As well as sharing the distinction of being among the twentieth century’s more established pariahs, Romania ‘s Nicolae Ceausescu , Iraq ‘s Saddam Hussein and Zaire ‘s Moboto Seko had a common Washington-based lobbyist throughout the 1980s. These and many other disgraced third world leaders had their public relations interests promoted in the United States by Edward Von Kloberg, a dynamic and flamboyant advocate who died in May 2005.
Von Kloberg’s obituary in the Washington Post noted that he was not diffident in his defence of this role. On the contrary, he offered a vigorous, two-tier response. At the first level, he maintained that his efforts encouraged progress by promoting investment opportunities between the US and his clients’ countries. Such economic interactions would, he argued, create constructive engagement and social exchanges that would, over time, foster a humanising ethic, a democratising spirit … blah, blah, blah. This argument is so often reprised, so familiar to us from its endless recitation by our pragmatic, ‘realist’ leaders and their echolalic offsiders in the media, that its recycling here, once again, both agitates and numbs. Being subjected to this mantra once more re-evokes the perseveration we routinely suffer in the moral ambiguity characterising our supposedly post-politics milieu.
Here, as we squat uncomfortable and inactive, Von Kloberg pitches his second level of defence. Aware that his rationalisation may not be accepted as entirely plausible, he offers a very different answer to critics. ‘So what’, he says with menacing nonchalance, ‘shame is for sissies’.
The machismo, jock-warrior tone of this second defence sings to an old tune, one equally familiar as the first: be tough, take their blows, stare your opponent down. Yet, at the same time, this antagonistic defence hits a different and unsettling note, one that clearly denigrates the primacy of shame itself by associating it with that which is inferior and cast down.
In relation to his first line of defence, it is apparent that, yes, even if I could free myself enough from my agitated turpitude and actively disagree with the argument that ‘holding hands with tyrants can do some good’, Von Kloberg and I are still arguing in relation to a criteria upon which we both share a concern: it is worthwhile to do good. The second justification denies any common ethical ground — and maybe even any common ground of the self. This is a rather confounding finding. Most people would assume that shame is an experience that is irrefutably and irreducibly to be avoided. One would therefore expect everyone else to share the same premise.
Another possibility is that Von Kloberg’s position on shame might not be as much of an outlier as once it might have been. Such a conclusion is prompted by considering the increasingly frequent phenomena of politicians and business leaders, sports people and clergy ‘brassing it out’ when they are confronted with evidence of having caused harm or, even worse, of actual wrongdoing.
This is to raise the dystopian possibility that we are being coached to be more and more shameless, to become entities that subsist at the psychopathic edge of narcissism. A case can be made that we are literally being taught to be creatures that see the other only in so far as this ‘site’ is one that may be useful, that it may serve an instrumental function for me.
Evidence for this case can range from key public figures, such as politicians and high profile business people, being directly observed modelling this behaviour, to the phalanx of self improvement experts selling this message, though opaquely. These latter instructors include not just the noisy, self-appointed soap-sellers of the motivation industry. Their ranks also include the respectable experts of bourgeois psychology, particularly, but not exclusively, those pushing the so-called cognitive revolution for each and every one of us to get more of what we want.
Being Your Own Booster
Tony Robbins, among other motivational gurus, tells us we are, for example, driving with our handbrakes on: ‘Listen up, it is your life and you can be in charge, you can get better performance … whenever you are ready to make that decision’. This approach typically uses established frames of reference and embedded, trick metaphors to locate the self and its possibilities within a muscular language of action and choice. Increasing ‘self-agency’ is the goal and elimin-ating what shackles you, what is slowing you down, is a key method.
De-legitimating, and then de-activating, the limits to your performance involves ‘overcoming’ guilt, shyness, ‘your pre-occupation with what others think about you’ and so forth. As well as enhanced self-agency being an internal matter, it is an observable quest in the real world where one is pushed to be tougher at your perimeter — that is, with those around you: in your business relationships, your family, with strangers. More for me, less for them.
