QA 21. (Feb 10) Crying shame (Thinking about race again)

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

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16 responses to “QA 21. (Feb 10) Crying shame (Thinking about race again)

  1. And thanks to friends who hepled me think about this

  2. Ive had enough of this bleeding hart, poor blacks, shame on all whites drivel. Its been fifteen years since they were “freed”. Almost an entire generation. Whites “have” because they work. Blacks “don’t have” because instead of working, they dance around “protesting” and breaking what was given to them. Its easier to sit back and demand free water, free food, free healthcare, free housing, free transport. Where does the money for all this come from? The working whites. I feel no shame for being white. I never shall. Because as hard as the ANC and the South African blacks are working at destroying this country, I know that it is me and my people that that are still holding it up. There is no other “chain of though” to why I shouldn’t feel shame. My people built this country. My people made it a success. If you need to feel guilty, please do so. But do it quietly, on your own. And keep it out of the public view!

    • Response No 1: Good rant!

      Response No 2: I’m your people too, honey. What are we going to do about that?

      Response No 3: Your response and Samantha Vice’s (which my post responded to) are cut from the same cloth. You both are stuck in the idea that privilege/living well belongs by right to those who achieve it through their own efforts. You think your privilege is earned and feel proud. She thinks hers isn’t and feels ashamed.

      Here’s my question: What if the whole idea is nonsense? Can we think differently? Can you imagine something better, more useful?

  3. Samantha Vice’s sentiments are possibly epitomised, to the extreme, in JM Coetzee’s portrayal of ‘Lucy’ in his novel Disgrace. A white woman, raped on her farm, who chooses to remain silent and carry the burden of the shame.

    However, I would like to respond to this with the lyrics of a local South African band – Dear Reader:

    i want to strip you down to the core
    take off your shirt, hat, shoes and trousers
    erase my head, all the books that i’ve read
    the language i speak, the customs you keep
    keep on going right down to the heart
    to the pain that is yours – the pain that is ours
    tell you it’s all going to be alright
    is it going to be alright
    heal, can you heal
    heal, oh can you heal
    heal, oh mother, can you heal
    or am i an orphan
    forever a stranger here
    same, we’re both the same
    we share the same heart
    we’re made of the same parts

    Sincerely,
    Jason

  4. A bit of back and forth on this from Facebook, Feb 13-16:

    Andrew Feldmar
    Shame is NEVER appropriate. Guilt might be, that leads to reparation. Best is gratitude.

    Helen Douglas
    You’re too quick, Andrew. Gratitude can be monstrous. Guilt isn’t apt for an ‘accident of birth’. Shame might be – in this limited sense – if it leads from arrogance to open heart/mindedness. Reparation is unlikely. Change is needed.

    Andrew Feldmar
    Shame is like being burned with a red hot branding iron. NOT NECESSARY. EVER! Change IS reparation. Shame never leads anywhere except murder or suicide.
    Gratitude can NEVER be monstrous. I guess we disagree…

    Helen Douglas
    Yep, whole hearted disagreement. Wonder what might arise from that? Join me on the blog and we can have it out…

    [And then he went to Mexico and hasn’t been heard from since!]

  5. From Samantha Vice:

    I think you’re quite right about all the pitfalls that can accompany the strategy I explore. It’s a very very difficult issue (and a personally charged one). And you’re right that the kind of shame I advocate is more like humility – the ‘feeling shamefast’ you refer to.

    I wondered about this passage, however:
    “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”.”

    I agree with you that a view of moral worth that depends on ‘calculation, comparison and heirarchy’ is not the way to go with respect to the basic worth of human beings, qua human. But I do think we can evaluate ourselves and others, some as better in certain respects than others – we need to be able to say this sort of thing in order to make sense of progress.

    And my exploration of the phenomenon of shame at the end of the paper also makes the point that our feeling shame does suggest that we are not just damaged goods, that we can be better.

  6. I venture into saying that a theoretical discussion of shame and public participation in South Africa only makes sense if related to concrete examples. Members of the AWB, when speaking to the nation, certainly show a lack of shame. But do we blame Zapiro of not exhibiting shame in his cartoons? Should he do so? Does he only show shame when commenting on Mandela but not on Zuma? Why? A Julius Malema, by the mere fact of being black, is he morally intact by not showing shame? I find it difficult to accept a view that measures black and white according to different moral yardsticks. But then I suspect Vice’s argument is more subtle.

