Phantom Guilt Syndrome
February 09, 2007
“Many of those who use the term 'asymmetric warfare' focus on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. This follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available...”
In previous columns I argued that grievance politics and the cultivation of pretentious ‘sensitivity’ has led to practised victimhood becoming a vehicle for censorship and passive–aggressive intent. This convergence of tribalism and dishonesty has many effects that warrant further attention. Some are merely absurd, as when U.S. gay activist groups took umbrage at an innocuous Snickers advert. The ad in question dared to suggest that some straight men feel uncomfortable kissing other straight men, albeit inadvertently and while eating a chocolate bar. The Mars Corporation, which immediately pulled the advert, was accused of “anti-gay prejudice” and told to “correct the intolerant message they sent to millions of Americans." Apparently, tolerance is being redefined to mean continual affirmation and any suggestion, however flippant, that not everyone is comfortable with displays of same-sex affection is to be expunged from public life.
Other effects are less trivial and have philosophical connotations of a rather curious kind. These generally entail extensive knowledge of various social categories, the moral weighting of each respective group, and its position in an elaborate hierarchy of victimhood. The workings of this system are not entirely obvious and are frequently counter-intuitive. I’ll therefore try to outline some of its features in order to prevent the more sensitive among us being accidentally oppressed.
For some commentators, innocence and guilt depend less upon personal actions than on the racial, economic or religious group a person can be said to belong to. As when Duke University’s Arts and Sciences Professor of English, Karla Holloway, claimed that guilt is “assessed through a metric of race and gender” and that “white innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt.” Hence we’re presented with a menu of Designated Victim Groups, members of which may be afforded a measure of immunity from individual responsibility, while claiming privilege on grounds that something bad happened to someone else ostensibly a bit like them. Viewed in this light, disadvantage becomes analogous to virtue, irrespective of how it came about or why it persists.
Conversely, members of Designated Oppressor Groups are often expected to bear responsibility for actions other than their own - even the actions of strangers who lived centuries earlier. Thus we arrive at notions of genealogical guilt, whereby unsuspecting descendants of 17th century plantation owners are deemed by birth indebted to complete strangers who can claim a different ancestry. Variations of this premise underlie practically any utterance involving the term “post-colonial.” This genealogical approach to morality can have bizarre effects on a person’s ethical priorities.
A conservative author and blogger, Theron Marshman, summarised these effects as found on a popular leftwing website, parodying the way real-world particulars give way to a quasi-Marxist categorisation of human beings, whereby guilt is assigned to types of people:
“Rape is a crime unlike others. In any rape case, but especially in a rape case where a black woman accuses a white man, the rapist should be considered guilty until he proves his innocence. And he must prove his innocence not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any possible doubt… People claim this is unfair, but 400 years of slavery and countless millennium [sic] of male on female rape make this not only fair, but necessary… Let’s just say the accusation of rape is false, that doesn’t take away the rapists’ genealogical guilt. Yes, they’re still rapists even if these particular men didn’t rape this particular woman. How many slaves have their forefathers raped? Nobody asks that question…”
Of course, if one is prepared to dispense with the particulars of who actually did what to whom then grandiose theory can run wild, and on a planetary scale. The free-thinking capitalist societies referred to as “the West” are widely regarded as constituting a Designated Oppressor Group. For some adherents of this belief, the West is the quintessential oppressor, against which all others should be measured, if and when time permits. It’s therefore all but unimaginable that Western societies, or any representatives thereof, could ever be the good guys in any situation. Should the West need to defend itself and its interests against hostile action, consternation is obligatory and almost any Western response to aggression can be denounced as “disproportionate” on the basis that military advantage should, at best, count for nothing.
According to some devotees of this outlook, the inferior (non-Western) force should prevail because of its military disadvantage, as this would be “fair.” This ideological preference is based on a belief that power is intrinsically very, very bad, except when others have it, in which case it suddenly becomes good, regardless of how it may be used. This remarkable sequence of ideas may help explain Iran’s nuclear armament efforts being defended by Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The phrase “asymmetric warfare” has entered popular usage and many of those who use it focus primarily on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. Again, this follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available. (The words “Israel-Palestine conflict” spring immediately to mind.) Those of a critical disposition may wish to object at this point on the basis that the asymmetry of military capability is for most purposes a moral non sequitur. Simply put, if a person threatens me or my family with a baseball bat and I happen to be carrying a gun, the fact that I’m better armed is in no meaningful sense ‘unfair.’
Even when the West and its principal self-declared rival have been roughly equal in their military capacity, culpability may still be assigned entirely to the West. As, for instance, when Ken Livingstone described the Cold War as “our fault”, rather than conceding that it might have had just a little to do with Stalin, Communist expansion and the invasion of large parts of Europe by the USSR. This eagerness to climb underneath any unattended blame is difficult to account for in terms of history and causality; though sceptics may find it more explicable in terms of personal psychodrama, like some Phantom Guilt Syndrome. After all, rending one’s garments and saying, very loudly, “it’s all my fault” is only a notch and a half away from saying “it’s all about me.”
