We are the only animals with the capacity to feel shame at our very existence. Shame is a powerful emotion that causes pain, insecurity and even anger, but the deep guilt that is transformed into shame does much greater damage than any one disgruntled individual could. Guilt can engulf an entire country—indeed, it has.
Unwilling to bear the unnerving guilt that’s inherent to being alive? Don’t be. This is the normal state of human life—horror after horror, followed by painfully clumsy attempts to reduce that horror, which usually result in new horrors.
Enjoying a meal at a restaurant? What a treat—but consider the miserably underpaid, overworked and in every way exploited farmworkers who will go a lifetime without ever enjoying the kind of candlelit meal their calloused hands provided for you. Feeling mildly happy this morning? You must have forgotten the 2,000 children whose week of slow withering will leave their small, contorted bodies stiff with death from as mundane and curable a condition as diarrhoea. Do you dare feel gratitude for your health? What a quaint idea to indulge in, while people no different from you are opening their eyes to another day in a short life of anguish, exiled to the gutters of poverty, merely because they were born by chance in a country that yours pillaged. Your gratitude is no good here.
You have every reason to feel inherently, unrelentingly guilty. You understand the fragility and chaotic indifference of nature. Yet here you stand, unscathed and undeserving. Shame on you.
Around as powerful, infinite and primal a force as shame, merchants and charlatans always set up shop. Entire religions have dedicated departments to dealing with your guilt. But you’re no victim—this is a fair trade. You give up ownership of that guilt and, in return, you receive the relief of someone else explaining your guilt. Everybody wins—for the moment.
We once relied on religion to dull the sting of guilt. We begged forgiveness from above simply for having been created. We atoned, we sacrificed, we dedicated time, effort and action to prove our repentance for being. That is our original sin—existence. In our modern, secular world, the receptacle of religion isn’t capacious enough to deal with a guilt whose growth keeps pace with civilization. Who will hold the heavy weight of our guilt for us—and, more importantly, at what price?
As the US has grown more secular, its guilt has grown with it. Nearly every country and culture has engaged in some form of slavery at some point—from the ancient civilizations of India and American indigenous groups and the European, Arab and American slave trades, to the slavery of millions across parts of Asia and Africa today. Although the Middle East and China practiced slavery for much longer (and still do), it’s the US that’s become the face of slavery. China and the Middle East are quite contented with authoritarianism and religion as salves for their guilt. You have every reason to feel guilty, but not for your country’s crimes or your ancestors’ evils.
The religions of repentance understood our true crime and the source of our innate guilt—existence. To be human is to be deeply flawed; no animal is capable of the creative, sadistic pain we exact on each other. We feel terror beyond what any animal can experience precisely because we can cause that terror. The secret you carry is heavy—you know better than anyone what kind of monster you are. Only you know the terrible things that can pass through your mind at a moment of anger. Only you know the pitiful weakness that makes you torment others. Yet, it’s our guilt that makes us redeemable; that’s why the most dangerous people are those who feel no guilt.
The secular, free world has lost the ancient balm that once quelled our existential guilt. Without a dictator or religion to tell us why we suffer, we suffer for no reason—the most unbearable kind of suffering there is. You have two choices: take ownership for the ugly side of humanity that exists within us all, or let someone else do it for you.
Our world changes like a house under renovation: we build additions, we update old structures and sometimes we completely remove original parts. The risk of renovating our world is the same as the risk of renovating a house. If you remove an original structure, you must be sure you know exactly what role it played when replacing it. The extreme displays of guilt and self-flagellation that religion draws out when it makes us ask forgiveness for our thoughts aren’t decorative beams—they’re foundational. The desire to atone for our existence didn’t cease with the birth of science.
In the place of priests, we now have politics. Rather than look at ourselves and atone for the sin of existence, we look at our ancestors and atone for their tangible crimes. Unable to believe that a god can give us true forgiveness, we beg forgiveness from other people. Original sin is too abstract for our secular world. Instead, academia has given us a new sin of existence to atone for—privilege.
The concept of privilege has been warped from what it was in its humble beginnings—a means of contextualizing differences—into the mark of Cain, an inborn crime that is both expansive enough to touch everyone and specific enough to perfectly fit your individualized guilt. Categories like economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, male privilege and cisgender privilege are thrown around like magic darts that will always hit at least one target.
There is always someone worse off than you: this is the never-ending parade of horror that is human life. Nature is indifferent to suffering, and you’ve done nothing more to escape a crippling illness than the child who is currently dying of that illness in a decrepit hospital in a city whose name you’ll never hear. Rather than beg forgiveness for our sins, today we repent our privilege.
All comfort comes at a cost, though. The church lost the power to dictate our lives as the price of repentance, so who do we pay today for the sin of privilege? As is fair, we pay those who did the work of putting a name to our guilt for us—and pay we do. The modern-day self-flagellation frenzies we call diversity training are as scientifically sound as their religious counterparts—and massively lucrative. An average session for 50 people costs roughly $6,000. The high priests of privilege are themselves pictures of that privilege, earning an average of $74,562 a year. Some firms pay a high-end salary of over $150,000 for those consultants who are particularly talented at cleansing the impurities they call biases. If your sin is so deep you require a visit from the popes of privilege themselves, Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, your tithe will be especially hefty, running to $20,000 for a one-hour cleansing and $320 per hour for a phone sermon, respectively. We are guilty animals. We know the horrors we are capable of and they disturb us to our depths. There is no price we are unwilling to pay for relief from ourselves.
The cost of shirking ownership of our guilt is dangerously high—much higher than any dollar amount. Those who sell us relief from the guilt of living life as half-monsters, half-humans are endowed with a power beyond what any human should hold. The arbiters of our existential guilt decide the name that guilt will bear. If they name that guilt carelessly, the cost can never be refunded.
We call our guilt privilege and name particular groups as the source of that privilege. We search through history to hold up any of the infinite number of atrocities as evidence of that privilege. The guilt is not white, or male or cisgender—it is existential. The danger in being sold a salve for your guilt in the shape of a group identity is that it dooms us to endlessly having to relearn the true source of that guilt—ourselves. The horrors of human life are not unique to any one identity and obey no academic praxis.
While we assuage our guilt with a microscopic focus on a few examples of that horror, the human monster is busy creating a new set of horrors hidden, for now, in our blind spot.