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.

14 comments on “The Guilty Sense of Privilege
  • I’m often surprised that advice to college students (or soon to be college students) can never escape one of two overused categories:

    (1) save the world
    (2) start a business

    Are these really the only two options for a “good” life, or are we just lacking creativity?

    How come a high school commencement speaker never says:

    “Study hard and get good grades. College is expensive, and you’ll hate yourself later if you don’t take advantage of it.”


    “Work sucks for everyone. Don’t get freaked out.”

  • Good post. I remember those high school speaches, and a lot of the same stuff is happening in college.

    And I’m confused by one sentence at the end: “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?” I don’t know what’s going on there.

  • Thanks for the post Ben. You make a subtle but important point about recognizing what you have been given. As the old adage goes: “To whom much is given, much will be expected.”

    I share your hessitation at identifying the solution to socieity’s use of guilt to motivate philanthropic activity.

    Guilt can be a dangerous lens through which to make decisions primarily because it avoids the core question of “what do you want to do?” (which might actually be philanthropy). Listening to your own passions and interests increases your chances of executing well.

    Once you identify a type of work you enjoy and find yourself deeply engaged (e.g. tapdance to work)you will be appropriately prepared to help those around you. Every environment has people in need seeking good leaders.

    *And if any of us are lucky enough to build up a seirous piggy bank, then you can make a serious go at the larger issues.

  • Hi there. I’m a new reader. As someone who has recently been trying to start delving into complex class issues, I thought of two resources you might find useful and interesting:
    and Resource Generation is an organization designed to reach out to young people of privilege and help them to effect progressive social change (acknowledging their resources and potential guilt.) ClassAction is an organization based out of Amherst, MA that educates about class issues. I have been to one of their workshops and found it very thought provoking. On another note, I completely agree with you that going to college puts you in a completely different (privileged) place than most of society. However it’s still important to acknowledge the class differences of students in college. Some students work their asses off (work-study, non work-study) while in college to pay for the remaining difference of their huge financial aid package, while many of their peers… don’t have to. Two people might have the exact same college experience but one leaves with a crippling debt that will hugely influence life decisions afterwards. While those who graduate from college have a certain privilege, going to college doesn’t necessarily even everybody out (which I don’t think you were trying to say, but nonetheless.) Anyways, I just thought I comment on that, personally being a low-income student at an expensive liberal arts school. It certainly is a nuanced issue.

  • Guilty someone into doing something is on the most unproductive ways of providing motivation next to intimidation.

    I would like to point out that there are few countries which have the same or a comparative standard of living as us. I always enjoyed hearing my COLLEGE economics teacher point out that many factory workers in third would nations only make $10 a week and here no one could survive on that. $10 here will not buy the same amount of items at $10 will in India, Korea, Latvia, China, etc. In China you can get the fanciest meal on the menu for under $2.50 where the equivalent dish would cost close to $50 here.

    Emotions tend to blur good judgment. When people see someone in need and are told that they can support an entire families income on under $1 a day they feel bad because they can spare that, but what about the longterm affect of throwing money at the problem instead of addressing it. If a countries economy is failing why not donate to an organization that will provide training to workers to develop skills to build products which they can produce and market. Or support research efforts geared toward improving developing nations like the Food Africa program. Give people valuable real world skills don’t throw money at them.

    Another point I would like to bring up is that those of us who were able to attend college are lucky and privileged but there are many students who do not understand that, or simply refuse to acknowledge it because they might find themselves feeling guilty about squandering such an amazing opportunity.

    From my experiences I have noticed that many students feel that going to college is important because it provides for them the skills necessary to excel in the corporate world, to be able to achieve an income which will support their ideal lifestyle and support their children. The only people I have ever met who went to college with an end goal of being able to help make the world a better place and had no concern about increasing their future salary are those students who come from poorer foreign countries with plans on returning home. I have friends who are participating in Americorpos and peacecorps but for many it was a backup option to not being able to find a job after college.

    While most students do not go into their post high school life intending to change the world we all will make some contribution in one way or another, it is inevitable. I want to hear someone point that out.

  • Next time if someone badgers you into a guilt trip showing pictures of third world, tell them to get lost; they will be better off without our intervention.

    As an example, ask them what happened with large funds channeled to Pakistan/Israel so far? Did it reduce tensions or exacerbated it there?

    People of the donor nations contribute in right earnest, with a charitable outlook. But governments in turn will trade it in for political bargains / treaty shopping and make a mess of that country (Vietnam,Iraq, Afghanistan…likely Iran soon). You see a pattern. It is state sponsored loot imperiling it’s own citizenry.

    Now who gets to enjoy the money? Not the Bangladeshi students that don’t have a classroom, it’s the politicians who are in charge of distributing it. They use it to finance their next election and come back to power. The donors hardly know it, but the donor governments know it. The cycle still continues. So does the income inequality in those poor nations.

    Why not keep our hands off the world? Let nations figure out what’s best for them. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and no free lunches anyway. When pushed to a corner, everyone gets creative and will solve their problems themselves. Necessity, is after all, the mother of invention.

  • Krishna – I agree with you to an extent. The foreign aid issue is complicated and there is some evidence that it might do more harm than good in certain situations.

  • To quote Bill Gates, 7 June 2007:
    “Let me make a request of the deans and the professors – the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:

    Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?

    Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst inequities? Should Harvard students learn about the depth of global poverty … the prevalence of world hunger … the scarcity of clean water …the girls kept out of school … the children who die from diseases we can cure?

    Should the world’s most privileged people learn about the lives of the world’s least privileged?

    These are not rhetorical questions – you will answer with your policies.

    My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here – never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

    When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.”

  • While I certainly agree that students who attend selective universities are fortunate to get in, let’s not turn a blind eye to student loan debt being a huge burden on many.

    Unless you’re attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton or any of the other Ivies, chances are you’re taking out loans to finance your higher education.

    This can really hinder a young person’s options for the future, and therefore I don’t feel guilty one bit for being where I am. I did the work and I’m paying to attend.

    In fact, I can care less about helping others until the debt is gone and I have a solid career. While that might sound harsh, it’s really the only rational thing to do.

    Like the flight attendants say, place the mask over *your* mouth first, then help the person next to you.

  • I’m about done with college, and not once did anyone say to me “start a business” or “save the world”. Nor did anyone ever give me guidance about possible things to do, I’m pretty sure I’ve been set out on a raft with no paddles. But I’m not to worried, just gonna have to make a bunch of cold calls eh?

    P.S. Foreign aid is a joke especially as a nation we cannot afford it anymore. I really need to get my hand on the Stiglitz book “The Three Trillion Dollar War”, I suggest people do so as well. Stiglitz is usually a good read.

  • In response to Jason’s point, I would just like to mention an interesting study which was brought up in a freshman year course I took involving the post graduate salary increases in the University of Wisconsin system. This relates to B.S. degrees only and does include students who attained M.S. of Ph.D..

    Students who attend University of Wisconsin-Madison versus another UW system four year degree school tended to start off at high salary directly out of college, but in the long run (salaries five or ten years out) they salaries tended to even out. While larger school students tend to pay far more for their education they (in many cases) only experience short term benefits in the form of a higher initial salary.

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