Elsewhere, I’ve noted the tendency of certain middle-class leftists to publicly decry material possessions and the capitalist infrastructure on which their own livelihoods and status depend. The general intent of such demonstrations seems to be to affect a superior tone while deflecting the potential envy of those who actually like material possessions and who may wish to possess more – perhaps even as much as is possessed by certain well-heeled Guardian columnists. This mismatch between how some people wish to seem and what they actually are is, I think, central to the phenomenon of pretentious guilt. Some, like pop psychologist Oliver James, presume to project their own anhedonic disposition onto the world at large, claiming repeatedly – and with no credible evidence – that wealth and its associated freedoms are very bad for “us.” What seems more likely is that wealth is very bad for Oliver James, who seems unable to resolve the emotional and material contradictions of being a middle-class lefty.
James is far from alone in the realm of hand-wringing projection and there’s a minor genre of similarly conflicted literature. A puritan distaste for success is the premise of several books that conflate any number of issues in order to argue that prosperity and freedom cause “disorders” like inequality and are thus bad things to have. The intended greenish-leftwing readership may well have sympathy with this idea, if only because their own ideologies aren’t particularly good at generating things like affluence and freedom.
This tendency to direct blame inwards, to oneself and one’s own society - occasionally with a note of overtly masochistic zeal - has become a defining trait of much of today’s leftist commentariat and the pages of the Guardian provide an inexhaustible supply of commentary premised on this reflex. There, for instance, one can marvel at the columnist Decca Aitkenhead as she insists, via somewhat circuitous argument, that the "precarious, overexaggerated masculinity" and murderous homophobia of some Jamaican reggae stars are in fact the results of slavery and the “sodomy of male slaves by their white owners.” Ms Aitkenhead maintains that “the vilification of Jamaican homophobia implies… a failure to accept post-colonial politics.” Thus, sympathetic readers can look forward to feeling guilty for not only “vilifying” the homicidal sentiments of some Jamaican musicians, but also for the culpability of their own collective ancestors. One wonders how those gripped by this fiendish dilemma can hope to resolve their twofold feelings of shame.
Thankfully, Aitkenhead’s article - adamantly titled Their Homophobia is Our Fault - concludes with the solution: “Real liberal values would demand debt relief, fair trade, investment… If that happened, homophobia would soon organically dissolve.” From this one might suppose that only Guardian readers are obliged to apply themselves to this matter as it’s beyond the capabilities and purview of Jamaican people themselves. (Readers may recall that Ms Aitkenhead is the author of The Promised Land: Travels in Search of the Perfect E – a “travelogue about visiting poverty stricken locales and dropping ecstasy in search of the perfect clubbing experience” - a volume which surely underlines the author’s credentials in matters of moral gravity.)
However, while rhetorical self-harm is a staple of the Guardian comment pages, one of the more dramatic examples can be found in the musings of Melbourne neuroscientist and environmental crusader, Dr John Reid. Interviewed in December for the Australian radio programme Ockham’s Razor, Dr Reid voiced his concerns about the impact of Western society on the biosphere and the success of human reproduction in general. In doing so, Reid outlined a solution that would gratify even the most self-flagellating Guardian columnist.
Ominously, the doctor warned that “the problem of overconsumption [and] overpopulation will not be solved by civil means” and that “we in the affluent world will have to accept substantial reductions in our standard of living to allow space for the poor... Income and wealth distribution within our societies will have to become much more equal. The higher up the tree one is, the greater the sacrifice one will have to make.” The nature of these sacrifices soon became clear: “Private property rights will be severely curtailed.”
Listeners soon discovered that other customary rights would also have to be “curtailed” with no less severity. In order to curb population growth, Dr Reid suggested “we” might put "something in the water.” That something could be “a virus that would be specific to the human reproductive system and would make a substantial proportion of the population infertile…”
In case listeners were unsure of which undesirable category of humankind would be subject to this remedy, the good doctor made his own preferences clear: "The world's most affluent populations should be targeted first.” Faced with this vision of a streamlined tomorrow, one has to wonder how Dr Reid managed to overlook a somewhat relevant fact: That the most effective forces for limiting population growth have time and again proved to be affluence, secular democracy and the education of women - attributes that are intimately intertwined and generally associated with the Western societies that Dr Reid is so eager to dispense with.
I was once asked why I didn’t have more empathy with the political left. “I don’t dislike myself enough,” I replied, largely in jest. But as time has passed this offhand remark seems less flippant. I’ve often wondered at what point a political leaning becomes a performance, then a pantomime, and finally a mental health issue. At some point ideology can be so unmoored from external reality that it serves as little more than an expression of a person’s feelings about themselves. Exactly where that point lies is a matter for debate, but with the aforementioned figures in mind it’s becoming harder to avoid the question.
© David Thompson 2007
Published in 3:AM Magazine, February 7, 2007
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