Say you’re a twenty-something American male and the year is 1970. The Vietnam War is still in full swing and dates are drawn from the “hat” (or shoebox and capsules, as the case may be) to determine who gets drafted and who stays home. Your birthday falls in August, but September dates are drawn, leaving you high and dry while your countrymen born in September are shipped overseas. How do you feel?
For starters, you feel lucky. If you wanted to go and risk getting shot, you’d have signed up long ago. You also feel sorry for the unlucky guys getting called up month after month; it’s sad to see them go.
What about guilt? For a while you keep it at bay by telling yourself that you didn’t set the rules, you didn’t choose when your parents would conceive, and you didn’t start this bloody war or draft. In fact, all you’ve ever done was play by the rules. Yet supposing it turns out the same sorry bunch of “randomly selected” guys keeps getting shipped overseas, something doesn’t feel right: you didn’t choose your date of birth but neither did they, so why should they have to pay?
As far as I can tell, “guilt” is a dirty word in our anything-goes society. When it gets mentioned at all, it’s usually in reference to some horrible person performing some horrible deed. Leave it to Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao.
I’d like to suggest that guilt can be seen as something more than that: as a healthy first response by privileged people like me to injustice. When we limit our sense of guilt to cases of active misconduct and disregard unearned good fortune at other people’s expense, we limit its transformative power.
Let’s get real. I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male born to a Mayflower dad and (West) German mom–both with college degrees–and raised in the northeastern US at the turn of the 21st century. Talk about a lucky start in life. Our family was never rich but nor could we ever be poor with the amount of old money hanging off other branches of the family tree. At family reunions, it was lawyers and doctors and bankers playing tennis and croquet.
As far as I know, I didn’t choose my family or place and time of birth. Yet, through no act of my own, I came into life with all the worldly ingredients of success: safe and supportive surrounds, parents and teachers committed to my advance, a middle class way of life, to name a few. I may not have been guaranteed the fulfillment of my dreams, but “failure” was out of the question. As a fraction of the then-six billion people living on planet Earth, I reckon I started out life in the top two or three percent–and that’s before Yale and Oxford are thrown in the mix.
Here’s the rub: just as I didn’t choose the conditions of my birth, neither did the homeless black man rummaging through my trash this afternoon. Or the young black teen I know in a foster home for boys who’s still learning how to read. Or the kindly coloured lady, twice my age, who cleans our office daily and considers herself lucky to take home a tenth of what I earn. Or my black female friend of thirty-nine who’s counted among the majority of black South Africans chronically unemployed–without the kind of backstop families like mine enjoy, meaning the loss of her home, her credit, parental custody, and finally last month her car. Not to mention the 25,000 children who will die today due to preventable, poverty-related causes. The list goes on and on…
Living in a place like South Africa with a background like my own, it’s a choice between blindness or guilt. And I choose guilt–though it’s taken me a good many years of sobering personal encounters like these for the reality of unearned (dis)advantage to sink in.
Of course, guilt is of little use on its own. What matters is what we do with our guilt–whether it serves as a galvanizing force for redressing systemic wrongs. When decisions over who goes to war are as arbitrary as dates of birth, and when guys of a particular description are continually called up to serve, we know that something’s wrong. What about when other arbitrary facts like race or class or place of origin put some of us on a path to college and others on a path to jail?
Thank God there are always exceptions to the rule, but God help us lest we leave the rules intact for our own selfish gain. That’s where the galvanizing power of guilt is meant to intervene.
And so I try to ask myself, What have I done today to lessen systemic injustice? As usual, I have a long way to go.