“Confront Your Privilege.” So reads a “subtly coercive” sign on display at tony American liberal-arts colleges. Why coercive? Because, as Wilfred McClay explains in an illuminating recent essay in First Things, what such signs are really telling the students is, “Feel Guilty.” Feel guilty about the money that sent you here, and the advantage conferred by the degree that you will receive. Oh, and in the meantime, “pay us $50,000+ a year so that we can certify the very privilege for which you are apologizing.”
What is behind the creation of victimhood as a morally privileged category, and how is the selection-and-certification process conducted?
This absurd and self-gratulatory parading of shame is hardly limited to the halls of higher education. As McClay observes, modern men and women are regularly called upon to feel guilty about some tragedy or crime—”colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation”—that often occurred prior to their lifetimes and beyond the reach of their daily lives.
In exploring why guilt plays such a large role in contemporary Western culture, McClay cites the French writer Pascal Bruckner, who identifies the “mechanical denunciation of the West”—an enterprise at the heart of much modern Western thought—as a masochistic holdover of “the old notion of original sin.” That notion, in McClay’s summary, has morphed into a free-floating, unearned, and insidious remorse.
McClay deepens Bruckner’s analysis by pointing out that moderns express guilt not only over their civilization’s alleged crimes but, significantly, over “the things of which we are most proud”—especially our technological mastery, “our knowledge of the world, of its causes and effects, and our power to shape and alter” them. This very power, he writes, leaves our hyper-active consciences exposed to an endless bombardment of ills, real or imagined, for which we are made to feel guilty.
What to do about this guilt? In a post-religious world, where traditional means of finding absolution and redemption no longer hold sway, “the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified” looks for other outlets, many of them problematic. One such outlet, writes McClay, is the sanctimonious cult of self-empowerment through “forgiveness” and “non-judgmentalism.” Another and related one is the conferral of prestige on certain designated classes of “victims”; by identifying with such victims, modern men and women can therapeutically participate in a kind of “stolen suffering,” thereby affirming their own innocence and discharging their moral burden.
But a perverse logic is in motion here, and it plays itself out in corrosive ways. Since there are no victims without victimizers, a corollary of identifying oneself with the victim is the projection of one’s guilt onto a “designated oppressor” who “plays the role of the scapegoat.” And it is by this logic that, step by inevitable step, the cult of non-judgmentalism and the pursuit of innocence have ended up hand in glove with the tyranny of political correctness, the vicious policing of discourse and the ostracizing of designated villains that are the ugly hallmark of so much of contemporary intellectual and academic life.
McClay’s analysis is profound and highly intriguing. Moreover, even as he laments the process by which fundamental religious “notions of sin and how one pays for it” have been replaced by pathological modern counterparts, he does not shrink from naming the infatuation with victimhood as in some sense a perverse product of Christianity itself. His essay, not least in its discussion of scapegoating, points in a number of directions, and one hopes that he will continue to expand its many fascinating insights.
In particular, McClay is helpful in understanding how and why so much energy has been invested in singling out the state of Israel, and by implication the Jewish people, as fonts of contemporary evil. To adopt McClay’s model of the modern morality play, just as Israel serves in the role of victimizer, the Palestinians serve as exemplary victims; by identifying with the blameless latter against the blameworthy former, one affirms one’s own moral stature and, projecting all guilt onto the designated scapegoat, casts it figuratively into the wilderness.
What accounts for the democratic West’s obsession with this specific issue? After all, if you’re looking for victims and oppressors, why not start in, say, the Congo, where, according to a new study, 48 women are raped every hour? To compare the fleeting attention paid to that horrific news story with the amount of anguished ink spilled over Israel’s decision to expand already existing neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem is to appreciate just how skewed are the moral criteria of the gatekeepers of Western consciousness.
Fruitful here is McClay’s tracing of guilt’s subterranean influence. Consider, for instance, the evolving influence of the Holocaust on public perceptions of Jews. Viewed through McClay’s lens, the legacy of the Holocaust initially conferred upon the Jews a kind of perverse prestige as a certified victim class. But for how long? In retrospect, it was no doubt predictable that, once they came to wield state power, Jews would begin to cede their dubious place of honor as, so to speak, kings of the victims’ hill. It then became necessary to find a replacement—and who better suited for the role than those who could be identified as, allegedly, the victims of the Jews themselves, now transmogrified in some circles of opinion into the new Nazis? The whole development is an especially grotesque demonstration of what McClay calls the “enormous problems” created by the cult of victimization itself.
Older currents are also at work. As McClay notes, the “new sensibility” of guilt is a secularized descendant of Christian concepts. In this light, it is hard not to see, lurking implicitly and sometimes explicitly in today’s depictions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, how the Palestinians have been assigned the role of the suffering son of God, and the Israelis the role of the perfidious Jews, in a secularized replay of the drama of the crucifixion. A terrible irony here is that even as devout Christians have striven over the past half-century to dissociate themselves from and atone for the anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in Christian tradition, today’s “enlightened,” post-Christian society has felt free to embrace some of its most sinister tropes.
Finally, Friedrich Nietszche makes a passing appearance in McClay’s essay, and it’s more than possible that a potent dose of Nietzschean ressentiment is at work in the heaping of guilt on the Jews. Ressentiment was the term that Nietzsche gave to the hostility that the weak project upon the strong. It is also an instrument of psychic revenge, as the weak conjure up a moral universe that justifies them and their condition by “transvaluing” the values and codes of conduct of their masters. From this perspective, Israel’s “sin” in the eyes of its detractors lies precisely in its strength and its success (not to mention its association with big bad America).
Of course, Nietzsche was of the view that Christianity, which elevated weakness and suffering over against the classical Greek celebration of heroic vigor, was itself guilty of causing permanent damage to Western morale. McClay, by contrast, is firmly of the opinion that today’s uniquely debilitating notions of guilt are in fact a perversion of Christianity—as, he adds, of Judaism. The point would make an interesting topic for philosophical and theological discussion. In the meantime, though, one can only be grateful to Wilfred McClay for his signal and urgently necessary contribution to a matter not only of intellectual but of truly existential moment.