I was going to try to write something profound about the role guilt plays in helping keep our society ticking over. You know, one of those think pieces that analyzes trends in people's behaviour and shows how that everything they do can be put down to guilt. But for the life of me I couldn't think of an opening paragraph to introduce the topic.
I guess I could have started with the family unit and how large a role guilt plays within that dynamic. How so many people use a blood connection in lieu of decent behaviour as a means of having people pay attention to them. "Family matters most" and count on guilt to make you drop everything for them at a moment's notice no matter how they've treated you up until that moment.
Of course I could have just a easily started off by citing how most of North America's spiritual life is based on guilt. First there's the whole idea that we're all born guilty because of Adam and Eve committing that original sin with the apple. Talk about holding the sins of the father against the children.
If that isn't bad enough, how about this scenario: God sends down his only son and sacrifices him for our sins! Talk about your guilt trips – look what I did for you, so you'd better behave. Just in case we didn't get the picture there are all sorts of things you can't do without having to pay some sort of price or doing some sort of penance.
Some folk take it so far that they equate all pleasure with sin and believe the only way to avoid it is to work constantly and live a life of abject misery. They must feel guilty for having being born and I'm sure that they only had sex because they felt guilty about not going forth and procreating. Heaven forbid they enjoy it though, because that would be a sin and there would be a price to pay.
Religion is an easy target though, so I maybe could have talked about how government only works because we're made to feel guilty. For instance, if you dare to disagree with something that the government decrees, you're made to feel guilty for not loving your country enough. Or if you don't agree with the war the government sends troops off to fight in, they imply you're guilty of wishing the soldiers harm because you won't support them.
Or on the domestic front when they want to cut taxes and slash and burn social programming they will either find someway of making the poor guilty of stealing from the rest of the population or make you feel guilty for stealing the money out of your children's pockets. If we spend money today what will be left for your children?
It's not just the government who uses guilt against us. So do far too many environmental groups, human rights organizations, foreign aid fund raisers, and anyone else with a cause. Hell, I'm probably a lot more of an environmental extremist, believer in human rights and social justice than most of them and they piss me off with their attempts to make people feel guilty in order to change their ways, give money, or whatever else they want them to do.
What's the point of making some poor guy who needs to drive his barely-working vehicle so he can go to work and feed his family feel guilty for polluting? How's that going to change the world or do anything to make it a better place for his kid or grandkids? It's not any one individual's fault that people in Africa are starving to death or dying of AIDS and whether or not they contribute ten dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference.
When they show you pictures of starving orphans living behind barbed wire in refugee camps and say you can make a difference they might as well be saying it's your fault if they continue having to live like this. Not only is that unfair, it is of course patently untrue. Hundreds of years of history lay behind the reasons for those children living in refugee camps and only a change in the so-called developed world's attitude towards the developing world will make a difference.
Now that I think about it some more, I could also have talked about the reasons why we are made to feel guilty by all these different people. It's to cover up who the really guilty parties are. As that guy who worked for Clinton said, "It's the economy, stupid", but probably not in the way you think.
Did you know that in the time since the great Depression there was only a very short period of real prosperity in the post-world war boom in the 1950s? Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the middle class and more and more wealth and power has been accruing in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Governments can preach all they want about free trade and open markets making a better atmosphere for business which makes it better for all of us. but they are only getting it half right.
While the workers are made to feel guilty for demanding basic needs like job security, environmental protection, and workplace safety, businesses go where they want and rack up bigger and bigger profits everywhere around the world. They exploit natural resources, people, and environments until they have exhausted them and move on, leaving worse poverty and political unrest in their wake.
Religions have long used guilt to control their people, and people in turn use it to control their families so that they will not run afoul of the church. In the twentieth century governments who are sponsored by businesses use it to ensure that their patrons have clear access to everything they need to make their profits.
Most of us really have nothing major to feel guilty about in terms of society, yet we are constantly inundated with messages from all sides insisting we are guilty of a multitude of sins. Listen to the way messages are delivered by politicians, preachers, and advocates and you can't help but hear the accusation in their voices.
Try telling yourself the next time that it's not your fault, or not the fault of whomever is being offered up as a scapegoat and see who that leaves you with to blame. It may be that the Church is right and we are all sinners and guilty of something, but there are some who are guiltier than others.