Visser on honour and shame

Visser on honour and shame McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 21, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > November 21, 2002 > Visser on honour and shame

Visser on honour and shame

When best-selling author Margaret Visser was asked to do CBC's 2002 Massey lectures, she says, "It came as a total surprise."

This is the first time the Massey lectures have been recorded publicly, and Visser is the guinea pig for the whirlwind tour from Vancouver to Halifax. "Next time I don't think they'll give so many dinners," she laughs. And they'll have to book bigger halls -- over 200 were put on the waiting list for the hottest ticket in Montreal the night of November 13, when Visser delivered the fourth of the "Beyond Fate" lectures at McGill's Moyse Hall.

Visser and her husband currently live in Barcelona. They love it. "Every time you leave the house you never know what's going to happen. It's completely mad and wild and wonderful. You can walk out on the street and there's this group of men with cow's heads on their heads, playing instruments. You just say 'what the hell is this!'" Visser laughs. "You never know what's going to happen next."

The morning of her lecture, the Reporter caught up with Visser in a hotel lobby, her nose buried in a newspaper, absorbing the latest news of Osama Bin Laden and George Bush.

"Just look at the newspapers!" Visser exclaimed. Headlines of retribution illustrate precisely what she's speaking out against in her talks: a culture of honour, shame and fatalism.

Visser had been a University of Toronto classics professor for 18 years, and she returned to the subject for the lectures. (Using ancient Greece as a referent, Visser says, is "very useful because it doesn't exist anymore so nobody's going to think it's politically incorrect to talk about it!")

The ancient Greeks utterly believed in an endless cycle of fate, fed by a steady stream of upholding honour by avenging shame. Christianity (to which Visser has returned after decades of secularism) replaced this circular notion of fate with a more linear one, a liberation from believing that what came to pass was inevitable and to be always thus continued.

Two thousand years later, our modern culture is not so far removed from that of the Greeks as we might like to think. In fact, Visser believes we are falling back into embracing fate and are more likely to hold our genes or society, accountable for our behaviour and its consequences than take a hard look at our role in the unfolding of events.

Visser uses concrete, spatial metaphors that the audience can recognize and hold onto. We see time as a line drawn out before us, think of shame as being "cut down to size," as compared to honour, which is to be "big" about something. Honour can be transgressed by metaphorical invasions of one's space -- by sticking out a tongue at someone, for instance.

And if someone impugnes your honour, you must -- are fated to -- take revenge.

That morning, Visser was in high dudgeon. "Fundamentally, the idea that you take revenge is totally anti-Christian and very, very foolish. When this ridiculous man Osama Bin Laden says justice is doing the same -- what you do to me I do to you, that's justice -- and we think, oh what a fool he is. And yet that's exactly how we feel. We have become exactly like Osama Bin Laden."

In her 62 years, Visser feels that she's "never come across a time when things are blacker. We're really reaching the bottom." She believes people are behaving badly because they have lost their moral roots. After mulling darkly on this, she laughs, saying, as a Christian, "I'm not allowed to believe that people lost it!

"I can imagine it was like this in 1937 and the ground started to shake. Nobody did anything, nobody stepped in, nobody said enough. I don't believe in fate, that we're fated to go and have a terrible war. If we do, it's because we decided to."

In the lectures, Visser illuminates the way out of this vicious cycle. "I am trying to replace honour and shame -- with its concomitant automatic revenge, therefore fatalism -- with guilt and forgiveness. Guilt, because it can be forgiven. Shame cannot be forgiven. Guilt requires forgiveness."

Visser says, "Once you've recognized you've done something wrong and you've done what you can to make reparations for it, it's wrong to keep on being guilty. It's wrong because you've turned guilt into shame. You've become ashamed.

"The Christian rule is, if you really feel sorry, you're forgiven. Move on!"

Just as guilt requires forgiveness, individualism requires a connection with the greater group, or love. "Individualism certainly requires love. If you're cut off from everybody else, if you just live for your own self, then it's death." Visser adds, "One without the other is a gross distortion.

"Christianity's full of contradictions like that -- Christ is both human and divine." It is through standing back and comprehending both sides, Visser says, that one grows. "I think a mystical experience is seeing two diametrically opposite things at the same time," she says, for example "that the world is both tiny and enormous at the same time.

"I'm using these Greek-formulated oppositions which are tremendously powerful. What I'm trying to do is name them so that people can see them. You can't see things until they're shown to you."

Visser made her name by writing about the mundane and everyday -- from food origins to the highly ritualized dinner setting, from beards to the layout of a church. By peeling back layers of social history, mythology and anthropology, her writing gently jolts readers into viewing the ordinary in a new light.

"That's my specialty -- I deal with things that people take for granted. The extent to which you take something for granted is the extent to which it controls you. You can't see that the shape of your knife says everything about how you feel about the possibility of violence at dinner," Visser laughs.

"Good questions are the ones people don't ask that need to be asked."

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