From “Making Light” over here:
Bruce discusses “guilt and responsibility”.
> One of the hardest lessons for me as an adult has been how
> little foundation there is for any of the versions of basic
> goodness that prevail in my stratum of American society
> (white, educated, home to many managers and many entrepreneurs
> and freelancers – in a word, bourgeois). All of the political
> ideologies common in this set of communities – liberal,
> conservative, libertarian, etc. – share the idea that there
> is a core of the community which, rightly understood, has
> nothing fundamentally wrong with it, and that social justice
> begins with building on that pure foundation.
Shorter: All ideologies in these bourgeois communities share the idea that there is a core of the community which is pure.
Response: All ideologies? Bruce and I must be hanging out in different bourgeois communities, cause I don’t believe my ideology starts from “we’re perfect and lets build from there”.
> But you know what? It’s not true. There isn’t any scrap of
> basically pure legacy anywhere in American society. There
> are some really good ideas, haphazardly implemented, but
> every single section of American life and practice builds
> on a foundation that includes theft, murder, pillage,
> systematic discrimination, unchecked and officially endorsed
> abuse, and other evils, right up to genocide. There’s no
> innocent heritage to recover, scrape off, and use as a
> starting point.
Shorter: There’s no innocent heritage to recover, scrape off, and use as a starting point.
Response: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was thinking by the time I got to high school. The world is messed up.
> Anything that could be called fundamentally
> good and untainted begins ex nihilo, in explicit
> contradiction to what has come before.
The meta issue here is really about how we are defining “good”. If “good” basically means a “perfect world” where everyone is living in perfect peace and harmony and everyone has choice and everyone has food and shelter and some spare money, then we’re talking about a systemic definition of good.
But that means that an individual cannot be “good” unless the entire world is “good”, and perfectly good at that.
> Take the case of someone I know not just disapproved of
> genocide but joined in war against its practitioners: my
> dad. Dad never backed a Jim Crow law in his life, nor thought
> the Native Americans savages fit only for conversion or death,
> and raised us to believe that equal consideration for equal
> merit was crucial, and also so basically smart that anyone
> opposing it had to be making themselves that bit stupid.
> But I have the life I do now partly because, well-anchored
> studies show, guys like Dad have always gotten better terms
> on deals of all kinds than equally talented guys who aren’t
> white – better mortgages, better job offers, better promotion
> rates, and so on. So a hard-working talented black or Indian
> guy my own age and general situation has an uphill struggle
> all his life that I do not, not because I am an evil-doer
> but because this is shot through the fabric of life.
Putting my definitional question another way: Is Bruce’s dad a “good” man?
Is Bruce’s dad a “good” man because of what he did? Or is he only as “good” as the world he lives in, and the world isn’t good, so Bruce’s dad isn’t good?
I ask this because Bruce starts out citing his father’s actions as an individual, such as the fact that he fought against genocide, but Bruce ends with a list of issues of inequality that are inherent in the system.
Is Bruce’s father a “good” man in a “not good” system? Or is Bruce’s father tainted by the original sins of the systemic bias and can he only find salvation as an individual when the system as a whole is perfect?
This is not simply a linguistic exercise. Systemic racial bias is often turned into accusations of individual white privilege. The sins of the system taint all individuals. Or, at least, that’s how certain people want to preach it.
> We’re not morally responsible for life in an ecosystem with
> the legacy of extinction and survival we have,
Some indirect attempt to distinguish between systemic problems and individual morality there.
> but it matters that we live because others perished or survived
> not just because of merit, but because of luck.
Matters how? Does an imperfect system taint the individual morally? Is the individual obliged by the system to some particular action? Or are we talking about individuals having an awareness that the system is imperfect? Given that Bruce starts out saying that all bourgeois ideologies think their communities are perfect clean slates, it may be simply that Bruce is calling for an awareness that the system is imperfect, without also trying to condemn the individual.
