Swallowing the Guilt Pill

“Our emotions are being targeted by corporate interests to internalize the wrongs that have been done to the environment,” explains Tim Jensen.


October 15, 2015

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Tim Jensen’s scholarship sheds light on the guilt we feel because of the messages we receive. (Photo: Frank Miller)

IT WAS EARTH DAY 1971. Across America, millions of TV viewers were settled on their sofas, bathed in the blue light of Columbo and Ironside and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At the commercial break, between ads for Dial soap, True cigarettes and Ragu spaghetti sauce, they watched as an actor in buckskins and braids paddled a canoe through a landscape blighted by industrial pollution and trash. Just as the actor beached the canoe, a bag of half-eaten fast food, hurled from a passing car, splatted at his feet. A tear trickled from his eye while a voiceover admonished: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

“Rhetoric is the study of how we use language and how language uses us.”
-Krista Ratcliffe, Marquette University

As they watched, John and Jane Doe shifted uncomfortably on their sofa. The implied accusation in the ad, sponsored by the public-private consortium Keep America Beautiful, clearly was directed at them.

Fast forward four decades. In the spring of 2010, Americans sat riveted in horror as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfolded on their TVs. One evening, even as thousands of barrels of sticky brown crude gushed from the seafloor into the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Ed Stanton of the U.S. Coast Guard looked grimly into a bank of network cameras.  “If you drive a car, you own part of this spill,” he told the viewing public. Blame for the tar-spoiled beaches, the idled shrimp boats and the oiled pelicans was being laid at the feet of harried parents who haul their kids to music lessons in minivans and weary workers who commute to offices and factories in hatchbacks and pickups.  Stanton’s remark echoes the so-called “Crying Indian” strategy, now a ubiquitous means of steering public emotion on issues of environmental degradation, according to Tim Jensen, an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at Oregon State University.

In exploring the rhetorics of social movements, including environmentalism, local foods and Occupy Wall Street, for an upcoming book, Jensen has delved into the societal impact of the Crying Indian. Critically acclaimed by Madison Avenue as one of the best ads ever made, the Crying Indian was one in a series of public service announcements sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit consortium founded by beverage behemoths Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, and tobacco giant Philip Morris along with private philanthropists and government agencies. Messages developed by the ad agency, like “Every Litter Bit Hurts” and “Don’t Be a Litterbug,” which started airing in the early ’50s, chided American consumers to take personal responsibility for pollution. The Crying Indian amped up the stakes — from encouraging a sense of civic duty to instilling a sense of self-reproach.

It was no coincidence, Jensen says, that Keep America Beautiful was organized in 1953, the same year Vermont first sought to legislate point-of-purchase deposits on aluminum cans (advertised then as “throw-aways”), which were blighting roadsides and waterways across the nation. To head off the growing anti-disposables mood and any laws that might threaten revenue, the big beverage companies contrived the Crying Indian to refocus the public’s attention on litter (and their own complicity as consumers) instead of on the companies that make, fill and sell the bottles. “The single tear at the end of that influential commercial orients us toward guilt and away from indignation,” Jensen says.

“Our emotions are being targeted by corporate interests to internalize the wrongs that have been done to the environment,” he explains. “At the end of a long production chain, consumers are left holding the plastic bottle, so to speak. We’re made to feel that we’re primarily responsible instead of the companies that manufacture and sell those bottles. ”

Paralysis Through Purity

It was a “bunch of crusty punks” in Colorado who gave Tim Jensen his first front-row seat into social movements, which he sees as “substantial shifts in collective discourse and emotional orientation.” The green anarchists and ecowarriors he hung out with in Denver’s bike-courier subculture after earning his undergraduate degree in English provided an insider’s view on the dynamics of such movements as Occupy Wall Street and Deep Green Resistance.

The son of a judge, Jensen had grown up “thoroughly middle-class” in a cloistered suburb of postindustrial Toledo, Ohio, a rustbelt town that to him “feels like it’s been taking its last gasp for a long time, yet fights on.” But Jensen never claimed privilege as a birthright. A fierce climber of rocks, paddler of rivers and trekker of trails, he found himself chafing inside the “tiny bubble” of his upbringing. So after college, he headed west with “a sleeping bag and a tub of peanut butter” to round out his education in a grittier setting. He became a bike messenger.

One day when Jensen was at a “peak oil” demonstration, he overheard an anarchist he knew talking to a young woman activist. The anarchist was incensed when he realized the woman had arrived by car. “You drove here?” he asked in a withering tone.
“She looked like she was folding in on herself,” Jensen recalls. “She completely deflated.”

