The Guilty Sense of Privilege

From the latest positive review of Keith Gessen’s new book, this time in Slate:

One of the pleasures of Gessen’s novel is how well he reproduces the speech patterns of brainy, left-wing Ivy Leaguers—their sardonic deployment of social-theoretical jargon, their riffs on technology and capitalism, their anxiety about status, and the pride in small failures meant to refute their guilty sense of privilege.

I want to riff on the “refute guilty sense of privilege” bit.

Since 70% of our population does not have a college degree, anyone who has the opportunity to go to college in America is privileged. Those of us at selective colleges and universities are even more privileged, as a red-carpet path to power unveils itself after graduation via alumni networks and brand name prestige.

Regardless of whether you “earned” your privilege or not, the fact is the moment you enter the gates of a selective higher ed institution you are immediately thrust ahead in the societal rat race. Colleges often remind their students of this fact. They do so rather bluntly.

Convocation speeches might detail the extraordinary opportunities presented to we students, ask us to “look around and remember how lucky we are to have these opportunities,” and then insist, in more complicated language of course, “Now go save Africa!” I sat in an assembly in high school once that made precisely this point, where by the end everyone felt terrible that we had thick shiny textbooks while the schools in Bangladesh of which we had just seen pictures hardly managed a physical classroom, let alone textbooks.

The do-gooders among us ran off to set up a “donate your used textbooks drive,” but no one was pondering the implicit idea the school was endorsing which was action-to-assuage-guilt is better than no action at all, or at least action motivated by other things.

It’s not just schools — most charitable organizations in the U.S. use guilt-tripping as a primary mechanism to induce individual donors to give.

I’ve long said that as someone who was born in the richest state in the richest country in the world, I couldn’t have gotten any luckier out of the gate. Does this create some amount of guilt due to un-earned privilege that has allowed me to do things that I just couldn’t have done had I been born in, say, Peru, or even born into a broken family in Compton with no daddy and a crack-abusing mommy? Yep. Is this guilt healthy, does it create a sense of a gratitude and/or motivate me to make the most of my winning number in the genetic lottery? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not?

Dealing with guilt due to privilege is itself a privileged worry to have, relatively speaking, but many Americans have it, and I think there’s an opportunity to explore the emotion in a way more nuanced than it’s being approached. Maybe this is literature’s purview — maybe even Gessen’s. I’ll have to read his book to find out.

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