I’ve been thinking – and I’m no expert on emotions* so don’t quote me on this – that there are two bad emotions. One being bitterness – not because of what it does to others but because of what it does to ourselves. Oddly, those who have been abused and working through their emotions/feelings/past/hurt/scars/memories/pain are often tone policed about their so-called bitterness, certainly on the internet. And often by those defending the very abusers. That is not our job to identify and parse out another’s, and certainly a virtual stranger’s, bitterness.
In fact, if we truly want to limit bitterness, we should work towards justice. It won’t cure all bitterness (after all, as Al Green asked, who can mend a broken heart?), but it’ll reduce the circumstances of it happening to abused and oppressed people because – and this is key – there will be significantly less abuse and oppression.
Speaking of justice work brings us to the second bad emotion: guilt.
Guilt, like any other feeling/emotion, is not necessarily wrong to have. In no way do we blame the person who feels guilty – how do we blame someone for how they feel? If there is blame to be had in guilt, then it is to the systems and methods that make it such an integral part of our vocabulary that it’s hard to parse it out. Many religions (certainly my own Christianity) and cultures rely on guilt as a prime motivator for doing acceptable things that it’s usually the go-to, the loci, the focus of understanding badness, wrong, injustice.
Eat your peas; there’s starving people in China.
I don’t know how to stop it but to change the rules. I don’t know how to eradicate guilt from myself, and even talking about it urges forth feelings and washes of guilt in others. And it can seem like in talking about it, I’m telling them not to struggle through their emotions – including guilt. Yet, I want us to come to more fully appreciate what this feeling is in us and how it affects us. Not to condemn, but to understand.
As a method of comprehending, communicating, and influencing injustice, guilt needs to be called out. Guilt is not the paradigm to speak about justice or injustice, oppression, or any issues having to do with them.
Poor people, people of color, other oppressed people (and most of us are oppressed in one manner or another; additionally, if you’re reading this, you’re also privileged in several ways **) and various justice workers get the “I’m guilty” speech all the time from people who represent the oppressed class. There is nothing really new about Kate Menendez’ article, “Being Privileged Is Not a Choice, So Stop Hating Me for It.”
The title was an apex of chutzpah, but we’ve heard it all before: I’m wealthy; it’s not my fault; I shouldn’t have to hide it; I shouldn’t be looked at funny for not having to struggle or living in a fancy building or for not having to worry about crushing student debt; I shouldn’t have to feel guilty; assuage me!
But here’s the thing, she assumes that economic justice workers want her to feel guilty. I can assure her that they don’t. Guilt is useless. It incapacitates the wearer. It shifts the focus from the oppression and the struggle to bring justice to the emotions of those who identify with the oppressive classes. It’s a horrible motivator and is incapable of changing the guilted – the guilted only sees the struggle and those struggling through the lens of guilt. The guilted is less likely to recognize the full humanity of the strugglers and every struggle becomes another object through the lens of guilt – blurry, never in focus, clouded by clouds.
I want to eradicate guilt from my vocabulary.
*Just ask my daughter.
**We all have agency, and privilege is understood in many dimensions.