Fintan O’Toole: Enough shame about the past. What we need is guilt

Shame at the abuse of children in Irish institutions has achieved nothing

While the crimes uncovered in scandal after scandal were committed under the auspices of the church, the State and society are guilty at a minimum of ‘failure of duty, delinquency’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

While the crimes uncovered in scandal after scandal were committed under the auspices of the church, the State and society are guilty at a minimum of ‘failure of duty, delinquency’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

What use is shame? In the Dáil last Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the mother-and-baby home report as “gruesome reading” and said that “as a society we inherit a deep shame for what was done back then and we must now endeavour to learn, to atone and to put things right”. But what has this inherited shame done for us? Nothing much. It is ocean-deep: the shame of the torture and rape of children in industrial schools, of the kidnapping and enslavement of women in Magdalene laundries, of the dumping of dead babies in anonymous holes, of the claiming of the corpses of poor children by our most respectable medical schools.

But what have we done except wallow in it? It has become part of our gross national product – we produce more shame than we can consume locally and we export some of it for consumption by the international media.

So enough of shame – what we need is guilt. Shame and guilt are not at all the same thing. The first is about how you feel; the second is about what you’ve done. Shame, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, is “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances”. Guilt is “a failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin … Responsibility for an action or event.” One is about how we perceive ourselves, the other about what we have done, or failed to do, to other people. Though we tend to use the words interchangeably, it is quite possible to have one without the other.

We learn (yet again) from the latest report of the Ombudsman for Children that homeless children are tormented by a sense of shame – even though they are guilty of nothing. We know, conversely, that people who were guilty of wrecking the country in the banking crisis of 2008 felt (and feel) no shame.

‘Inherited’ shame

The problem with the collective response to ever-accumulating revelations of the dark history of the State is that it is all shame and no guilt, all “painful emotion” and no “responsibility for an action or an event”. The Taoiseach’s formulation last week is eloquent in this regard. The shame he said we must feel is an inheritance – and of course we cannot be blamed for what we have inherited. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t want it, it was left to us by an ancient third cousin we cannot remember ever having met. And it is “shame for what was done back then”, a phrase that at once claims the emotional impact of the mother-and-baby home scandal and distances it from the present.

It may not be too harsh to suggest that this kind of shame is actually closer to its lesser relative, embarrassment. This mad cruelty of the old church-State nexus embarrasses the go-ahead, progressive, enlightened, shiny, cosmopolitan, global Ireland we like to imagine ourselves inhabiting. It is the rat scuttling across the Italian marble floor of our dream home during a dinner party, the smelly old uncle who greets us on the street when we are sauntering with our cool friends. We just want it to go away even though, at some level, it allows us to congratulate ourselves on how far we have come.

It doesn’t change anything. We’ve had lots of painful emotion – Varadkar’s predecessor Enda Kenny almost wept as he delivered an eloquent (and no doubt sincere) apology to the Magdalene women in 2013: “This is a national shame ... ” But where is the sea change in public or official attitudes to the poor, the excluded, the vulnerable, wrought by this national shame? The brutal truth is that babies were dumped after death, children were raped in industrial schools and women were enslaved in laundries because they were poor. And because we had and still have a society and culture in which poverty dehumanises you and leaves you as prey to contempt and indifference.

Failure of duty

The Taoiseach spoke last week, rightly, of the need for atonement. But you don’t atone for shame – there is no redress for an emotion. You atone for guilt. And while the crimes uncovered in scandal after scandal were committed under the auspices of the church, the State and society are guilty at a minimum of “failure of duty, delinquency”. That guilt does need to be atoned. There is no great mystery about the path towards expiation. Accept the collective guilt and take responsibility for it. Stop being delinquent towards children. End the failure of duty.

If shame was any use to us, we would not have 3,784 children homeless by the latest official count, or 220,000 children living in poverty. There are very concrete, immediate and affordable steps that can be taken in the next budget to begin a coherent dismantling of these intolerable conditions. The No Child 2020 campaign by The Irish Times sets them out, and it is hard to find anyone who does not agree with them. But they will happen only if we collectively demand this real, hard, urgent evidence of atonement. Instead of wallowing in shame about the past, we need to embark together on a guilt trip to a more decent future.

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