Antibacterial Soap and the Quest for Absoloution

“Out, out damned spot!” howls Lady Macbeth in one of the most overplayed and psychologically transparent scenes in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.

The story up to that point involves some troublesome witches, and the murder of a King that both Lady Macbeth and her husband, apparently, have some issues over. Ms. Macbeth just can’t seem to get the blood off her hands…no matter how hard she scrubs.

Slide forward with me 300 years, to a very different country and a somewhat larger cast. The United States of America, founded by Puritans, conceived in liberty, and struggling with a few issues of its own. Any individual, under the weight of extreme psychological distress, will begin to manifest symptoms of that burden. As a society, we can look to the societal trends created by great numbers of individuals to diagnose societal dysfunctions.

So let’s take a look at the Lady Macbeth factor in the United States in 2007.
In 2000, a physician performed survey found that 76% of liquid soaps and 29% of bar soaps contained antibacterial agents, representing a steady increase in the presence of antibacterials in the consumer market. Of course, the interesting thing about this is that studies have thus far been unable to indicate that there is any advantage at all to using antibacterial products in a healthy household. There is even some evidence that triclosan (the most common antibacterial additive) may contribute to the development of resistant bacteria strains, create allergic or photosensitive reactions in some, that it can be absorbed through the skin and passed into the breastmilk of nursing mothers (which may have a marked effect on development), that hyper-sterilized environments in youth may increase the likelihood of developing allergies, asthma, or eczema, and that the amounts of triclosan being washed into our drains may have long term ecological ramifications. Even the CDC recommends that washing our hands with simple soap and water should be plenty to keep most of us from dropping dead from all the microbes living on and around us. So why are we still snapping up the antibacterial products as if our neighbors were painting ashes on their doors?

American culture is, above all things, a mish-mosh of imported belief systems. Early immigrants brought the devout Puritan system, and although no longer characterized as the horrifically oppressive system it was once was believed to be, it was certainly more oppressive than most modern standards. There was, at the core of Puritanism, the belief that only a limited number of people could enter heaven, and that they must be recognized on earth so that they could form the “true” church. They lived under a system of outward signs of dedication, so that their place within the church would continue to be assured. Hence the strict standards of dress, limiting of entertainment, and limited sexual tolerance. Add to this later generations of large immigrant bodies, mostly heavily Christian, often Catholic, with their own repressive fears and taboos…and guilt.

Whenever we create rigid social boundaries for ourselves, we create a situation where those boundaries will be broken, and the resulting psychological condition for most will be guilt.
For the Puritans, this guilt was often placated by beatings or public humiliation. But then, the aberrations were fairly mild, such as dancing or sex outside of marriage. As we incorporated more and more cultures, the taboos became more overlapping and complex. The guilt, therefore, becomes a confusing and ephemeral thing, tied not to one misdeed but to thousands, many of which we may not even consciously recognize as valid. There is a constant feeling in American society that even if we are trying to do right, we will somehow stumble and do wrong. That while we may try to follow all the laws, there are so many that we will break them unconsciously, and nevertheless be forced to pay the price.

Until recently, the need to absolve ourselves of our sins and misdeeds was taken care of for most at church. There we could pray for forgiveness, confess to a priest, do our penance, and know we had been forgiven. Science has undercut the spiritual confidence of some, however, and the many religious scandals of the last twenty years have taken their toll. There simply seems to be no way to be assured that our sins are absolved. We race full-tilt into the Age of Communication, wherein we can no longer pretend that our actions, or those of our businesses, or our governments, affect only us or people who are “not people”. The consequence is that we carry not only our own guilt, but the guilt of an entire nation, always wondering if there was something more we could have, should have done.

We have become a nation easily marketed the idea of the ultimate cleanser. We scrub and scrub, and yet we still feel dirty. And so we look for something harsher, something which will remove the dirt, the germs, the blood, perhaps even our own skin until we can finally feel absolved, finally feel clean of all the atrocities we have seen, all the cruelty we suspect ourselves of. But, of course there is not cleanser which will rid us of the plague on our conscience.

If we are to overcome our fear and guilt, we must stop trying to sublimate them beneath a veneer of ascetic sanitation and start dealing with the real problems which are all around us. Our society is sick from the foundations up, the blood is on all our hands. We don’t need a cabinet full of cleansers but, perhaps, we should spend some time seriously contemplating the nature of the stain.