If I regret any of my columns from this year, it would be February's "Middle-class guilt." My regret isn't so much over the views I tried to express, but over the fact that I haven't yet negotiated a comfortable balance between the nuanced views I try to maintain and my emotional writing style, which tends to be excessive and – as my mother complains – angry. This year, the angry tone has too often drowned out the "voice of reason" I've striven to be.
In February, I wrote: "Middle-class guilt … 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."
I tried to identify this guilt as only unproductive. It doesn't make the world a better place. If you feel "guilty" about your privileged position in the world and are motivated to action, it wasn't guilt that motivated you. It was something else. My column was long on the critical but too short on the constructive; I should have concluded by advocating the persistent cultivation of that "something else" within each of us.
Some thought I was equating middle-class guilt with the faintest empathy for those suffering around the world, and thus attacking anyone who felt that wimpy empathy stuff. That criticism deeply disturbed me.
Whether or not one identifies with radical "activists" isn't a proper metric of humanitarian commitment. Many who might otherwise sympathize with the aims of radical politics are repelled by the kind of exhibitionists who, to quote an admiring Daily columnist, "find themselves sinking into the ground with the weight of all the fucked up shit in the world on their shoulders." I'm a strict Aristotelian in the sense that I think motives and intentions are important in evaluating virtuous behaviour. My argument in the "Middle-class guilt" column was against those who "posture themselves in such a self-serving fashion," not at all against those who recognize and try to combat injustice for sincere and well-considered reasons. Obviously, sincere motives and self-serving guilt can coexist within the same person, but the latter is merely a false solution to an obviously real problem.
John Stuart Mill wrote about how opinions, unless vigorously challenged and defended, eventually harden into reflexive dogma, and the reasons why those opinions are considered true are forgotten. They become vapid, lifeless slogans that nobody cares to take the time to understand.
Among our peers there's really no challenging the notion that "fucked-up shit" exists in the world, and we all share a basic conception of what that shit looks like. We speak the same basic language; we just disagree on the definition and application of certain terms.
The progressive consensus among our generation has fostered an endemic laziness of thought, a social milieu in which mentioning in passing that shit is fucked – or, worse, wearing your recognition of shit as fucked like a badge of honour – is of the utmost importance should a student wish to avoid being considered a heartless apologist for exploitation and greed.
I'm not advocating an alternative to progressivism, or any kind of worldview that denies the existence of fucked-up shit or our individual responsibility to make shit un-fucked. I'm advocating sincerity and an individual re-examination of whether you're doing the right things for the right reasons.
"Middle-class guilt" resulted from my frustration with being lectured on ethics and social justice by people whose motives I found base and distasteful. I still feel the same way, but I should've been clearer on what I was advocating as a positive alternative. Some of the criticism stung, but in the future I'll assert more forcefully my refusal to be caricatured by anybody, including myself.
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