Guilt Is Good, but Responsibility Is Better

It happens every semester. Not long after midterm week, a young man comes to sit in my office. He comes to talk with me about the work he’s doing in my intro to Women’s Studies course, or perhaps in my Men and Masculinities class. We usually start by talking about the reading, or about his term paper assignment.

Almost inevitably, things soon get personal. He shares his own feelings about what he’s hearing in my lecture and from his classmates during discussions. He’s been hearing about male privilege, and the objectification and dehumanization of women in the past—and in the present.  And he’s starting to feel guilty.

Like virtually all those who teach gender studies, I go to great lengths to distinguish between the Great Crime of patriarchy and the complicity of individual men. But as guys come to grips with the ways in which those who share our biology have mistreated and abused women, it’s not surprising that some of them are left reeling. The more obtuse ones are snarlingly defensive; the more sensitive ones are often strikingly overwhelmed by guilt.

In nearly 20 years of college teaching, I’ve heard “male guilt” come up many different ways. Sometimes, it’s in the form of a question: “Should I feel guilty because I’m a man?” Or, slightly more provocatively, “Why should I be made to feel guilty because I’m a guy?” Sometimes the student wants guidance as much as clarity: “What can I do about this guilt I’m feeling?” And sometimes, it’s not a question at all, just a declaration: “I’m angry because I feel like I’m supposed to feel guilty about being male.”

At this point, I often tell my students about John Bradshaw’s famous distinction between guilt and shame. Though there are a great many different ways to distinguish these two feelings, Bradshaw’s is perhaps the most useful. He writes: Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.

There’s little good we can say about shame. It’s soul-corroding, because the person suffering from shame comes to believe in his innate worthlessness. Guilt, on the other hand, is both necessary and useful. When we hurt someone else, we ought to feel as if we’ve done something wrong. Good emotional health means being able to acknowledge having done something one shouldn’t have done without believing that one is, at the core, a bad person. Guilt is about actions (or the failure to act); shame is about identity.

When they come to talk about feeling guilt (or, less often, “being made” to feel guilty), my students are really talking about shame.

Male shame is real. It is toxic. But it’s not caused by taking a gender studies class or reading a feminist website. It’s not caused by overbearing mothers or demanding girlfriends. For most of these students—and for so many other guys—the shame is rooted in the absence of loving male role models.

In a world where the discussion of emotion is gendered (grown men aren’t upposed to cry, or talk about feelings other than rage or lust), boys grow up with little sense of what goes on inside other men. Reminded by pop culture that “men are simple, women are complicated”; reassured by evolutionary psychologists that they are “hardwired” to be violent and unfaithful; taught by coaches and peers that manhood is defined by athletic prowess, sexual conquest, and heaps of cash, it’s little wonder that so many gentle, kind, sensitive young men end up feeling deeply unhappy about their own masculinity. They feel ashamed of the ways in which they’ve fallen short of the manly ideal—and they come, in time, to feel even more ashamed about pursuing that straitjacketed ideal in the first place.

In my Men and Masculinities classes, I sometimes assign Chuck Palahniuk’s wonderful Fight Club. Anyone who read the book or saw the Edward Norton/Brad Pitt film adaptation remembers the iconic line: “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” But “fight club” is a proxy for all the toxic rules of hypermasculine American culture. 

The first rule of being a “real man” is not to question, or even talk about, the rules of manhood. The moment you question the “man law,” your “man card” gets pulled. So boys learn to stuff their emotions, medicating their pain with pot, escaping into the ironically named Call of Duty, or—for the athletically gifted—knocking each other down on the football field.

It’s in gender studies courses (and on sites like The Good Men Project) that these rules of manhood get exposed and challenged.  It’s in places like this that we delineate the harm that an inflexible masculine culture does to women – and to the many men who fall short of its ideals. When we name the problem for what it is, the feelings often come rushing to the surface. And without any alternative roadmap for how to live successfully in a male body, many young men become angry, depressed, confused—and ashamed. It’s little wonder that some end up blaming the messenger.

There is nothing either guilty or shameful about living in a male body. There is nothing wrong with wanting sex with women, liking football, or enjoying beer. There is something wrong with deriving one’s self-worth from how many women one takes to bed, or how well one plays football, or how much beer one can drink. And there is something very wrong—something worth feeling guilt over—about promoting that narrow definition of masculinity to other men.

 “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility!” I often quote that line from Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy to my students who complain of feeling male guilt. I try to always say it with a smile to soften what would otherwise come across as unsympathetic hectoring. I’m not so old I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a young man overwhelmed by a troubled conscience, unsure of the degree of my own collaboration in the Great Crime. Shame is useless, I remind them; but in the end, guilt is only a little less so. Analysis paralysis doesn’t change the world. What changes the world is accepting responsibility.

Responsibility means giving up the excuse of biology or culture to explain behavior that hurts, demeans, or exploits others. Taking responsibility means forgoing the temptation to explain away our bad behavior with appeals to evolutionary psychology, testosterone, or our Y chromosome. It means recovering the capacity for self-reflection, empathy, and articulate self-expression that we suppressed as boys in order to fit in with the other guys. It means talking about the things we were warned not to talk about.

If we’re not willing to do that work because we think it’s too difficult—or not worth doing—then we’re shirking the charge to grow up and become fully human. And if we evade that responsibility, then guilt is exactly what we should feel.

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