The sense of shame

The near-universal celebration of the beginning of another Gregorian calendar year is charged with the prospect of living one’s life over—a prospect both tantalizing and dangerous. I do not wish to argue against submission to the rigors of self-recreation or the enjoyment of its resultant pleasures; instead, I would like to underscore that each of our lives consists of inextricable, sometimes invisible, connections to various others, human or otherwise, which the idea of beginning again tends, in all its attractiveness, to obscure.

That the Roman god after whom this month is named has two heads, one gazing into the past and the other into the future, should serve as a potent reminder that while the “new” year could indeed be a doorway into a space of different possibilities, one cannot simply step outside or transcend the flow of history to start from absolute zero. One cannot, at the midnight stroke of the clock, discard what had come before and exempt oneself from responsibility over previous words and deeds.

Of particular concern to me in this season of aspiring toward renewal are the stock exhortations to forgive and forget, to let go and move on—I refer here specifically to life-changing harm that is inflicted on the level of the personal and in the realm of the everyday, harm that falls outside the ambit of our legal system. Such sentiments are not, perhaps, entirely objectionable, but a milieu that conceives of the act of pardon as a reflex response is morally bankrupt. Not only does it breed a sense of entitlement in those who wound others—which would be all of us, at one point or another—but also it cultivates a culture of impunity within which the heart is stripped of the ability to feel and relationships are drained of value.

Forgiveness should not be granted without conditions, for if we fail to require that the offender muster the courage, the honor, and the decency to redress the hurt that he or she has caused, we secure for ourselves a well-deserved future of further and deeper injury. Ought not the wrongdoer first demonstrate that he or she deserves to be forgiven?

Let this not be mistaken as an endorsement of mere confession, which, even—perhaps especially—in the sacramental sense, is little different from the sort of narcissistic self-display that is encouraged, nay, clamored for, in increasingly absurd degrees by contemporary life: the act of exposing oneself as having inflicted damage against another is to state the obvious. Wallowing in the mud of one’s transgressions is a variant of masturbating in public and should be dealt with accordingly. It is not, however purportedly brave or risky, the same as apologizing and making amends. Nor do I advocate vindictiveness or the holding of grudges on the part of the offended—I suggest, rather, that it is possible to move past the hurt and live well without holding the offender free of accountability.

The remarks of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu are illuminating in this regard. In Kerry Kennedy’s Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders That Are Changing Our World, the retired cleric says that forgiveness does not involve pretending that things are other than they are, or trying to paper over the cracks. Bygones, he points out, will not just be bygones, for such have an incredible capacity for always returning to haunt. Instead, forgiveness means that the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something has happened—that both recognize that ghastliness has occurred. I would add that the perpetrator should be prepared to accept that forgiveness is not deliverable upon demand, that certain acts admit of no reparation, though that does not, of course, justify refusing to try.

While brooding over a botched mastectomy, Handel, a priest and surgeon in Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies, observes that it is unusual for Catholics to feel shame. The ticket, rather, is guilt, which, if a distressing state of mind, is easily remedied, expiated via its articulation in the confessional. He then proposes that shame comes from a different, older moral sense—one where the wrongdoer fears not punishment, either in this or the next world, but the shrinking up of self, the loss that is charged to the soul for every small, mean, dirty, or stupid act: “If I cheat another, I cheat myself out of the person that I could be. If I wound another, I will eventually find the cut recalled to my own heart. There is no appropriate confession, only the will not to fail again so readily, perhaps because while failure can be forgiven it cannot be excused.”

If the foregoing account of the roots of shame is primarily speculative, that is no reason to dismiss the standards it sets for human behavior. We may no longer care very much about our souls, and the days of the pillory and the scarlet letter may be long behind us—all to the good—but should we lose the capacity for shame, we would also lose the capacity for compassion, which, to return the word to its origins, entails suffering with another. Our very existence, as Delirium tells her brother Dream in Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones, deforms the universe, and I fear the sort of beings we would become if we could not enter into the pain of others and be impelled to alleviate it as best as we can, to be ashamed about and atone for our role in the damage, disfigurement, or degradation that has been wrought.

An open letter to Estela V. Sales, Department of Finance undersecretary

I read with great interest the Business Mirror article in which you were reported to have bristled at how Representive Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. “unfairly” portrayed your department as a “voracious tax collector” in imposing duties on imported books, a move that is codified in Department of Finance (DOF) Department Order 17-09. You claimed to have “studied the matter thoroughly and consulted with certain people so as not to provoke adverse reaction”.

Despite the so-called thoroughness of your study and the presumed expertise of your consultants, you know all too well that you have, in fact, provoked adverse reactions, not only from Filipinos–such as the several thousand members of Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs–but also from book lovers around the world, among them prominent writers like Robin Hemley and Neil Gaiman. I would even go as far as to say that the DOF and its bureaus, especially the Bureau of Customs (BOC), to which the dubious honor of collecting the book duties falls, generally provoke adverse reactions due to corruption, incompetence, and disingenuousness–of which your published statements are truly wonderful specimens. (That you are in charge of the Revenue Integrity Protection Service, the anti-corruption arm of the DOF, is a fine example of irony.) I must say that I heartily agree with you: you did not “suddenly [find] enlightenment” regarding book duties, because enlightenment is not the same thing as “imagination bordering on delusion“, to use Locin’s pungent phrase.

If it is enlightenment you are after, I believe I can be of some assistance. Are you familiar with “The Monkey and the Cat” by the French poet Jean de la Fontaine? If you are not, I strongly suggest that you read it. (Please do not worry–it is not a novel. I would never think to recommend something decidedly non-educational.) It is a fable from which the phrase “cat’s paw” is derived–a phrase that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “one used as a tool by another”.

Has it occurred to you that you are a cat’s paw for your boss, Secretary Margarito B. Teves, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at whose pleasure Teves serves? With the sole exception of BOC deputy commissioner Alex Arevalo, who is probably even more delusional than you are, all official statements regarding the book blockade have come from you, which has the effect of turning you into a target for public outrage. Granted, you may act as you wish with relative impunity because you do not hold an elective position. But you ought to ask yourself if it is fair that you bear the brunt of the growing protests against the taxation of books. Do you see yourself in the role of martyr, perhaps? If so, what reward have you been promised or are hoping for? And will such reward be ultimately worth it?

You see, the path to enlightenment is a path of constant questioning, a path where answers are always only provisional. I wonder what answers you will come up with. You will certainly not find them in a book, which is doubtless a relief to you.

Regardless, you may rest assured that your belligerent challenge to book lovers to sue the government will soon be taken up. University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Marvic Leonen has expressed interest in filing a case. And we book lovers have other resources at our disposal, not least of which is the Internet. Mind you, Ms. Sales, that a U.S. Embassy official stated that the power and reach of the Internet as an organizational tool in the Philippines has been “greatly underestimated“. You would do well not to commit that same mistake.