Pleading Not Guilty
Updated: Jan 26
*From the April print edition* Our new Editor-in-chief Joyce Fang reflects on the existential guilt bourne from a privileged liberal existence.
If you were to ask me what I was proudest of, I would tell you it’s my empathy and compassion. If you asked what I was most ashamed of, it would be my failure to always act on it. Perhaps failure is a harsh word. But it is the word that describes the way I frequently think of when striving to align myself with values I hold.
In my applications to university, I wrote personal statements explaining my interest in the particular courses I had applied to. My answers often outlined a vague hero complex; that I was uncomfortable with inequalities and that “understanding economics and politics is the best way for me to affect large scale change” for all the issues I care about. Poverty. Gender inequality. The environment. However, as I acknowledge my actions or thoughts that are in conflict with what I say I’m passionate about, a creeping guilt crawls across my conscience. Too often, I am imprisoned by an overwhelming sense of disapproval that I am not doing enough to satisfy the expectations that I have placed on myself. How can I buy things that have been made by the exploited and impoverished? How can I simultaneously indulge in chivalry and call myself a feminist? How can I eat dairy or use a plastic bag and protest against climate change? It is as if I carry some sort of barometer that measures my level of “good” on any given day. Today I bought veg from the farmers' market, gave money to the homeless guy on the street, and held the door open for a man- I’m fixing the environment/homelessness/gender stereotypes! On the other hand, a day of action that compromises my beliefs leaves me with the awful taste of guilt.
The kind of guilt I am privy to is one that has inevitably arisen from privilege. It is the byproduct of private school education, holiday homes and the bubble of an upper middle class. Having this life, alongside a certain degree of compassion and sense of injustice, means the guilt has steadily festered. With the cost of my university fees, I could probably feed a small village in a developing country for a considerable amount of time. Of course, I am constantly assured that my education is an investment in the future change I will work for. We all know that if we give a man the proverbial fish he’ll eat for a day, if we teach him to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime, and perhaps if we establish some policy that helps him get a job, he can eat something other than fish, and have a better life. Unfortunately, this pressure for me to use my degree for good will without a doubt coexist with guilt that I’m not doing everything I can.
Guilt has utility to a certain extent- many people make good choices from feeling bad about something. But I don’t want my actions to be viewed as a way to offset my guilt when they are born out of a real altruism. What’s more, is that guilt has become a hindrance. I fear being caught out- standing up for something and then being accused that I am not a true believer. Hypocrisy, the antithesis of being well informed, is a harrowing insult, and one I am terrified of. Thus, my confidence in my values is stemmed, and my likelihood of identifying with any movement or speaking out is less that it would be otherwise.
Frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that having such a dogmatic attitude is ruinous. It may be powerful at times, but often it breeds a type of guilt that stagnates its bearer, and wastes the value of their initial motivation. By sapping the confidence of those who transgress, and instilling discomfort, it takes away the positive of any good action. Instead, it is important to acknowledge any hypocrisy or conflicting ideology, and accept that you may not always be congruent to your beliefs. To exist is to have a multifaceted assimilation of values and expectations of yourself that may sometimes be contradictory, but in which the recognition of these dualities motivates us rather than hinders. If we bolster even the least scrupulous, we give them an encouraging boost of confidence that they can have an impact.
Consistency in these things is an admirable goal, but it is one only attainable for those who are willing to sacrifice their whole lives for a greater good. This does not mean that anyone privileged who wants to contribute shouldn’t bother at all. I can’t separate my actions from my values, but I need to distance them a little and be confident in the fact that this will ultimately yield more beneficial action than what would be produced under the weight of guilt. There is infinitely more power in one who believes they can make change, than one who doesn’t think they can have any impact. It is exactly the latter mentality that stalls progress.
Finally, when speaking to others about this, I am often told things like: “at least you care” or “your guilt shows you're a good person,” and “look at how many people in the world do nothing and don’t feel guilty.” If you too are aware of your privilege, and do not feel some drive to use it for good, then it is wasted. My call to arms is to ask that you start with something small. If we all envision an upward trajectory of hope, it will be a powerful force for meaningful change.
Edited by Pailey Wang.