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Guilty As Charged

December 14, 2007

Thanking Caroline for her (I believe, brave) call to liven up the intern blog, I’d also like to add my two cents to the question of overbearing social activism.

Caroline spoke of being made to feel guilty by social activists. I’ll admit my posts have been mostly heavy and if the effect was overbearing, I do apologize. Utterly lacking Jon Stewart’s skill, it’s hard for me to talk about torture and immigration raids in a lighthearted, ha-ha kinda way. But I’ll also say that when I feel the guilty weight of the social justice movement, it’s usually my own doing and I can’t really blame any social activist for my own sense of guilt.

When I cross Union Station late at night, I pass by countless individuals huddled in corners—some clearly struggling with mental illness, others just looking for a place to stay warm. My feeling is overwhelming guilt. There’s no activist at my side pointing a finger, no action alert, usually only a homeless woman asking for my recognition. Part of my guilt comes from knowingly lying—“sorry, no spare change”– part of my guilt comes from knowing that I just bought a pair of Steve Maddens I didn’t really need, but most of my guilt comes simply from a sense of empathy. I know I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes watching me walk by and it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. But what kind of person would I be if my heart didn’t cringe as I walked by? I’m not about to give money to every homeless person I cross but I’m also not sure I would want to erase the sense of guilt if I could. And for the same reason, I’m not sure it’s fair to call on activists to make the social justice movement guilt-free. Activists point out injustices in the hopes that others will respond and usually there’s just nothing funny or lighthearted about the injustice.

That being said, I understand Caroline’s call for a less overbearing movement: less guilt, more fun. I believe wholeheartedly that guilt should never be the primary fuel behind social activism because in “green” terms, it’s simply not sustainable. Guilt might be the ignition, but for me, it’s the empathy, not the guilt that fuels my activism.

I do remember the days of Clinton, when life seemed carefree and old men with beards handed out lollipops on street corners. Call me cynical, but that time is gone and it ain’t coming back. The damage Bush and his administration has done will outlive his term and there will always be work, at FCNL and beyond, to do. How much we do and whether we do this work out of guilt or out of empathy is for each one of us to decide for ourselves.

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