Some days ago, I received a mobile phone message asking me to wear black to protest against the recent explosions in Mumbai. Then, I was forwarded an e-mail urging me to wear white to commemorate the first anniversary of the city’s monsoon deluge. Meanwhile, newspapers exhort me to sign petitions on the shoddy state of the city and news channels inform me that they’ll contribute a rupee to relief operations for every online candle that’s lit on their website.
It seems a version of liberal guilt — first noticed among the United States’ ageing baby boomers — is making its presence felt in India, along with globalisation and rising middle-class incomes.
Simply put, liberal guilt is the queasy feeling that arises in the hearts of the privileged when faced with the predicament of the less advantaged. Sartorial protests apart, it can manifest itself in making a virtue of segregating garbage, shunning plastic (bags, not cards) and donating to non-profit organisations that claim to save the world, the oceans or the hard-up. In extreme cases, there’s a vociferous conversion to vegetarianism.
Such guilt-tripping, then, is the behaviour indulged in by so-called champagne socialists or limousine liberals. (In the US, in fact, many potshots are hurled by the conservative right towards those at the other end of the political spectrum whose behaviour is likened to sorting out household refuse for recycling, and then transporting it to the recycling centre in a gas-guzzling SUV.)
Of course, there are well-defined limits to what liberal guilt can make us do — which goes some way in explaining the almost universal middle-class resistance to the proposed quota-based admissions. We’ll help you, but don’t come too close.
It’s not my argument that donations, petitions and the like are unnecessary or that we shouldn’t recycle. Anything that draws attention to or ameliorates deserving issues is worth doing — small drops fill large buckets. The problem is that all too often, such actions become sanctimonious substitutes for active engagement. We donate a single Band-Aid to an entire hospital and then, all aglow with virtue, drop in to the nearest supermarket to check whether they’ve received a fresh shipment of pimiento olives.
Which brings to mind that old anecdote about a portly society matron who was accosted by a homeless man while leaving a charity ball. “Spare change, Mum?” croaks the man. “Change?” the matron indignantly responds. “My dear fellow, don’t you know I’ve spent the entire evening dancing on your behalf?”
As for me, I’m busy attempting a daily quota of stomach crunches just in case I’m called upon to wear a black T-shirt again.