Monday, July 20, 2015

On Guilt and Responsibility

I grew up in a family with a strong work ethic. You couldn’t read the comics until you finished the world news first. Sitting to do anything other than read something educational or literary wasn’t acceptable. We were made to feel guilty for every minute we wasted.

Since childhood, I’ve tried to counteract this teaching. No matter how good parenting is, kids will always be trying to shake off whatever form of oppression they felt though the misfortune of just being born to these particular people. These days, I’m trying to play without thinking about work. I’m trying to just sit still a bit, to feel the guilt and do it anyway.

I also feel leftover guilt whenever I look in a mirror unnecessarily, which is any time there’s not blood oozing down my face, or any time I work out with the intention of firming up some bouncy bits (vanity), whenever I don’t eat every morsel of food on my plate and the plates of others who don’t seem to know what a crime it is to leave food (wastefulness), whenever I hear a bit about a problem in the world and don’t research it to death (sloth and ignorance), or whenever I take the first piece, the last piece, or the biggest piece for myself (greed).

Funny that even though I was raised Catholic, sex and drinking were always portrayed as perfectly acceptable. Necessary even. My dad insisted that intelligent people have a duty to have lots of kids to better society. And even if you’re not actively procreating, a little practice is good for you. And the good Lord let grains and fruit rot for a reason. Prosit!

I hate when guilty feelings keep me from doing things that are absolutely reasonable. Like plucking my moustache hairs. I can just hear my dad’s tone, “There are people starving in other parts of the world and you’reworried about a little facial hair. Oh honey.” The head shaking. The remorse. He’d lament what he did wrong to have me turn out so self-absorbed. I can’t do step aerobics in my basement unless there’s nobody home and no threat of anyone coming home to catch me. And I have to convince myself it’s for the sake of my health and longevity. Weird. It's ridiculous that that's how I grew up, yet it's also laudable. I have a strong conscience, for better or worse, because I disappointed my parents EVERY TIME I put myself first, and it felt horrible.

But some of this is bad guilt that makes little sense. Moments to myself cause no harm to the world. Not doing everything to help the world every minute of the day isn’t to say I’m doing nothing. I can spend a bit of time recharging by playing or otherwise putting myself first, then go to it to save the rest of humanity from the brink of destruction. If we fail at part of our mission, we can keep persevering without giving up the fight. All we can ever do is our best. It’s not the guilt of an event that’s my responsibility to fix or prevent that gets to me, it’s the guilt of not doing my best to serve humanity each and every day. But without comparing or competing with others or with ourselves or with prior behaviour or potential behaviour, we can be free to do good work

Sometimes doing our best means using the clothes drier instead of hanging clothes up because we’re just too busy or tired with all the other responsibilities in our lives. And sometimes, in my house, it means making more garbage that I’d like to in order to occasionally satisfy my kid's craving for packaged crap in her lunches because it beats throwing out a healthier lunch later.

Check out John Oliver's take on food waste this week.

But this is precisely where I think guilt is useful. That niggling voice in the back of my head whenever we fill another bag of garbage keeps things in check, a bit anyway. Without it, we’d have several bags at the curb every week. And comparing is somewhat useful if only to see the possibilities out there, like knowing that there are some people who have completely given up making garbage at all.

The difference is all about responsibility and effect. And it's about magnitude. If we all waste food or energy, we have a catastrophe on our hands. If we all spend a little bit a time on ourselves each day, nobody is harmed. While we’re not guilty for the fate of the world, we are guilty if we keep adding to the destruction.

But it’s a certain kind of guilt borne a certain way that motivates us to act. The punishment of feeling guilty makes us avoid the disapprover, not the act, and we move away from our parents, or turn the channel when World Vision comes on to ask for money. At some point, guilt and shame become a hindrance to change, not a motivation. Guilt that’s externally driven and doesn’t become internalized does nothing to get us to change. I think the internalized stuff from parents has to start really young or else we just slough it off, and I wonder if it's happening much at all anymore. But guilt’s also internalized whenever we know we have a responsibility, and we’re consciously ignoring it. It’s a handy reminder that we’re doing something wrong.

Guilt works IF we can hear it above the clamour of all the rationalizations we drum up. I have friends who take a few plane trips a year to see the world and insist there's no point avoiding air travel unless we also stop buying any product that travels by air, like clothes and food. So, their argument goes, unless we're going to only eat and shop locally, then we may as well fly everywhere. But, I would counter if I had the energy, producing fewer GHG is still producing fewer GHGs. We can shop as locally as possible and try to enjoy the scenery nearer to home.

