Core to being on the political and social left is admitting that our society is unequal, that the game is unfair and that your starting place on the board is predicated on the chance of birth. Indeed, socio-economic class is the best predictor of future educational and economic success. Believing this can make it hard to accept that we are amongst those with the unearned headstart. It makes us feel like cheaters.
Compounding this is the image that America has always been most comfortable with: the scrappy, rags-to-riches working class America, where wealth is hard-won. Progressives are no less susceptible to this than anyone else.
Problematically, many of us well-off progressives (at least from the last big wave of European immigration) are now a generation removed from the immigrant perspective of America as the land of opportunity that brought our grandparents here and saw wealth as a good thing. Instead, we only see the privileges that our grandparents and parents confer to us, and we are uncomfortable with that.
As such, being on the short end of the stick of political or social or economic injustice seems to carry with it social status: white suburbanites affecting hard scrabble urban life, politicians claiming to be humble immigrant sons. It is cool to be poor, it is noble to be oppressed. Being wealthy or privileged is something to feel bad about, guilty about.
This guilt is often the central motivation of those of us who are “charitably” inclined. The question is, do we fight for a just society because we feel guilty about our privileges or because we want as just a society as possible in case we end up-despite our headstart-losing. John Rawles would argue that we should fight for the latter. A just society does the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
If we fight for equality so as to cut our potential losses, than we are doing it for ourselves, not because we feel like we are going the extra mile, because we feel guilty, and-when being charitable-morally superior.
Those who feel they are doing extra also feel that people should be grateful, otherwise their “charity” does not rid them of their discomfort with their privilege. This becomes difficult when their helping hand is not grasped with explicit thankfulness, or when they are asked by a community to go outside their comfort zone, or step aside and let the community do what they think is best and help themselves. How petty the wealthy mothers who volunteered at my understaffed and underfunded high school sounded when the complained about impoliteness and how their two donated hours a week were not appreciated.
Worse yet, those whose philanthropy is motivated by a sort of guilt, and see their privilege as a less desireable status are those who would also deny their privilege in anyway they can, striving for a more “moral” status, often by ignoring the socio-economic determinants, and citing like politicians trumped up examples of their hard-knocked life. This serves to blind them from the complex extent of how ethnic or class privilege functions to aid them. This is not to say that the socio-economic factor is the ONLY factor, far from it, but people are quick to claim themselves as unprivileged in the same vein as most Americans think of themselves as middle-class.
Being oppressed should not be confused with status, and fighting for justice and equality should not be done out of guilt. It took me a long time to learn this and I must frequently remind myself to accept my privilege and embrace the advantages of education, experience, and financial security that allow me to devote my time to environmental, political, and social causes. In this way do I show my gratitude to those members of my family who left Europe to escape starvation and cultural persecution, and who worked hard to provide for and educate their children. Thus do I recognize that if it were not for their dedication and the chance of birth I would be in a very different place.
Help others because it is the right thing to do, not out of guilt. Embrace and celebrate the fact that you can go to school and not worry about going hungry, and use-do not waste- these advantages to better advocated for justice and equality.