In defense of guilt

Born on the wrong side of the tracks (Mumbai, India)

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.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan, thoughtful and honest/provocative as ever. But I wonder if more provocative than thoughtful this time: do you really mean ‘guilt’ in this post? If you mean a sense of the unfairness of being lucky in an unfair world, and a sense of obligation to address that unfairness rather than to tolerate and ignore it – then I see the logic.

    But if you really mean to consider yourself morally responsible for some combination of your unearned opportunities in life, others’ unearned opportunities, and the discrepancy between those two, then that’s problematic to me: since it’s just not true. And what is the relevant reciprocal attitude for your cleaning lady to have towards you – resentment? guilt?? An unpleasant emotion related to injustice need not be either of those two.

    As an alternative, I’m reminded of the newsgush recently about Arianna Huffington’s recommendation of Jeremy Rifkin’s book “The Empathic Civilisation”: in the face of grinding inequality, why not respond with an affirmation of our underlying equality in the face of our Creator or, if you prefer, in the light of our equal human dignity. By reaching out with empathy to a sister you deny that your wealth and education elevate you above her, and in identifying with her troubles you enlist yourself on her behalf to overcome them. I don’t see guilt there, except in the refusal to move beyond contemplation of the downtrodden and into empathy towards them (perhaps your point is that this refusal is our permanent condition – well, fair point).

    And indeed, I would say that the correct emotion is not one that can be selected from a drop-down list upon encountering injustice: guilt/despair/ignorance/anxiety/determination. The correct emotion, I think, is whatever follows loving behaviour in that situation. Someone recently described it to me as ‘smiling brightly with tears running down your face’. She said this mental state was the goal of life, and she could well be right.

  2. Matthew says:

    I agree, both with the sentiment that injustice should provoke a feeling of obligation to fight for justice, but also that guilt may not be the best way to characterize the motivation to do so.

    “Guilt” is certainly a word with lots of connotational tension. The classic generalizations about Jewish/Catholic guilt make it seem like a counterproductive personal burden, while our legal system (do not even get me started on that mess) indicates that it is a vital part of making people accountable for their actions.

    Guilt is a feeling that makes me feel like I have done something wrong, unlike shame which says that I am wrong inherently because of some act or quality. You rightly recognize that you have done nothing wrong by virtue of the circumstances of your birth, and neither have many disadvantaged people who are frequently blamed for the circumstances. Many of them make choices that are logical given those circumstances, but put them at odds with societal views on proper conduct. Minority status can often provoke a fear of being vulnerable for those who feel marginalized in their own country. This can prompt a defensive posture. Once you are ready for a fight (physical, emotional, etc.) it is very easy to find one. Much like the Roma in Eastern Europe, the need to defend yourself leads to the behavior that makes you a perceived threat, and thus further outcast.

    The point of all that verbal meandering, is that individual and collective responsibility are good things to feel. Responsibility to right wrongs and to fight injustice – let us go full throttle – that is what we are called to do.

    Guilt, however, leads only to more guilt in my opinion, and not to righteous or just action. We are not guilty because of our privilege, just as we are not guilty because of our deprivation (regardless of what a certain Wisconsin congressman might argue).

    If I understand your point correctly it sounds like this to me:

    God, please break our heart for that which breaks yours

    We ought to feel responsibility to argue for justice, and to work for justice. I feel the best way to characterize that motivation must go beyond one word, even “heartbroken”. For the sake of your post, “guilt” may have spurred a worthwhile conversation, but in that conversation there are many complicated and conflicting motivational feelings to explore, and they require many words to convey their meanings.

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