“Social organization, for all its clumsiness and evil, has accomplished far more and embodies more good than I do, for at least it sometimes gives justice. I am a mess, and talk about justice. I owe the powers that created me a human life. And where is it! Where is that human life which is my only excuse for surviving!” – Saul Bellow, Herzog
I live in the Global North. I own four or five pairs of sneakers despite having only one pair of feet. I keep my room warm enough in the winter months so that I’m comfortable lounging in cut-off shorts and a T-shirt. I’ve never had to worry about life’s essentials. The problems I do have, or claim to have, are obviously minor. Repulsively fortunate, I take pretty much everything for granted.
In this story, I can only be the villain. Even worse, I rarely ever think of this as my position in the world. It’s always in the back of my mind, rarely the front. This, too, is despicable. For if I were to constantly think of myself as abundantly lucky and hence unworthy…
It’s not clear to me where the syllogism goes from there. If I were always thinking about how I have it better than others, I’d do what? I’d major in International Development Studies? I’d become homeless on purpose? I’d refuse an opportunity to study French in Paris, on the principle that there are many people in the world without such opportunities, as a good friend of mine recently considered doing? I’d smile less?
Middle-class guilt begins with the notion that there is something fundamentally inauthentic about being born with more money and less melanin than the average Homo sapiens. My ancestors were the conquerors, the oppressors, the immoral – the antithesis of the postmodern hero. My life is not real life, only a stolen, coddled version thereof.
(Let’s momentarily forget I’m Jewish, forget I wouldn’t have been welcome at this university until a half century ago, forget the suffering of my ancestors who survived centuries of exiles, inquisitions, persecution, massacres, pogroms, and holocausts. Today’s young Western Jew is supposed to feel this guilt nonetheless.)
I haven’t really earned this – a soft but omnipresent qualifier of everything I do, everything I experience, everything I am. It hardly abates when I settle into my soft pillow at night; rather, it grows louder.
Yet I know that I’ve done nothing wrong. Besides some misplaced jests, some unreturned e-mails, that one kid I punched in the chin when I was 12, absolutely none of the misery in the world is my fault. So why do I constantly feel as if it all is?
Of course, there’s that “complicity with the system” business. I buy coffee without checking if it’s Fair Trade certified. I didn’t skip final exams to fly to Copenhagen and protest for action against climate change. Everyday I benefit at the expense of others.
I don’t deny this empirical fact. But you can’t tell people that by taking the next breath, by eating dinner tonight, by waking up in the morning, by being at McGill, by studying French in Paris, by merely subsisting, they are “complicit with the system.” It’s cruel not to give people credit for their good intentions.
If we want to live 20 years hence among perennially unhappy people who write off as illegitimate their entire realm of experience just because they never survived real hardship, people who claim no individuality or personhood for themselves, only the unique, rotten way in which they were malignly “socialized” by the system, then let’s change nothing.
Otherwise, let’s not waste our lives in the unproductive mire of self-contempt – the worst kind of self-indulgence. Middle-class guilt, while posing as worldly and profound, is really only the false (and psychologically unbearable) notion that your woeful, half-informed lifelong mea culpa will set the world straight, and make it easier for a billion people to starve everyday. I’m quite fed up with this notion, and also with the insinuation of “apathy” or, worse, malevolence on the part of those unwilling to posture themselves in such a self-serving fashion.
Middle-class guilt is hardly an effective means of ameliorating suffering – it’s only easy.