The Sharp Edge of Guilt, a blast from the past March 2010
Yesterday I was hanging around in the kitchen with my older son, waiting for the coffee to brew, and he made some joking comment about my being oppressed when I was growing up.
I told him I was oppressed enough, or at least women were, in that time and in that place – as they still are in many times and in many places.
Yes, I like to point out and do – often – that it wasn’t a gigantic conspiracy of men against women that kept women down for six thousand years because frankly most men can’t conspire their way out of a paperbag. (I suspect women are naturally better at it. No, don’t hurt me. Just women seem to be naturally more socially adept. But even women couldn’t manage a conspiracy of that magnitude.) And I like to point out – and do – it wasn’t shoulder to shoulder but the pill and changes in technology that liberated women or at least that made attempts at liberation reasonable instead of insane. (Of course, shoulder to shoulder makes for better movies and books, which is why everyone believes it.)
However, as I told the boy, given the conditions biology set up, women were “oppressed” enough in most cultures and in most places. Yes, men were oppressed too at the same time, because this type of shackles is double-sided, but the oppression of women lingered a bit longer than that of men – say a good couple of generations by habit and custom and because humans simply don’t change that fast. Which is why the oppression of women is remembered as such and the men are remembered as being on top.
So I told him in Portugal, until the seventies, women weren’t allowed to vote and, oh, by the way, a married woman couldn’t get a job outside the house unless her husband signed papers saying that they needed it, due to economic hardship. (Which of course, meant the dumb bastard had to sign a paper saying he wasn’t man enough to support his family. Made it really easy on him, it did.) I’m sure there were other legal and economic hobbles that went with that. And I told him of course in many many countries in the world that inequality persists, only much worse.
Which is when I realized he was squirming and looking like he’d done something wrong.
Guilt. My poor kid was feeling guilty of being born male.
Guilt is a useful enough emotion, in small doses and well administered. For instance when I was three I stole some very small coin from money my mom had left on the kitchen table. I don’t remember what – the equivalent of five cents. I stole it to buy a couple of peanuts at the store across the street (they sold them by weight. In the shell.) My mom made it clear to me I’d made it impossible for her to buy her normal bread order when the bakery delivery (no, don’t ask. Delivered. Door to door. Every morning. I missed it terribly my first years in the US, but now they don’t do it in Portugal either, anymore) came by the next morning because she didn’t have the exact change. It wasn’t strictly true. The money amount was so small she just said “I’ll make the rest up tomorrow.” But she told me it was, and how she had to be short a roll. My understanding there were larger consequences for my stupid theft made me feel guilty, and that ensured I never did it again. The same, with varying degrees of justice, managed to instill the semblance of a work ethic in me in relation to school work.
However, the guilt my son was feeling was stupid, counterproductive, all too widespread AND poisonous.
Stupid because he could hardly be held accountable for something that happened thirty years before his birth, even if he has the same outward form as the people who benefitted from an inequity. (And benefitted should be taken with a grain of salt here. Countries in which women are kept down might offer an ego bo for the guys, but they are far less materially prosperous on average. Everyone suffers.) Counterproductive because guilt by definition can never be collective. Well, not beyond a small group like, say the Manson family. You get beyond that and you can’t assign blame with any degree of accuracy. So, going and yelling at my father, say, for “keeping women down” when I was little would be as insane as yelling at my son. Why? Well, because a) he didn’t and wouldn’t (he was raised by a strong woman, practically on her own, while my grandfather was in Brazil, working and grandma ruled the extended family with an iron fist.) b) to the extent he enforced societal rules, it was usually to keep us from getting in trouble with society in general (which, btw, included women. In fact women were the greatest enforcers of “you shall not be seen anywhere with a young man you’re not dating” rule that got me in the most trouble.) c) his standing up and talking given who he was and the amount of social power he had (or in fact didn’t have) would have changed nothing except get him treated like a lunatic.
