Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Society of Guilt

There is this story on the news about a woman in the UK who is protesting against the subway ads that say obesity causes cancer. She says the ads make her feel guilty for being fat and that’s intolerable.

We can rag on the woman because yes, her complaints are silly. It’s true that obesity elevates cancer risks, and denying that is not a rational thing to do.

However, we can also look at the reasons why so many people perceive shaming or guilt-tripping in all kinds of things and react as strongly as this woman did to the most obvious, inoffensive statements.

All of the precariousness and risk of neoliberal societies is for individuals to deal with. If you are not successful, that’s your fault for not being a good entrepreneur of the self. You need to manage yourself better. And whenever anything bad happens, it’s your fault for not running fast enough, for not processing the change well enough, for not managing yourself better. That’s the essence of the neoliberal ideology I keep talking about.

People get tired of the constant interiorization of guilt for everything, so they freak out over the seemingly insignificant, trivial things like that subway ad about obesity. The woman who is protesting chose this particular innocent ad to concentrate on but what actually causes her discomfort is the larger environment of the constant recitation of the idea that there is nothing but isolated individuals who are completely responsible for everything that happens to them.


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6 thoughts on “Society of Guilt

  1. raddledoldtart on said:

    But for England (& Wales) this is a political issue, as the right wing government wishes to eliminate the National Health Service and move towards the American model – therefore continuous narratives are presented to citizens, directly from government and indirectly from associated and influenced sources (e.g. newspapers, and in this case, a major charity) that the health service is failing, and cannot be funded, and people must stop expecting it to care for them. So these adverts will not help anyone to lose weight, but will deter people from seeking medical help early enough, because they will feel firstly, guilty for being overweight, and secondly will fear being judged and refused treatment until they lose weight.


    • What I’m saying is that they can only feel guilty if they are already steeped in a culture that is obsessed with the entrepreneurship of the self. And the destruction of welfare is part of it. This is an entirely innocuous statement of itself. It’s the context that makes it so unpalatable to people.


      • raddledoldtart on said:

        But that ‘culture’ is being forced down upon the folk of England by the tiny minority of ruling class (who fancy getting their own snouts deeper in the trough) and it’s being opposed, not least by those who thoroughly object to a charity (which states a main aim of ‘more people surviving cancer’) debasing itself to kowtow to the government.


        • Exactly. And what we need to do is not to turn on this woman (which is just an example among many) but resist this kind of conditioning that is affecting all of us. We need to look at how this mentality works and why it is so seductive in many ways (or it wouldn’t work.)


  2. Hmm I’m not so sure about the idea that it’s a constant recitation that she is completely responsible for everything that happens to her that got to her. What I got from that was that she reacted badly to the suggestion that she was responsible for avoiding cancer, and she failed to meet that responsibility, sorta like what raddledoldtart said. What I get from the culture more generally (at least here in the US) is that people perceive shaming and guilt-tripping in all kinds of things is that other people are responsible for not making you feel bad.


    • “What I get from the culture more generally (at least here in the US) is that people perceive shaming and guilt-tripping in all kinds of things is that other people are responsible for not making you feel bad.”

      • Of course, absolutely. And it often acquires ridiculous proportions. In the end, nobody wants to say anything to anybody that is a bit less superficial because of the fear that people will take offense. But where does this automatic presumption that everybody is out to wound you come from? Why is the neighbor always seen as a threat? Who wins from our feeling this way about each otehr?


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