This kind of guilt-driven deflation has helped fuel a phenomenon Jensen calls “paralysis through purity,” and it illustrates how, he argues, guilt is frequently leveraged by both corporate entities and activists alike. Contending that a “virulent strain” of the zero-impact ethos infects environmentalism today, he deplores peer pressure that demands “moral purity” among activists. As he points out, zero-impact implies that any human impact — eating food, drinking water, heating or cooling houses or apartments, wearing clothes — is inherently bad. The logical extension is that human existence itself is bad. Jensen rejects this conclusion along with the rigid attitudes that drive it. “It’s a potent reminder of guilt’s tremendous persuasive power, the fact that it has many shades and functions in complex ways.”

Fridge Buzz

Just as guilt can erode an individual’s will to join the fight (“I’m unworthy to take a stand because I’m complicit in harming the planet”), it also can undermine the potential for activism among entire communities and societies. Individual guilt stems from a person’s own actions (like driving a car instead of riding a bike), while collective guilt stems from being part of a group whose actions as a whole can be seen as blameworthy. So even when a person’s own lifestyle is super-green, he may feel guilt for being part of an extractive society.

“Unlike intense feelings of direct guilt,” Jensen says, “collective guilt often exists at low, steady levels in the background of everyday actions, frequently escaping the focus of our emotional lens. Like a kitchen ‘fridge buzz,’ it fades from notice precisely because it is constant.” This white noise of collective guilt can become another “paralyzing force,” he says, enervating social movements before they can even take their first wobbly steps by directing anger inward instead of outward. Jensen sees this collective guilt emerging from our “common sensorium” — that is, the emotional equivalent of common sense.

“The notion of a common sensorium provokes us to consider the historical conditioning that shapes the experience of a particular emotion,” Jensen explains. “How has our contemporary understanding of guilt and its relation to personal action been shaped culturally and historically — say, by the tenets of classical liberalism or fascinations with rugged individualism? How long has my environmentally related guilt for driving an SUV been in the making?”

Our “collective guilt” often redirects our anger and distress, turning it back on ourselves and away from big polluters and powerful policymakers, according to Jensen. Too often we substitute small-scale acts of atonement-via-consumerism for large-scale political action.

Take the ubiquitous “eco-friendly” label, for example. The eco-friendly slogan, with its “rhetoric of guilt and atonement,” has infiltrated the environmental movement by giving consumers a “safety valve” for releasing anger and easing guilt, Jensen says. By stamping consumer items — everything from drain cleaners to paper towels to pesticides — with the slogan “eco-friendly,” manufacturers have given consumers a handy outlet for their guilty feelings, what Jensen calls “a ready-made guilt-redemption cycle.” You buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, unbleached TP and cage-free eggs to make amends for your impact on the Earth. You feel better about yourself and the planet. The trouble is, eco-friendliness won’t stave off the worst effects of climate change unless accompanied by meaningful political action and corporate accountability.

“By no means am I saying that recycling or living simply aren’t important  — they are,” Jensen says. “It’s just that they don’t have the scale of impact that we tend to assign to them.”

Wearing the green-tinted glasses of eco-friendliness encourages one to see the marketplace as the only driver of change, rather than political action, and deflects blame for pollution toward individual consumers and away from the producers of harmful products.

“The rhetorical strategy of coupling collective guilt with the offer of immediate, individualized atonement through consumerism is uniquely effective,” says Jensen. “Positioning individual consumer acts as the solution for ecological ills, however, attenuates desire to join collectives of resistance that strive for significant, structural changes to an unsustainable way of life.”

Decode and Encode

After a few years zooming around the streets with Denver’s punks and Peter Pans, Jensen took his fresh-off-the-streets insights to his studies of rhetorical theory, including the classics of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, when he began work on his Ph.D. at Ohio State. “The rhetorical arts are a thousand years older than Christ — it’s a durable discipline for good reason,” notes Jensen, a founder and editor of the interactive digital magazine Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion. “An education in civics and democracy is inherently bound up with an education in rhetoric — one’s ability to decode and encode communication.”

At Oregon State, where he directs the university’s first-year composition program, Jensen challenges his students to think critically and rhetorically about the language that surrounds them, to analyze the emotional impact of rhetorical choices, and to situate their observations within a larger cultural conversation. “I want students to be deeply curious about the persuasion in and about their everyday environment,” he says. “I want students to ask and pursue tough questions about how language has a profound impact on our beliefs and behavior. I want them to consider how a phrase like ‘habitat loss,’ for example, subtly steers attention away from issues of human agency.”

Jensen contends that being emotionally aware is one critical component of being rhetorically aware. “The ways in which we experience and express emotion have been significantly shaped by social forces,” he explains. “Becoming interested in and attuned to how our feelings are calibrated by culture is not just an academic exercise, but at times a necessary act for effective activism.”

At a time when extinction rates are soaring, yet oil companies view melting Arctic ice as an opportunity for more drilling, and when slimmer plastic caps on water bottles get billed as progress, Jensen suggests that some emotional adjustments are warranted.  “What we need,” he says, “is less guilt and more righteous indignation.”

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