of the degree of my own
collaboration in the Great Crime. Shame is useless, I remind them; but in the
end, guilt is only a little less so. Analysis paralysis doesn’t change the
world. What changes the world is accepting responsibility.

Responsibility means
giving up the excuse of biology or culture to explain behavior that hurts,
demeans, or exploits others. Taking responsibility means forgoing the
temptation to explain away our bad behavior with appeals to evolutionary
psychology, testosterone, or our Y chromosome. It means recovering the capacity
for self-reflection, empathy, and articulate self-expression that we suppressed
as boys in order to fit in with the other guys. It means talking about the things
we were warned not to talk about.

If we’re not willing
to do that work because we think it’s too difficult—or not worth doing—then
we’re shirking the charge to grow up and become fully human. And if we evade
that responsibility, then guilt is exactly what we should feel.

Originally published on

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