Just in case this interpretation is seen as taking a dismissive, ‘holier than thou’ view, it should be acknowledged that there are progressive moments in this approach. Given our social environment is increasingly iniquitous, if one is not on top of the heap, if you and your kind are not holding heaps of cultural capital, this ‘making-the-best-of-it’ kind of thinking makes sense. A more respectable version is that offered by English sociologist Anthony Giddens: ‘Be reflective, work at the juncture of agency and structure. You don’t want to be complicit in your own lack of success’.
The structure is fixed, the rules of the game rigged, so the action is centred on increasing one’s own agency. Put into the language of TV-hits-the-self-help-shelves, one should not be a ‘co-dependent’ in a pattern of addiction to safety and mediocrity: ‘You can get a better personal return on your efforts’. As well as the books on motivation, we now regularly enjoy the same kind of coaching through Oprah-style dramatisations, Sixty Minutes-style pseudo-documentaries and me-first reality show competitions where it is clear to everyone that you need to be a shit in order to do well. If you want to win, get in first and don’t be squeamish about your methods. Don’t be limited by worrying about how others will see you: your workmates are there for the same reason as you and if you don’t do it to them first, then you only have yourself to blame. If you want to get on, eat up. As a recent management text stated, ‘strategic friendships’ can be useful but relationships are not an end in themselves.
Self improvement texts to one side, it is possible to the see the same logic at work in the accounts of personal utility that are offered in popular psychology and psychotherapy. For subjects wishing to better themselves, what have these allied disciplines brought forward? In our neo-liberal period there is no single answer as bourgeois psychology, like advertising, offers up an evolving set of candidate descriptions even as some particular images of success and esteem, such as the self-made-man and the made-up woman, the tough warrior and the nurturing mother, become iconic and are themselves the motifs upon which variations, even contra-theses, can be constructed. The following broad-stroke summary will briefly note several of the major brands of psycho- therapeutic schema for what they offer the interested self-improving subject.
There is not the opportunity here to summarise the many psychotherapeutic traditions. Clearly, there are key differences between Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the many iterations of psycho-dynamic therapy, between the varieties of ‘humanistic counselling’ and more fringe varieties like logotherapy. Are feelings or attitudes deemed pivotal? Is the dominant metaphor, the purpose of the exercise, ‘adjustment’, ‘attachment’, ‘insight’? Is history or the here-and-now focused upon? Should I renounce, let go of, my fantasies or should I want more, feel entitled to that which I have not got?
Yet, beyond the many differences between these rivals there is one emphatic commonality, one theme that unites all of the above contenders for our attention: each of the mainstream therapeutic developments is premised upon the assumption that each person is bounded by their skin, that this entity has an identity and interests that are sheared from those of their relationships and environment.
There is nought in any of the standard approaches about personal accountability or the importance of co-operation and interdependence. The ‘sovereign self’ is assumed to be an autonomous, amoral, status-seeking, consumer–producer. That which might connect with notions of the common good, such as the experience of guilt and shame for example, is understood as a problem to be solved, as a restraint to free trade.
In this regard, the most popular bourgeois psychology brand — CBT — is close to identical with the language of micro-economic reform. In both cases the terminology is pseudo-technical and eminently sensible as it is the vocabulary of neo-liberal utility: in the same way as the language of micro-economic reform is used to ‘analyse’ waterfront performance, it is also used to inspect the rationality, the effectiveness, of the subject of the CBT project. Each constructs their subject by rote using notions of efficiency, effectiveness, focus, priorities, management by objectives, performance and so forth. This feature may be objected to by some, yet it is this characteristic that makes the approach so seductive and so apparently logical. But CBT is only worse in degree if not in kind to other approaches.
Across all the regular approaches to the psycho-therapeutic project, the subject is expected to be, if not an outright robber-baron, an entity that acts upon her/his location like a profit-and-loss-driven corporation. The software guiding such entities is not just benignly neglectful of ‘the Other’, whether this person is partner or stranger. Rather, the Other is not posited except as some kind of uninhabited site to be mined or, even worse, as a hindrance, an obstruction, that requires manipulation.
