Irish society is colluding in its own destruction
CAN A country die of shame? Probably not – but Ireland is making a good effort. Ours is a society colluding in its own destruction. We go along with the outrageous expropriation of public wealth and the imposition of stupid cruelties because, at some level, we are convinced that “we” deserve it.
Shame can be a very good thing – a lot of shameless people in Ireland could do with a large dose of it. But the psychiatrist Garrett O’Connor usefully distinguishes “healthy shame” from “malignant shame”: “Healthy shame becomes malignant when it . . . is used as a weapon by individuals or groups in authority to control or manipulate the actions and attitudes of those under their power . . .
“Malignant shame, more than a simple emotion, is an identity: a more or less permanent state of low self-esteem that causes even successful persons to experience themselves as being unworthy . . . Thus, abuse victims often remain passive in the face of punishment because they suspect that the rage and criticism of their perpetrator is both accurate and justified.”
This is an eerily accurate diagnosis of the collective passivity of Irish citizens. We are the victims of an obvious outrage – forced to beggar ourselves to pay off debts that “we” never incurred. But we are unable to respond to this attack because we suspect that we deserve it.
We screwed up the best chance for sustainable prosperity Ireland has ever had. We escaped the historic legacy of poverty and failure and then sleep-walked right back into the mire. Our only hope is to be good, to take our medicine, to win back the approval of those we let down – the markets, the Germans.
I was thinking about this kind of shame the other night because I was at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of an Irish organisation that had the guts to confront and banish it. Forty years ago in Ireland, about the worst thing that could happen to a family was that one of its unmarried daughters became pregnant. It was a hideous disgrace for the girl herself and for her parents. And this shame was enormously effective in making people feel powerless.
Under the spell of shame, people did things we now regard as almost inexplicable. They savaged themselves. Fathers drove the daughters they had loved to mother-and-baby homes, dropped them at the gate and told them never to contact home again.
Healthy young women gave birth to babies, bonded with them and then signed away all rights to contact with those babies when, as was almost always the case, they were sent for adoption. People put up with pain that wrecked their lives. Why? Because they were convinced that they deserved it. It was the family’s fault that it had raised a hussy. It was the girl’s fault that she had not guarded her virginity. This was the power of malignant shame – the power to make people feel powerless.