We live in an unequal society. This inequality is inherently linked to anxiety levels within our population. People with less privilege are anxious about their income and seek to prove their worth; while people with privilege are anxious about maintaining their current status but feel guilty for the privilege they possess.
There are people who want to change the structure of our society to reduce this inequality. Activists are actively campaigning for political and social change. However, society tends to place these activists on a pedestal – idolizing them, but also recanting their support the minute a mistake is committed.
Activists are expected to lead a simple lifestyle, sacrificing opportunities and experiences, to be regarded as someone with a strong moral compass and deep-rooted values.
The expectation that activists must live a difficult life and have a frugal lifestyle to advocate for things they are passionate about and wish to change in the world appears ridiculous when written, but this is the reality we observe.
AOC used her Met Gala outfit to make a bold statement about taxes — and right-wing media had a field day pic.twitter.com/x7sOBJTbo9
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) September 18, 2021
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), an American politician and activist, recently attended the Met Gala wearing a gown with ‘Tax the Rich’ etched on the back. An activist campaigning for progressive taxation attending one of the most expensive events of the year, surrounded by only the rich, screamed hypocrisy.
However, AOC was invited to the event as a ‘guest of the museum’ and went for free, to emphasise her stance on a wider platform. Why was her decision to utilise an opportunity provided to her criticised so heavily?
Further, when an activist with certain privileges is advocating for, as in AOC’s case, marginalised and under-represented communities who do not possess the privileges she does, these societal expectations seem to imply inherent ‘wrongness’ in her advocacy due to her privilege. This could lead to survivor’s guilt.
One way of understanding survivor’s guilt is the difficult, almost painful feelings one faces when one has survived a situation others did not. This is commonly observed in war veterans – they feel as though they’ve betrayed the comrades they’ve left behind.
A wider definition of survivor’s guilt is associated with privilege and stems from empathy. Individuals with the privilege to remain largely unaffected by COVID-19 have experienced a crippling sense of guilt and shame when they compare their situation to others who are less fortunate than them.
A similar sense of guilt could develop in activists who are bombarded with expectations from society to live their life a certain way to gain credibility. They feel guilty for possessing privileges the communities they are advocating for do not possess.
The current structure of our society heavily promotes hustle culture and working 24/7. People often feel guilty for taking breaks, or time off work. We have observed that this leads to burn out as well as a lack of care for one’s own mental health and well-being.
The constant feeling of sadness for you having an edge in resources over others turns into a cycle that never stops, it just amplifies anxiety and guilt.
i’m on that thin line between both scenes pic.twitter.com/Ugok3I4Y2u
— Nikhil (@niquotein) August 6, 2020
In the show, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, we see Moon Gang-tae display some variation of survivor’s guilt stemming from his need to protect his older brother who is on the autism spectrum, after his brother witnessed the murder of their mother. Gang-tae’s entire life revolves around his brother and his needs, so much so that Gang-tae often neglects himself.
Thappad is a movie that picked up on the misogyny prevalent in Indian homes and placed it on the large screen for all of us to reflect on. Amrita’s story was compelling and made all of us empathise with her and every other woman going through a similar situation.
We felt guilty for the sexism we’ve perpetuated or turned a blind eye to, and for allowing her story to be the story of many in Indian society without the same ending – many aren’t able to separate from a family that disrespects and abuses them.
The movie Parasite highlights class differences and how the effects of a situation impact people differently. One scene displays this – while the woman from the rich family exclaims about the beauty of the rain, the driver sits grimly because the same rain had destroyed his house.
Viewers cannot help but empathise and feel survivor’s guilt owing to their privilege.
After hearing the stories of female domestic workers in relation to the discrimination and sexism they face daily in their own families, one cannot help but feel guilty for the safe spaces and security one possesses. This is true in many dimensions.
In a society where more voices of the under-represented are being raised to tell their stories, people feel a sense of guilt owing to the privilege they were born into.
Comments on various social media platforms can exacerbate the guilt one already feels. Under AOC’s Instagram post, there are several comments that read: “You are rich, tax yourself more.” and “Did you collect tax revenue from all your wealthy, tax-avoiding friends with whom you partied tonight?”
These insensitive comments can amplify an individual’s sense of guilt when talking about a cause they are fighting for. This guilt can be overwhelming and can have serious implications for the individual’s mental health and well being.
Coping with survivor’s guilt is difficult; the best solution would be to approach a therapist for their professional support and guidance. Accepting your feelings and understanding that they stem from a place of empathy is a crucial step.
Doing what you can to help out others who are in less fortunate situations is a way of consciously using that empathy for good. But, it is crucial that your own individual mental health is good. The mindset of ‘well, others have it worse than me so I can’t complain’ is not a good one – your struggles are as valid as others’ are.
Empathy is a powerful feeling – it can change lives for the better; we see this with activists who bring about positive change. Feeling empathy is wonderful, but allowing it to manifest as a debilitating form of survivor’s guilt is not. We need to decrease inequalities in society to decrease the survivor’s guilt the population feels.