On the Virtues of Ingratitude

We could not have learned the hard way. We were raised in the midst of booms and bubbles and unsustainable prosperity; we didn’t realize how lucky we were, our parents would say. If we scowled at the broccoli on our plate, we would predictably be reminded about the starving orphans in Africa. If we whined about blisters, we were told we were fortunate to own shoes at all. Our parents, who came of age with televised Vietnams and Soviet repression, still love to invoke gratitude when confronting us about our bad attitudes. We were taught to be grateful for our homework, for our itchy sweaters, for the unhappy greens and fishes on our plates; we were, after all, among the privileged few to have such luxuries.

“Ingrate” became parental abracadabra for enforcing guilt-driven compliance. It still brings out an almost religious state of bad conscience, and we respond accordingly: Trash is taken out; dry turkey is chewed and swallowed with anxious fervor; grace is uttered and sins of gluttony, sloth, greed, and pride are absolved. We are grateful for what we have, so long as we are the ones who have it.

The importance of gratitude has been emphasized for centuries. Cicero proclaimed that gratitude was “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Gratitude is also a cornerstone of Judeo-Christian thought. Men must thank the giver of all gifts for the blessings he has bestowed upon them, whether they realize their value (Psalms, Hebrews) or not (Job), and most important, he must do so unconditionally (Thessalonians).

Unlike feelings of love, envy, despair, annoyance, greed, optimism, pessimism, and even happiness, gratitude is seldom presented as having a downside. Harmless at worst, it is a sign of conscience, of a certain down-to-earthness, even maturity. Whatever the cause of our gratitude, the emotion is experienced in a uniform way — we feel elated, relieved, content, and perhaps a little guilty. But there are important differences between “horizontal” gratitude — being grateful that parents worked hard to put us in good schools, for example — and a fuzzier, metaphysical “vertical” gratitude for, say, not having been born in a Palestinian refugee camp. Horizontal gratitude is primarily directed towards our fellow man, when thanking friends for help, receiving a gift, or even appreciating food or art. But vertical gratitude is bottom-up: quite literally thanking God (or an equivalent) for one’s lot in life.

That the world needs horizontal gratitude — that we ought to respect one another, try to appreciate people and return favors — goes without saying. But to systematically praise the heavens that our lives have turned out so fortunately has less desirable ramifications, too. Dorothy Parker was likely referring to the vertical variety when she wrote that gratitude was “the meanest and most sniveling attribute in the world.” Though vertical gratitude does not necessarily arise out of malice or spite, it is a mistake to consider it a positive attribute. Vertical gratitude permits us to emote, rather than act, as a way to reconcile our privilege with flagrant global injustice. To be unconditionally grateful for one’s privileged status in a world with limited, unequally distributed resources, is to be grateful that such injustice exists at all.

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Typically, vertical gratitude grows from a sense of Geburtsglück, or birth-luck: “I was born X — thank God I was born X!” This is nothing like the luck one feels when winning the lottery or escaping a close brush with a speeding vehicle; there’s no urgency, no adrenaline, no pointed awareness of what non-luck is like. By virtue of being born with a certain privilege, you will likely never have to experience life otherwise. But if, through some serious misfortune, you are forced to join the ranks of the less fortunate, would still you feel grateful for having once been so rich? Probably not; you may even curse your former luck for having set you up for such disappointment and making it necessary for some, like you, to live in squalor. Perhaps your former gratitude would then be exposed as just a gentler expression of what you felt as a birthright, a sense of entitlement.

Vertical gratitude also hurts our critical capacities by forbidding dissatisfaction with a scale that tilts, albeit by chance, in one’s favor. It is no coincidence it was so often evoked by the conservative political groups I encountered when studying at Columbia. Every time a protest was organized to demand changes – a less Eurocentric reading list, more financial aid for minorities, and so on – protesters were told they should count themselves lucky for being a student there at all, and that if Columbia did not meet their exceedingly high standards, they should not have applied in the first place. Moreover, the conservatives would argue, the existing standards –  inequality, Eurocentrism and all – are exactly what made it possible for Columbia to become a first-rate university. Why jeopardize its (and your!) prestige by pressing for unneeded changes?

The cyclical backlashes against nondiscrimination activists – feminists or otherwise – rely too on the idea that a given group should be happy with their position, which, while imperfect, could be much worse and is a marked improvement on the past. This is a dangerous impulse. Was there not a time in American history when slaves were advised to be grateful for the “protection” of their masters, and white abolitionists told to be glad they were not born slaves. Where would we be if such gratitude – and its requisite complacency - had prevailed?

The generation now reaching its mid-20s in the West is arguably the first to inherit that oft-described sense of global connectedness that the media began proclaiming after the Berlin Wall fell and that has become exacerbated by the Internet and 24-hour news cycles. This illusion of networked cosmopolitanism provides round-the-clock access to a multitude of opinions, images and lifestyles, as well as the foreign, constricted contours of lives we cannot begin to imagine living. Our gratitude for having equal rights as women, for not having to use an outhouse, for eating and drinking as we please, and for walking down the street without the threat of bullets or landmines, results in relief and pity as we retreat from digital dystopia to our protective cocoon of privilege. We see enough to decide that we want our lives to stay the way they are, and react to the manifest and overwhelming unfairness of globalization not with indignation but with a weary complicity. Instead of growing angry about the fact that we have so much more than others – that is, that others have so much less than us — we put a smile on our faces and accept that we truly do live in the best of worlds.

We wouldn’t want to seem unappreciative, now, would we?