How to wave your guilt away, Western-style


In recent weeks there’s been a sudden rush of well-publicised allegations of sexual assault and harassment levelled against powerful figures in the film industry.  In this blog I’m focusing on the ways in which three of those accused figures have responded.  I do so not in order to point a cheaply pious or mocking finger at ‘Hollywood types’, but in order to argue that the responses of these three people are in fact typical of the ways in which many of us ordinary mortals brought up in the culture of the Western world instinctively react when we are accused of doing wrong, or are simply caught out doing wrong.

Two of the accused men, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, used the same crucial word.  Both have said they are now seeking ‘treatment’.  I guess most people can spot what’s going on here, and media commentators have not been slow to point it out.  If I can successfully portray my bad behaviour as a symptom of a disorder for which I claim some scientific validity, then I can appeal to you to regard me as not really guilty.  Indeed, I am then just a short step away from portraying myself not as a perpetrator at all but in fact a victim who deserves your sympathy too.  The enormous advances in Western medicine, especially in identifying and treating psychological disorder of various kinds, are an enormous blessing.  But it offers us a strong cultural temptation to wave our guilt away, by categorising our sin as ultimately not a state which rightly incurs God’s wrath, but instead as a guilt-free medical disorder.

Dustin Hoffman has been similarly accused.  His initial and most widely reported response is a bit different from Weinstein’s and Spacey’s, and to my mind exemplifies an even more subtly pervasive Western tendency.  A number of accusations have now emerged, but in response to one of the first he said:  “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”  The last sentence is the crucial one.  He’s been accused of having performed a certain physical act against another person.  Either he did it or he didn’t.  If he did it, either it was an unrepeated one-off or it’s part of a pattern of behaviour.  But note that he doesn’t speak in those terms at all.  What he does speak of  -  what he wants us to focus our attention on  -  is, in his words, ‘who I am’.

Now that’s a very interesting shift to make, apparently so simply, from my actions to ‘who I am’.  You see, who is to say who that ‘I’ is?  Is it for the world around him to assess, on the basis of the actions he has or hasn’t performed?  Not so, according to this reported response.  The person claiming the authority to know ‘who I am’ here is Dustin Hoffman himself.  His response could be paraphrased fairly, I think, like this:  “I’m being accused of an act of sexual assault.  I’m not going talk about whether or not I did that thing.  I want you to assess me by what I tell you is my own sense of my true inner self as someone who doesn’t do such awful things, at least not very maliciously or habitually.  You should assess me primarily on that basis.”

That is a profoundly Western, post-Enlightenment move to make.  It has roots in Descartes’ philosophy, in his decision to seek the ground of knowledge within himself.  It has further roots in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics, in his view that when we speak what we’re primarily doing is giving expression to our inner selves.  It’s an aspect of a phenomenon known as ‘expressive individualism’, which Tim Keller, drawing on the work of others, describes as:  ‘the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires’.*  Seen in this light, Hoffman is in effect claiming, “Whether or not I actually did the deed I’m accused of, my own sense of myself provides the account of my identity that you should take most seriously when assessing me.”

We do this all the time in very everyday-ish situations.  We’ve been caught out telling a lie to get ourselves out of an awkward situation.  We say to ourselves, and maybe even to others, “OK, I’ll put my hands up to this one  -  but at least I’m not the kind of person who goes around lying.”  Do you see where ‘expressive individualism’ raises its head there?  It’s in the words ‘the kind of person’.  Well now, what actually does determine ‘the kind of person’ I am?  Much Western culture schools us to presume that it’s my inner sense of myself that ultimately determines that.  The truth, though, is rather different.  The truth is that ‘who I am’ is rather more determined by the actions I’ve done in the world.  If I told a lie in that situation, I am a liar, at least in that moment.  If lying is something I do habitually, then I am straightforwardly a liar, and my sense that ‘I tell the odd untruth, sure, but I’m not really a liar’ is straightforwardly irrelevant to the question of ‘who I am’.

The story of human attempts to wave away our guilt is very nearly as old as the story of human guilt itself, as Genesis ch.3 brutally reveals. Confronted by God with his sinful action, Adam blamed his wife (and perhaps also implicitly God for giving him such a spouse like that).  We still do that.  But our culture also puts an array of other tools in our hands for waving away our guilt, both before God and before others.  When we see others deploy them, it’s best to be warned ourselves to stop doing the same.

Tim Ward is a Crosslands faculty member and Tutor in Homiletics at Oak Hill College


Tom Olyott