The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote back in 1976 that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” Foucault was referring to (post)modern man’s desire to humble himself while under the pressure of institutional forces like mental hospitals, prisons and schools. He argued that, like inmates under constant surveillance, the average citizen today has internalized the gaze of invisible prison guards. First to protect ourselves—and then out of habit—we end up self-correcting even if we’ve done nothing wrong.
Imagine if Foucault had lived to see the rise of reality TV and celebrity news channels.
We used to rely on the Church for our confession rituals. By the late nineteenth century, however, people started turning to psychotherapy for the sharing of transgressions. Folks still consult priests and therapists, of course, but over the years new digital outlets have emerged.
Now we have programs like Big Brother to witness on a global scale the trials and tribulations of misbehaving contestants. The Bachelor shares his personal struggles in the hopes of landing an equally troubled “wife.” We have Katie Couric to feel our pain and filter it to her wide-eyed viewers, all in the service of our rehabilitation, which is often court-ordered. Barbara Walters still makes celebrities cry when discussing their unbearable childhoods and subsequent drug, alcohol and sex addictions.
But what are we so guilty about? What impels us both to watch these less-than-intimate confessions and then repeat the process to strangers on blogs, followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook? Everybody does things he or she regrets, but it seems like we’ve made a competition out of who can repent the loudest.
Americans love a good comeback story, or at least the illusion that all of us can achieve spiritual renewal if we try hard enough. Our obsession with guilt is just the first step. The next phase involves giving stars like Charlie Sheen a chance at redemption. Until he—and you and I—screw up tomorrow and feel compelled to confess new sins. As we spin our truths for higher ratings, the world sits back and sets the DVR.