Another flaw in this natural system of being conscience-led is that guilt has become such a dirty word it’s losing its impact. Because sometime people use guilt to change our behaviour in sneaky or even malicious ways, it’s acceptable to ignore those feelings regardless of the circumstances. We all know how crappy guilt feels, so we should all stop making anyone feel bad. We don’t hit people because we know it hurts them, and we wouldn’t want to be hurt like that; therefore, we shouldn’t make people feel guilty either - is how that argument goes.

I hate when someone tries to guilt me into doing something, going to a movie with them that I don’t really want to see for instance. But that’s very different from explaining how we’re responsible for something, which leads to feelings of guilt, which, for some reason, is recently seen as not a nice thing to do. Sometimes we should feel guilty, specifically whenever we’re knowingly and deliberately doing something that causes harm to others, something that we could change but just don’t feel like changing. These are the kind of guilty feelings that are wrong to ignore.

I have two images in my head as I’m writing this. I can’t quite place the context, but I was arguing with a guy years ago, and he pouted, “But you’re making me feel guilty." I countered, “Good!” And his face register confusion and shock like I’d just slapped him hard. Then on my children’s playgound, a little girl was hitting another kid with a stick. I said sternly, “Stop that this minute!” She twisted her face in anger, “You’re making me feel bad, and that’s not nice!” A world without guilt is no utopia. It’s a world without conscience.

Some people go down a bizarre slippery slope insisting that everything we do causes carbon emissions, even breathing, so there’s no sense trying to stop it. We’re doomed. Of course we can’t stop emitting carbon. But that’s not what we need to do. We need to reduce emissions to a reasonable level, not stop them entirely.

I think guilt can be motivating, but only if it comes from inside sparked by concrete information, and if there's a clear alternative accessible path to take to assuage the guilt. If I decide I'm responsible for a negative effect on the world, albeit quite tiny relatively speaking, it makes me change my practices. And if someone reminds me there's a better way to do something, like offering a recipe with all in-season ingredients, then I'll act on that. But I wonder if people will choose to act on climate change if they don't feel any personal guilt for continuing to consume unnecessarily. I tend to think the rewards for maintaining behaviour are too great and the grand punishment is too far reaching for people to willingly alter behaviours out of the goodness of their hearts. They might say they'll change, then just free-ride on others' claims of goodness, and actually do nothing. If we feel the guilt and keep consuming anyway, when our excessive actions are clearly and directly causing harm, like we've been doing for decades, then we’re all fucked. In Heat, Monbiot says we won't act until fuel is rationed to each person by governments worldwide which should begin sooner rather than later. I tend to agree. How else can we possibly change our consumption habits in a world that is loathe to feel guilty? And if we scare people, it’s called fear mongering.

Before having kids, I used to drive like a demon, 140 k in the left hand lane wherever I went. After having kids, I continued to drive like that when they weren’t in the car. Then I saw this commercial: A young girl was in a hospital after a car crash. She was fine, but she was screaming, “I want to see my mother.” Then these words flashed on a blank and silent screen: Speed kills. It chokes me up just writing about it. After I saw that ad, and realized the effect my death-by-stupidity would have on my kids, and read the stats showing an irrefutable correlation between accident fatalities and speed, I started driving 100 (60 mph) in the right hand lane all the time. It took one viewing of a 30-second ad to change my behaviour forever.

We need to see the potential harm we’re doing before we’ll feel guilty enough to change, how it will affect our families, friends, the dog, whatever we care about. We need some 30-second ads showing kids in the suburbs of our cities with flies on their faces, squatting under that lone tree on the boulevard, with dried and cracked mud where the lawn used to be - a World Vision kind of ad, except it’s us. And maybe we’ll have grandpa sitting in a rocker on the porch saying, “If we only knew…” We do know. Willful ignorance kills. Over-consumption kills. Greed kills. Entitlement kills. Privilege kills.


As Monbiot says,
We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe….Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade the government to force us to change the way we live….Failing all that, I have one last hope: that I might make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuel....Remember that these privations affect a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you….We have come to believe we can do anything;… recognize that progress now depends upon the exercise of fewer opportunities.”

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