Guilty Liberals

Do your best, but don’t burn out on shame


| Mar.-Apr. 2008


I was late. It was cold. I was lazy. It was snowing. So I drove the Subaru two blocks to pick up Sammy from his gymnastics lesson. Halfway there, it hit me like a tiny gold-plated ball-peen hammer: I should have walked.

Guilt. The conscience’s unbidden response to failures of will, it’s the emotion with which well-intentioned citizens most struggle. Especially these days, as the chasm between the “haves” and everyone else widens and everything from melting ice caps to parched croplands threaten an all but certain apocalypse—on our watch.

I still feel guilty about driving those two blocks. Should I? Come to think of it, shouldn’t I feel guilty pretty much all the time? I am a pampered white guy, after all, “struggling” to “make ends meet” in a world where at least half the human race lives on less than two dollars a day. Finally, as a writer and an activist, should I craft this essay to trigger guilt in my audience?

Probably, maybe, and definitely not seem to be the respective answers, according to the New Internationalist (Nov. 2007).

Exhibit A is a recent poll of Britons that indicates I’m not alone in my green guilt. More than half the people surveyed consider “unethical living” to be as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving, according to details released by Norwich Union, the U.K. life insurance company that conducted the survey. So what do they do about it? Lie. Nine out of ten surveyed admitted they fib about how green they are. Not what your shrink is likely to call a healthy coping mechanism.

Toss a little social stigma in with the guilt, and it’s not hard to understand the temptation to fudge a few details. A visibly ethical lifestyle is the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses,” say 70 percent of respondents. Since 90 percent say guilt compels them to live more ethically, it stands to reason that a chunk of them are actually doing it by recycling, turning down the heat, and so on.

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