    • More subtle and more interesting, I venture. Not a question of who should or shouldn’t feel shame, but this: if a born-and-bred white South African does feel shame simply because of the racist privilege that continues to accrue to whiteness (and ‘whiteliness’), even knowing she’s had no choice in the matter – is that appropriate? The first part of Vice’s project is to say, yes it is. The second part is to figure what then to do about it.

      My sense is that the feeling is appropriate, but it may not actually be shame but something else. (Grief?) In which case, her remedy of humility, withdrawal and “care of the self” isn’t going to be very useful.

  7. as many white south africans i grew up under ANC government,know very little about the whole apartheid era except what we read, started my working life with nothing, only money me and most of my friends had is what we earned overseas. I worked for myself trading on the stock exchanges from really about nothing (few bucks from temp job) to now basically retired at young age. Should i feel guitly? for what, about my money? why? I had only farm schooling. anybody of any colour had same opportunity to do what i did, get waiter job for while, and in markets nobody even know your colour. but all most people do is complaining instead of solving their position.

  8. Pingback: On the unbearable whiteness of being - kameraad mhambi

  9. Hi Helen, thanks for the comment on my blog. I think your post is much better than mine. Your last two paras in particular.

  10. I must thank Sam fo rher paper, and the discussion it has initiated. I agree with the author’s basic tenant that we, as white south Africans, need to own our past and this means accepting guilt and feeling shame for the shocking disparities that exist in our society today. However I would like to add an additional, slightly different, perspective. My main criticism is that it is untenable for us to live with a large boulder of guilt and shame , having to constantly, like Sisyphus, repeatedly push this boulder up the mountain. I feel that each individual must address to what extent they were responsible in maintaining the status quo under apartheid, and once having sincerely accepted their part in a morally bankrupt system, find a way to absolution and thus be able to live in a higher state of grace within South Africa.
    To constantly carry a huge burden of guilt and shame can hamstring individuals who have, in a way repented, and want to redress the imbalances and inequalities of the past. What is required is to find a way past the shame, to accept forgiveness, and become whole enough again to contribute positively to our society. So let’s not blame Samantha Vice and Eusebius Mckaiser for bringing us a little closer to the truth, but use their ideas to catalyse a sensitive and constructive involvement in our
    divided society.

  11. This (very common) view of shame as a Sisyphean boulder is what makes it so aversive. But it is neither helpful or necessary. What if shame/guilt were just a moral corollary to physical pain – a sensation/consciousness that tells us not to carry on with what we’re doing, but rather to understand the painful situation and do what’s necessary to alleviate it?

  12. I feel no shame, never have never will, our good deeds far out way our bad deeds in South Africa. Africans had to “suffer” (they still had it better than the rest of Africa) for a few decades to earn the right to live in country that contributes 70% of Africas GDP. They should be ashamed they dont thank us in the street everytime they see us.

  13. This kind of antagonistic rhetoric is so one-sided it makes me want to vomit.

    Why should whites constantly be reminded to be ashamed of the past? We never hear about all the shameful acts of the ANC during the so-called struggle: mass intimidation, limpid mines at bus stops, mines on farms and the barbaric necklace murders.

    Most of the ANC’s victims were actually blacks. Perhaps the ANC should start paying taxes for the families of all these victims. Not? Well, maybe not, because there was a “Truth and Reconciliation” committee (of which Tutu was chairman) during the early days of our new democracy. It seems this was all a farce.

    If whites are to be more silent simply because of their past, it implies that we should all stop crying out against corruption and injustices. Then Dr Vice (I assume she is white) should become “silent” and stop sayinh her say in public.

    • Okay, you’re inclined to vomit, but you write instead. I like that.

      I agree with you. It’s ridiculous to tell anyone to be ashamed. Nasty, self-righteous, ineffectual. But Samatha Vice isn’t telling anyone they should be ashamed. Speaking very specifically as a white Anglo South African and recognising the “undeserved” advantages that gives her, she feels shame and wonders what is the appropriate response. She thinks that white South Africans shuold engage in some self-reflection and humility. By stating her case. she invites us to conversation. So I respond to her in my blog and now you respond to me.

      It seems like you want to equate the violence of the resistence to apartheid to the violence of apartheid. That makes me think you are young and you weren’t there. The violence of aparthied was like an apocalypse. So don’t make that argument. Look at the TRC records. The ANC stepped up. De Klerk and PW never did.

      So you want to oppose corruption and injustice? Welcome, me too. But don’t for a second think that black people don’t have just cause for grievance. That’s what we’ve got to come together to sort out. That, and capitalism, and misogyny. We’re in for the long haul, bru!

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