In a blog post entitled Infidelity and Other Taboos, Media Style, The Last Psychiatriast introduces a concept he calls crowdsourcing the superego.
The post is about the story of two people who left their spouses to marry each other:
Two people, a man who looks suspiciously like Julian Assange, and a TV reporter who looks exactly like every MILF porn actress working today, divorce their spouses and get married.
The original couples were friends, and the two met at their kids’ elementary school. There are five kids between them, and, you know, whatever.
The twist is that they announced their marriage in the Style section of the New York Times, because, of course, they hooked up in style. The further twist is that they semi-shamelessly recount in the Times how they fell in love while they were still married to other people.
It then gets to why their story was written up in the New York Times Style section:
It’s a mantra: narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame. Well, it’s not completely true, sometimes they do feel guilt, but you have to be hitting on a taboo to feel it.
Even the most hardened narcissist feels some passing guilt when their spouse is sobbing on the kitchen floor. How do you get over that? (Pills won’t help, but psychiatry is happy to tell you they might.)
This is how narcissism eradicates guilt: it rewrites the story, or as the po-mo mofos say, “offer a competing narrative.”
He then gives another example with different people publicly airing their transgressions, and gets to the crucial insight:
But what you need to get out of these stories is how this generation and forwards will deal with guilt: externalizing it, converting it to shame, and then taking solace in the pockets of support that inevitably arise. Everyone is famous to 15 people, and that’s just enough people to help you sleep at night.
As the saying goes, read the whole thing.
What’s so crucial about this insight is that it describes a coping mechanism for guilt that’s an alternative to repentance and even to admitting the guilt at all. Repentance works, of course, especially within Christianity where God is actually filling the gaps created by the defects of sin so that reparation of the damage done by sin is actually possible. Repentance outside of Christianity is possible, but it’s incomplete because satisfaction is not possible. It is possible to balance things out—at least minor things—but not do actually repair the damage. That is more than human beings can do.
However, where repentance is not considered an option, the guilt must still be dealt with. One traditional approach is the scapegoat. This was originally a form of animal sacrifice where the sins of the group where placed onto a goat and it was then killed.
(For those unfamiliar with ritual, it’s not that the sins could actually be placed on the goat or that the killing of the goat actually destroyed the sins, but that the ritual gave people a line across which they could disregard past sins and consider them over. In more modern (i.e. inadequate) terms, it provided closure.)
Scapegoating works—to a lesser degree than repentance—but it still requires admitting one’s guilt. The modern world, having worked itself up into a frenzy of stupidity (that is, of being wrong about everything at once), results in people who feel their guilt (since they are still human) but cannot admit it. This produces an enormous problem because one cannot deal with what one is pretending does not exist. And here’s where crowdsourcing the superego comes in. Guilt cannot be recognized by the modern mind, but shame can. So the modern can turn the guilt which he cannot recognize and cannot, therefore, deal with, into shame which he can recognize and can, therefore, deal with.
He will deal with it badly, of course, because realism is a precondition of success. Still, it allows him to do something about the guilt. And doing something, even if completely ineffective, still feels better than doing nothing.
It distracts from the problem, at the very least. And, more or less, at most.