Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Guilt and Redemption

According to Burke, on some level most people in our society and culture are motivated by guilt. He uses this term loosely to include emotions such as shame, disgust, anxiety, and embarrassment. From this viewpoint, people act to try to avoid guilt emotions or to find redemption which is what makes those feelings go away. It is this attempt to move from guilt to redemption that puts an individual’s “drama” in dramatism. There are a few factors that contribute in a large way to people’s feelings of guilt and inadequacy:

  • The social order or hierarchy. As people interact with each other, we unconsciously and consciously create a sort of pecking order through our language and concepts. This gives individuals a sense of relation to others in terms of being perceived as equals or as superior or inferior to another person or group of people.
  • The Negative, in this sense, is an act of rejecting your place in this perceived social order. Burke used the term “rotten with perfection” to describe the situation where people realize that their place in a social hierarchy is to some degree arbitrary. Those who inhabit a superior position may feel guilt or anxiety because our language includes a notion of perfection that is impossible to achieve in actuality. For example, someone who is known for being particularly generous might experience shame or guilt for wanting to put themselves first on occasion. The idea of perfect generosity is unattainable, so the person feels guilty, pushing them to seek redemption. Conversely, someone in an inferior social position might realize that they are not as lowly as circumstances bear out, and this becomes motivation towards redemption.
  • Victimage is another factor in this drama where the guilty person lays the blame for their circumstances on an external source -- another person or societal condition. There are two types of victimage: universal, which blames everyone and everything, and fractional, where a person blames a specific group or individual. In vilifying the other person, the guilty person can assume a heroic role in their drama.
  • Redemption is the final stage of this type of drama where the person purges guilt through a kind of death, either symbolic, as in a transformation in character or a confession of one’s sins or misdeeds, or in actuality, by truly dying. It is uncommon and disrespectful, for example, to speak ill of the dead. Burke considered the redemption stage a transformation where one transcends the old order of social hierarchies, and a new order is created. You can look at Burke’s transition from Guilt to Redemption as following two paths: the first begins with the status quo followed by guilt or anxiety about one’s place in that status quo, followed by identifying a scapegoat, followed by confession and repentance which lead to the transformation of the old order into a new order.

This description of the move from guilt to redemption can be helpful in understanding how people come to actively dislike others. Often at the root of ill-will is a feeling of inadequacy and guilt in an individual.

Until next time ...


Sheryl Tuchman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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