But the lack of distinction between systemic issues and individual morality is… maddeningly familiar.
> The difference in human history, of course, is that human beings
> do have agency, and even when we’re not conspirators in great
> crimes ourselves, it’s really important to recognize that we
> do not inherit innocence or a clean slate,
Again, a lack of distinction between individual and systemic. I cannot tell if Bruce is saying that it’s important to recognize that our system, our communities, and most importantly, our *history* is built on the blood of innocents, or if he’s saying that *we* as individuals, do not inherit innocence.
So, the meta question about “guilt and responsibility” is how do we define “good”? Is it systemic and the system goodness defines the individual goodness?
I have a theory of individual morality, and it has as one cornerstone the notion that a new born baby, as an individual, is innocent. And the loss of innocence of the individual is achieved through the actions and inactions of the individual.
Those who conflate systemic problems with individual innocence/guilt can often take the existence of a systemic problem and turn it into individual guilt-by-association on the grounds that the indivual has not done enough to make the systemic issue go away.
But taken to its natural end, this means that no individual is ever innocent until the entire world is perfect. Essentially, every individual is tainted by the original sin of the system. There is no innocent individuals until the entire world is perfect.
And I have a problem with that definition of morality.
I have a problem when it’s wrapped up in the notion of “original sin” in some religious dogma, and I have the same problem when it’s wrapped up in the original sin of “white privilege”. I do not need salvation by some perfect saviour to absolve the “sin” of being born. And I do not need salvation of some perfect world to absolve me of the “sin” of white privilege.
Take original sin and white privilege and all the other systemic issues that some would try to lay on me as an individual (and using as a bat to try and get me to adopt whatever form of individual redemption they’re selling), and go stick it in a sunless place.
To punish or condemn or convict an individual for the actions of others is collective punishment, and I’ll have no part of it.
I’m not saying that Bruce is saying this. But unfortunately, I can’t tell for certain that he is NOT saying it either, or at least that he might be allowing for this individual-condemned-by-the-systemic.
Back to Bruce’s comment:
> to see what’s actually on the slate as we get it,
Is the “slate” an individual slate or a systemic slate?
> and act so as to pass it on better than we got it.
Slight red flag here. Let’s back up and include the previous bit of the sentence:
> it’s really important to recognize that we
> do not inherit innocence or a clean slate
> and act so as to pass it on better than we got it.
What, exactly, does Bruce mean by “important”?
Important as in “morally obligated”? Or important as in “it is important to see the facts for what they are”?
I don’t have a problem telling someone that they’re delusional if they think they’re living in a perfect world. But the above statement begins to lend itself to certain people to become a guilt-bat, punishing the individuals for the sins of the system as a whole. The world is broken and you are morally obligated to fix it.
> This is sometimes described as wallowing in guilt, but I don’t
> think it is any more than facing up to any other body of ignorance,
> whether it’s the grammar of any language other than our first, or
> the structure of a logical proof, or the composition of the spaces
> between stars…or how much our lives turn out to be based on
> genocide’s rewards.
This last part sounds like Bruce is talking about having an awareness of the systemic issues. Given that he starts out by saying that his experience of bourgeois ideologies is that they all seem to think they’re based on a perfect world or perfect history or perfect system, then it would be an improvement if those individuals stopped deluding themselves and start seeing that they are part of an imperfect world.
Based on this last paragraph, it seems that Bruce is generally *not* trying to turn systemic issues into individual condemnation.
But it is apparent to me that Bruce and I have quite different experiences of the world. I don’t have the experience of thinking of the world as a “clean slate”. I see it as massively flawed throughout its bloody, oppressive, history up to and including this moment right now. My government, the US government, is torturing people as you read this right now. My government has invaded nations based on lies and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. My government has supported ruthless dicatators. And my government is actively trying to cover up all of these activities. And all of this with the last few years. How can I possibly think I’m living in a “clean slate”?
