SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - White Guilt Until Proven Innocent
Wanted: your conscience
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
Guilt. It’s one of those special human experiences that makes our minds both miraculously and miserably complex. Despite your dog’s face when caught in a crime, humans are the only animals who experience true guilt. Some humans experience more guilt than others, though.
White guilt is both a punchline and an area of scholarly study. It gets more attention than German or Japanese guilt, though there’s plenty to inspire both. There’s even less talk of communist or Soviet guilt, though man-made famine and labor camps are probably worthy of a little guilt.
What makes white guilt so special?
Unlike the common understanding of guilt, white guilt is one of the only guilts felt for a crime never committed. It’s collective guilt, which means the group as a whole takes the blame rather than the individual. It’s the original sin of race, something you’re guilty of before you’re old enough to know what guilt is.
It might sound unreasonable to perpetually blame an entire group for crimes committed by some of its ancestors, but for most of history, that was the norm. In past societies, it was business as usual to seek retribution for the crimes of an individual from their collective, whether that was their tribe or their family. Killing someone’s child because they killed your child turned out to be a pretty unproductive legal system, so today we punish individuals for their individual crimes.
Yet, collective guilt for whiteness persists, partially because the guilted aren’t so innocent and partially because one man’s guilt is another man’s power.
White guilt is one of those rare instances where both conservatives and liberals agree — no one with any integrity wants your guilt. On both sides, white guilt isn’t seen as some sad hostage situation, but as serving a special purpose, one that doesn’t do much for the people that inspire it. Even Judith Katz, who literally published the handbook on anti-racism, found white guilt to be such an obstacle that she began organizing white-only groups to focus attendees on change and not the acceptance they sought otherwise.
We need guilt; if you think the world is an ugly place now, try imagining a world without guilt.
A world without guilt is a world without any morality to feel guilty over. A lion doesn’t feel guilt for eating alive a gazelle’s newborn fawn because a lion doesn’t have morals — it’s neither good nor evil, it simply is. For guilt to exist, there must be a “right” so we may instead choose a “wrong.”
Some guilt is good. The person that rarely feels guilt is either incapable or unwilling to face the reality that you will eventually do something wrong. When that time comes, guilt is the bumpy road that will deliver you back home. That’s why guilt works — it’s your response to your actions, something entirely within your control.
What purpose does guilt that can never be resolved serve?
Collective guilt such as the white variety is a kind of neurosis. The guilted person knows something about them is deeply wrong; their guilt functions like the painful warning signal it’s meant to be, and yet no individual atonement can turn that signal off because no individual misdeed had turned it on. This letter to the NYT perfectly displays the punishment for a crime never committed but also never acquitted.
Perpetual guilt shackles a person, creating a prisoner whose only interest is an unachievable atonement. Guilt will create a workhorse for you; the guilty-minded incessantly perform their guilt in exchange for the acceptance they believe is freedom.
For the power-hungry, there is no more useful a person than the guilted; those in pursuit of acceptance never question or dissent, as it might cost them their goal.
White guilt is the secret ingredient to a perfectly imperfect partnership — the guilty who seek unachievable acceptance and the tyrants who seek unwavering submission. Like any relationship built on self-serving needs alone, each partner will destroy the other in pursuit of their own goals.
Humans have been thinking — and thinking about thinking — for most of our history. We’ve come up with a few guidelines for thinking, one of which yielded a radical change: the burden of proof. You’ve heard this one before, but it basically means that if I say unicorns are real, it’s on me to prove they’re real before I claim victory and pass unicorn conservation laws. Fair, right?
From the Sagan standard that states "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" or Hitchens’ razor that states "what may be asserted without evidence, may be dismissed without evidence," science is a big fan of proof.
The problem with the burden of proof is that it’s…a burden. Back before this idea started spreading in the 1700s, creativity and persuasive speaking were a fair replacement for actual evidence. If I created a convincing story about your cousin cavorting with elves at midnight and connected that to my failed harvest, it was the fire for your cousin.
A lot of people have been lost to a lot of fires and other fun forms of punishment over fear and anger in lieu of evidence. When people reject the burden of proof, they give themselves creative liberty to “feel” whether someone is guilty or innocent. Feelings have a history of being notoriously biased; witch burnings and lynch mobs were often the result of feelings-based justice.
A society where suspicion alone is enough to condemn others will suffocate its own progress.
Challenging norms, contradicting the powerful, or just being a little weird makes you a target in a society where words are evidence enough. If anyone that steps out of line becomes a target, blending into the crowd becomes survival.
A society where dissent means death is doomed to stagnation.
Fans of witch hunts and authoritarian leaders hate him! William Blackstone wrote a line that’s laid at the foundation of western legal philosophy since 1760. Known as Blackstone’s ratio, it states:
It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.
It’s inconvenient for striking fear and submission into people’s hearts if you can’t execute an innocent every now and then. Knowing that only the guilty need to hide is freedom; if innocent people are regularly deemed guilty, everyone without great power must hide too.
Yet, sometimes justice isn’t served through our Blackstone-based system. Innocent people do get punished and horrible people don’t. That churns resentment, but it doesn’t render Blackstone’s ratio useless, especially when our alternatives aren’t free of that inevitable human error either.
It may seem like a fair counterbalance to risk punishing more innocent people to punish the guilty, but this massive philosophical leap has its own bitter aftertaste. If we become so feverish in our pursuit of justice that we accept sacrificing innocents for our crusade, we recreate the very system we sought to replace.
Worse yet, the more innocent people we punish, the more we create a culture in which innocence is valueless.
A society where innocence gets you nowhere is worse than any single injustice — it’s a rejection of truth itself. There can be no innocence in a society that rejects truth.
We take for granted how mind-blowingly difficult it is to maintain a society; there’s no perfect strategy, there’s only better and worse. Do we love punishment so dearly that we’ll punish even the innocent to reach the guilty?
Justice that requires injustice cannot be called justice — it’s merely revenge.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.