The therapeutically adjusted subject is the independent variable and this mobile entity strategises the Other and makes rational, self-serving choices in pursuit of what is presumed to be entitlement or naked advantage. Even the softer, more progressive brands of psychotherapy, such as the ‘emotional intelligence’ stream at the gentle end of the spectrum, seek the agent to be Other-oriented only as a tactical step towards the better accomplishment of the agent’s goals.
In an interview I did with him in 1999, published in Psychotherapy in Australia 5(4), the English sociologist Nikolas Rose argues that:
The psychotherapies embody … a whole way of seeing and understanding ourselves in modern societies. The words of the psychotherapies, their explanations, their types of judgment, their categories of pathology and normality, actually shape, have a proactive role in shaping, the subjectivity of those who would be their consumers.
If these formations say nothing about fairness, about being reasonable to others, about personal accountability, if they equate health and well-being with assertion and acquisition, and they equate non-adjustment with dependence and quietude, these bodies of practice play an important role in forging our specific narratives of self.
Just Keep Walking
The pervasiveness of this view was perfectly illustrated by a series of recent Johnnie Walker whisky ads which presented apparently ordinary, young, middle class men who unexpectedly find themselves placed in compromising situations by their manager, partner or friends. Unlike the usual caught-with-his-pants-down advertising scenario, there is a twist to this tale: each ad concludes at the very moment the likely lad has been ‘found out’. Here, at the instant our protagonist is set up to experience awkwardness, even embarrassment, the text says: ‘Just keep walking’, don’t give it a thought.
Part challenge, part injunction, ‘just keep walking’ is an example of those journey metaphors now so popular in the media and everyday conversation. Yet, the ‘just keep walking’ message comes with a twist. More than the standard ‘life is a journey’ menu, the message that is being pushed is that it is now in order to be shameless: someone’s trust may have been risked, even breached; yes, the offender may not have been thoughtful in his planning; but the message to the observer, as to the protagonist himself, is to keep in mind that the pursuits in question were fun-loving as the motives were red-blooded. All he was doing was playing a computer game with a male mate, or making sexual advances with his other kind of mate, so in terms of content there is no need to lose face. En contraire, it is all about self and public presentation: if the lead man has the chutzpah to ‘just keep walking’ his momentum will pull him through and, presumably, he’ll emerge the stronger for it. His interests are front and square. The rest do not exist.
We’ve all seen the same logic being offered and accepted when the protagonist has been a public figure, from CEOs caught underhandedly double-dealing just prior to their company going bankrupt, to politicians — like the leaders of the putative ‘Coalition of the Willing’ — caught lying to their constituents; from priests accused of sexual abuse, to footballers who have hit an opponent behind the play and not been caught on camera: just keep walking. If it works for these public figures, it has to work for us ordinary Joes.
That such behaviour was, until very recently, looked down on — if not actively proscribed — is not the issue. If one was too focused on ethics, on feelings, on the Other, this would be to get hung up, to risk being brought down.
If I wish to be more effective at securing my personal goals, some of what I would like to mine, to have available as mine, is located in territories that were previously considered dubious, if not forbidden. Being seen or seeing oneself as grasping and opportunistic would have been to trespass boundaries delineating the ‘bad mannered’, the ‘unseemly’, if not the ‘unworthy’ less than a generation ago. Although it’s a generalisation, it seems likely that it is now less transgressive to be seen as opportunistic, as a user, as aggressive, self-centred, inconsiderate, disloyal and the like.
And if one is caught with one’s hand in a colleague’s pocket, or having rubbed dirt into someone else’s carpet, the key tactic is to not let anyone see you with a red face. Use the Howard-Ruddock-Vanstone defence: first deny it ever happened, then, if the facts get in the way, deny you ever knew about it. If that doesn’t work, deny it’s any big bad thing, maybe even make a provocative joke about it as Amanda Vanstone did when confronted with the ‘shameful’ facts about the Alvarez Solon deportation. ‘I’m thinking of buying the rights to the Elton John song “I’m Still Standing”’, she quipped. She may even agree with Von Kloberg that shame is for sissies — but that’s her secret.
Mark Furlong is with the School of Social Work and Social Policy, Faculty of Health Sciences, La Trobe University.