But at the same time, I do not condemn myself because of the actions of others. I do not condemn myself because of the actions my government took against my will, against my votes, against my wishes, and against my dissent. I feel horribly about it sometimes, or as Bruce put it, I might “wallow in guilt” because of it.
But that’s my choice. That’s my own relationship to my part as an individual within the larger systemic issue. And I get to choose how I, the individual, relate to the system. And you get to choose how you relate yourself to the system.
The problem is when someone else (I’m pretty sure Bruce is not in this group, but I have encoutered real people who’ve done this) someone comes along and *they* try to tell *me* how *I* should relate to the system. They start hitting me with the guilt-bat. They start talking about how I’m stained by original sin. They start telling me that I’m “guilty” of white privilege.
They start telling me that I’ve lost my innocence because the system isn’t perfect. And they are basically telling me that *I* cannot recover my innocence until the *I* meet *their* standards.
This isn’t to say that I’m an Ebeneezer Scrooge. I’m not advocating prisons for the poor and unemployed. I’m not advocating death panels for the sick and elderly. I’m not advocating sociopathy.
But when Luther nailed his thesis to the door of that church, he was saying something salient to the issue of individual redemption: That individuals were meant to have a personal relationship to God, that individuals did NOT have to go through another human, for example the pope, to find salvation.
On an individual level, I have my own personal relationship to my salvation. The world isn’t perfect and I want to do my part to make it better, to save myself and save the world. But what I do is my own damn business. And I don’t appreciate people coming around and condemning me because I don’t meet *their* minimimum requirements to enter *their* version of heaven.
That’s on an individual level.
On a systemic level, I fully support the idea of using systemic solutions, like government intervention, to fix systemic problems, like racism.
But on a personal level, if you (the proverbial “you”) start coming around with some guilt bat preaching about how I’m “tainted” with whatever version of “original sin” you’re pushing, then prepare for an angry response.
On a systemic level, if you want to tell me about the facts of the system, how it is flawed, how it doesn’t work, how it isn’t a “clean slate”, if you want to talk about *facts* then by all means I would like to hear the facts if I’m misinformed.
But on a personal level, if you want to tell me how I’m tainted just because I’m white or male or whatever, then you and I have a problem. If you want to condemn me because you don’t think I’ve done *enough* to meet your standards, then you and I have a problem.
On a systemic level, if you want to discuss systemic solutions, government regulations, government programs, and private organizations that fight systemic inequities, then lets talk.
But if you insist on bringing along the individual taint of original sin because the system as a whole isn’t perfect, then we’re going to disagree at some point.
If you want to talk about how we could do more to make the world a better place, I’m listening. If you want to tell me that I haven’t done enough, then you’re going to occur like the annoying folks who knock on my door and want to preach to me about their God.
The world is what the world is, and I’m all for having people shine a light on the dark parts of the world. I’m all for discussing systemic solutions to systemic problem. But if you insist on getting in between me and my relationship to my personal salvation, then I’m nailing this proclamation to the proverbial door for you to read. You don’t get to decide whether I am saved or condemned. You don’t get to decide whether I’m guilty of sin or innocent as a lamb. You don’t get to decide whether I’m sinner or saint. You don’t get to decide whether I’ve “done enough” to get into heaven.
That’s between me and God. And who the hell are you to get between me and God?
So, is Bruce’s dad a good man? A good individual?
I think this really is a trick question. The only one who can answer that question about Bruce’s dad as an individual, is Bruce’s dad and Bruce’s god.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a system of government in place that decides murder is “bad” and puts murderers in jail. But that’s a systemic solution to deal with problematic individuals. And it comes with (hopefully) some kind of due process, checks and balances, and other systemic features to try and minimize the abuse that such power could give a person. And this is exactly the kind of unchecked power that an individual wants to weild when they start throwing around accusations against individuals as being “good” or “bad”.
Is Bruce’s dad a good man? Only Bruce’s dad can answer that.