Samantha Vice, a philosopher at Rhodes University, has been thinking about the moral condition of white South Africans. Is it possible to live a virtuous life here, given the continuing privilege that comes with whiteness? Believing that this will be “very difficult”, she argues that shame is “the morally appropriate emotion to feel”. She concludes, “If the self is as morally damaged as this suggests… a plausible strategy is… the ancient practice of ‘care of the self’, in which one’s moral attention is directed inward towards the self”. She thinks this will require “public silence and humility”.
This is my response. First, if shame is “appropriate”, it’s only according to a particular story (which is after all a story) of moral worth: that having is generally the honourable result of earning. We get what we deserve and deserve what we get. So what happens when we discover our wealth is derived from a long season of racist injustice, which continues to advantage us? We’re not as worthy as we believed. To her credit, Vice admits this as shameful. No denial, no squirming to get off the hook. Neither does she cast shame on those who feel differently. Her work is courageous, careful and – as evident from the response at the conference – provocative.
But it’s worrisome. If whites are implicated by our history of privilege (I wouldn’t deny it), this is also beyond our own desires, acts or intention. If shame is appropriate, then so are grief, compassion and companionship. Without this leavening of kindness, shame leads to useless and perverse follies of self-hatred and self-punishment. There are so many ways Vice’s strategy can go wrong. “Owning” our shame may be another act of white privilege. “Care of the soul” can become “nursing a grudge”. “Public silence” might be making lemonade from the fact that nobody’s listening.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of shame. One is inflicted on us through hatred and abusive power as humiliation and submission. Definitely bad stuff. But there is another kind – it used to be called “feeling shamefast” – that interrupts our careless arrogance. It lowers our eyes when we are moved by splendour. It humbles us but lets us be, softens our hard-shelled ego and orients us to a higher good. And it obliges us to turn. I imagine this is what Vice is recommending: to modestly withdraw into silence and tend to the garden of our “damaged moral being”.
I would so much rather question that root story of “moral worth”, in which human value depends on calculation, comparison and hierarchy. (It’s also, clearly, the root story of white racism.) We can do better. And the fact that we want to do better suggests that, despite our albatross of privilege, we’re not just “damaged goods”.
However surprisingly, the black majority has not asked us to go away. Should we? What would it mean for the public sphere if only the shameless whites were out and about?
REFERENCE. Vice, S. 2010. “How do I live in this strange place?” (abstract) Presented to the Annual Conference of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa, 20–22 January, Monash University, Roodepoort