I’m sure there are good men in Saudi Arabia who find it abhorrent and painful that women can’t drive, for instance. I’m also sure they enforce that rule on their women because they don’t want them fined or imprisoned or worse. They can’t DO anything. Not as individuals. And they’re too busy feeding their families to organize and run campaigns no free women. Also, there have been some men who have organized and tried to make a difference, but there weren’t enough of them. That “grain of sand” stuff only works dramatically in movies. In real life, it’s more one generation raising the other; one friend talking to the other – until the balance TIPS.
And once it does making them feel guilty would be a counterproductive. Sorry for breaking Godwin’s law, but did we persecute ALL of the German people for Hitler’s crimes? No. Could any of them have spoken up? Many did. But most people who were alive at that time were good people caught in a social mechanic they couldn’t break out of – not individually. And they weren’t connected enough to form cohesive groups.
While we’re speaking of Germany, look at collective guilt and collective punishment for “crimes” that people supposedly committed which no individual could have stopped. If you’ve studied the mechanics of the avalanche leading to WWI (I have. There’s a novel about the Red Baron and time traveling started, and it will eventually get done) there was a certain unstoppable force to it. It was going to start sometime. Someone was going to fire the first shot.
It was Germany. They invaded other countries. The “Hun” entered European mythology of the early twentieth for reasons both good and bad. (Google WWI Belgian Nuns, for instance. Much of it was propaganda, but a lot of it, doubtless, happened.)
When they lost the war, they were treated as if they and they alone and they collectively were guilty. The penalty levied was so high they could not and would not pay and that it was crushing the man in the street.
There were other reasons leading to the rise of Hitler. However, THAT punishment facilitated it. It might not have happened without it. The “in for a lamb, in for a sheep” is a normal human reaction. If you’re held constantly guilty of things you did NOT do and could not have changed, you’re going to DO something anyway. I mean, how can it get worse?
To a certain type of woman – or man, though we’re only giving some tenured college professor males that kind of power – it is sweet to be able to play the victim ad nauseam. Particularly when you’ve never actually been victimized. And it is great to be able to make men squirm with stories of past injustice and feel guilty for things they are either way too young to have done (anyone born after the fifties, pretty much) or could not have changed if they tried, but which many of them mitigated in small ways.
And to a certain type of man – or woman, but in this case it doesn’t apply – it’s a great feeling to go around apologizing for the crimes of your ancestors. If you feel your accomplishments are diminished by theirs, apologizing gives a quick leveling. You recognize they did wrong, therefore you must be better than them. It’s a stupid feeling that ignores that you’re probably also doing things that your descendants will apologize for, but hey, it’s much better than actually trying to achieve something. Less work. Instant boost.
This dynamic gives power to passive-aggressives and bullies, the exact type of person you don’t want to have any power. And it makes good people feel like they’re bad and if they’re bad they might as well act it. It can, for instance, make young men very attracted to religions that DO oppress women (and no, sorry, that’s not most main line Christian religions, where you can leave if you want to.) Frankly, I think it’s a miracle more of my son’s generation hasn’t converted to one of those. I think it’s a witness to their essential decency, given the books, the movies and everything else designed to make them feel guilty for crimes they never committed.
So, let’s stop right here, okay? Being born with a penis is not a sign of guilt. Original sin and original taint are religious concepts that work ONLY in the mystical framework designed to control them and forgive them. In this workaday world of ours, they get in the way and engender a cycle of resentment and backlash.
Honestly, if aliens wanted to stop humans from reproducing, they couldn’t have come up with a better idea than this! Or if they wanted to ensure those who reproduced oppressed women again, this time without any real biological excuse.
You guys stop feeling guilty – even vestigially. You women, stop holding the cudgel over their heads. It’s not fair and it stopped being productive a while ago.
Now go forth and be free. It’s a brave new world and we’re the creatures in it. Don’t let inappropriate guilt twist it.