Thursday, January 15, 2015

Some thoughts on collective guilt and personal responsibility

My talented virtual friend Jacqui Binford Bell, she of the amazing art and photographs, posted this thought provoking remark on Facebook. 

"Don't we at some time just have to let go? Stop all the vendettas, jihads, reparations, grudges, monuments to people who just went to work, all the days we stop for a minute of silence. All the things from the Maine to Wounded Knee we must remember even if we never participated and would not consider it today. When do we have time to just move forward and make today and the future better? How can you enjoy the dawn when you are constantly made to feel guilty, ashamed, or afraid?"

I started to reply and realised I needed a blog.
First reaction: 

Goodness yes. I am so tired of feeling guilty. I am not rich or powerful, and at least I am female, but I am white and was born at a propitious time. I have been aware of my good fortune all my life, even blogged about it. It turns out Dad's Jewish mother gave me the right to move to Israel so now Gaza etc. is on my plate too. It is overwhelming and dammit, I am not a bad person!  I did not personally infect any Sinixt (the local first nation) with small pox. I did not personally impose any head tax on the brave Chinese labourers who built Canada's railroads, nor did I bomb Gaza. On the contrary, I did my best to protest.

Yes, wouldn't it be nice to just wipe the slate clean and start over.

Then there is the sad fact that efforts to redress historical wrongs often end up creating new injustices without doing much to compensate real victims of the old order. 

Development aid has been described as money that poor people in rich countries send to rich people in poor countries. Groups consist of individuals. Picture the plight of the child of a white working class family who has worked his butt off to get the right grades to get into a college. However, affirmative action resulted in his place going to a middle class child who had it easier and whose grades are lower but who has the right colour or gender.  Affirmative action may sound like a fair idea but does it work in practice? Can we keep what is best in the idea while keeping an eye out for individual injustices?

However. (a favourite word)
History is still with us. Even as individuals of previously oppressed groups are making headway, large numbers are still facing extra obstacles. Old prejudices do not disappear overnight and everywhere at the same time. 

Then there is this. Wealth accumulates through generations. Many a baby boomer has had an inheritance from frugal depression era parents. Those parents in turn benefited from the Era of Prosperity(1946-1980, more or less), now fast receding in the rear view mirror.
As most of you know, that golden time of working class prosperity and home ownership excluded many. I highly recommend this essay  on becoming aware of white privilege. My own children owe their education partly to a legacy from their upper middle class paternal grandparents. Groups who missed the boat in past times lack that head start. The playing field is not level.

Even well intentioned individuals who would not dream of certain actions still benefit from them. My very presence in the paradise where I live was made possible by genocide. I have no idea what to do about that but there it is.

I agree with Jacqui that it would be nice to start fresh here and now. I certainly join her in rejecting a certain kind of kneejerk PC mea culpa mentality that one sees in liberal circles, where the victim is always right. But the decision may not be ours to make. As individuals we may be mostly blameless, but as members of a group we have benefitted from a past order and nothing can change that. We don't want to go through life cringing, but we must admit to our share of collective advantage. 

I have been more privileged than many and less than some. I remember a conversation, long ago, with a well-born couple about their early married days when the man was still a student. I asked them what they had lived on. "J's money". "What do you mean, "J's money"?" "J's money." Repeated with a tone of impatience for my lack of understanding the obvious. In their circles everyone started life out with an ancestral sum and J's father had died young. These were nice people. I was not out to wage class warfare. (Not that day anyhow.) I wanted to hear something  like "Well you know, we were lucky. J's dad had left him enough etc." I just wanted them to be aware that not everyone had their head start and to acknowlege their good fortune. They were blind to it.

Perhaps the most helpful thing we can all do to make this a kinder world is to be wary of ideological thinking, be it religious or secular. Be leery of any attempt to stifle debate for any reason. Do NOT circle the wagons the moment our side is attacked. Go through life with eyes, mind and heart open, and do not deny the reality of our own first hand observations in order to fit the facts into a rigid framework.
Keep asking: does this work?

I have said it before and will probably say it again, but sometimes one's opponent is right. Granting the other side a point does not mean one has to buy the entire intellectual framework.  For example admitting that some people stay home on Mondays to nurse a hangover does not mean we agree to abolish paid sick leave.

I guess it keeps coming down to trying to just be reasonable and kind.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

Well said. I'm no much for collective guilt of any kind but that the history teacher in me. Enjoyed your take on "Pope Joan." I can't remember when I read it but it seems a long time ago. Now if I'd started my book review blog long ago, I be able to find out...;)