Fuck Gratitude

Gingerbread cookie with a big line through it.(Have you noticed I start nearly every post with an anecdote? I’m disturbed to discover I don’t know how to begin explaining something without sharing my context. I’m sure its a character flaw somehow. In any event, I wrote this post about a year ago to put up at my non-blog, but decided…eh…no one reads that shit anyway. But since I have the opportunity to inflict one last philosophical post on you guys…I’m going to share it here.)

To me, the concept of gratitude is inextricably linked with the Christian sect I abandoned years ago. As part of our religious practice, I was compelled to write a list each week of the things for which I was grateful. At the time we were poor, periodically homeless in a rural stretch of the bible belt. I was young living with untreated asthma and chronic bronchitis.

I was not grateful.

But, as I was taught, God required gratitude. He was God, we were pots…commence bowing and scraping, otherwise Remember Job! It wasn’t clear to me then what more the Head Sky Cheese could take away, but in an abundance of caution, I dutifully made a list every Saturday night. I practiced gratitude to appease those with power…to ensure power was aware that I knew my place.

***
Last Saturday, I met with a client over at McDs. The details are unimportant, but I had happy news. The orgs working on her case had been able to remove an impediment that was preventing her from obtaining emergency housing for herself and her daughter. In fact, Mr. Kristen had twisted some arms and gotten the property manager to come out on a weekend to sign the necessary paperwork so they could move in immediately. While I drove my client and her daughter to pick up their belongings, Mr. Kristen coordinated with the orgs to have linens, groceries, and even a few toys and videos delivered. For once, the process worked exactly as we envisioned.

I bring up the success of this effort because usually by the time we’ve reached this point in the process I’m pissed off and apologizing for the continual fuck ups. But this time, I was probably beaming with happiness.

After seeing them settled in Mr Kristen and I started heading for the door. My client moved to get up and I waived her back down and said I’d lock up on the way out. And then she said “I wouldn’t want you to think we were ungrateful.”

Wham…like a stack of bricks.

She’s exhausted, stressed, near to dropping with relief. She’s left her home, her belongings. She doesn’t have a job. Beyond the tiny cash envelop in her kitchen, she didn’t have any real means to care for her self or her daughter.

And yet she felt the need to be grateful. To express gratitude in case we might somehow take offense if she failed to do so.


***

Fuck Gratitude.

Or to be more precise fuck the socially mandated expressions of gratitude (Not nearly as catchy). Fuck the idea that people should ever have to bow and scrape for the simple necessities of life. For a safe place to live or food to eat. Fuck the idea that when we “help” them get those things that they are entitled to that we deserve anything in return.

These socially mandated expressions are nothing more than one more way society demonstrates who is more important. The working poor should be grateful they get to keep the money they have. Women should be grateful for male attention. Mr Kristen should be grateful he wasn’t arrested when he refused to provide his birth certificate. And we should all be grateful God doesn’t kill our entire family just to win an argument.

So yeah, fuck gratitude.

***UPDATE***
I spoke to my now former client a few months ago when Jill asked me to guest blog. I didn’t want to include this post without confirming with her my experience of what happened and getting her permission. She read a (slightly different) version of the post and agreed with this interpretation.

Author: has written 23 posts for this blog.

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98 Responses

  1. Matt
    Matt August 26, 2011 at 8:43 pm |

    “entitled” is a problematic word.

  2. Maibe
    Maibe August 26, 2011 at 8:47 pm |

    I was raised in a very different theology, and never had that nasty baggage associated with gratitude.

    Gratitude for me is a joyful aspect of my life – I practice thankfulness as a meditative activity to help me out of the doldrums and onto an active path when things aren’t going my way and I practice thankfulness when things are going my way because, I too work in social services and know that all I have going for me is luck sometimes, and I have been lucky in many things. I agree that everyone deserves those things, and that your client most likely had the same hateful baggage associated with gratitude as you… but those moments can be teachable. When I have clients thank me for doing what is A. my job, and B. nothing more than decent, I try to be gracious and remind them how much they have worked for what they have and how much they deserve so much more, and that I too am grateful for the opportunity to know them, and be a part of something good in their lives. Creating joy is something that few people get to experience and it is a beautiful drug.

    It’s kind of sad that something that for me is so joyful makes you so sad. Unrelately, your post reminds me of one of my favorite Ani Difranco songs and I now have it in my head. :)

  3. Lindsay Beyerstein
    Lindsay Beyerstein August 26, 2011 at 9:09 pm |

    Great post, Kristen.

  4. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 26, 2011 at 9:10 pm |

    Kristen, your posts have absolutely rocked this week!

  5. Bev
    Bev August 26, 2011 at 9:13 pm |

    @Maibe – I share your positive associations with gratitude and thankfulness yet I would not agree that what you and I experience is the same thing Kristin experiences. We have a choice about using gratitude as a tool in our lives and use it for what we judge is our betterment. Kristin and her client have had a form of grateful behavior forced upon them through unjust social constructs.

  6. Jeff Fecke
    Jeff Fecke August 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm |

    I could not disagree with you more. Gratitude is a cornerstone of our society. It is, fundamentally, a recognition that we are not disconnected creatures, but that we are tied inextricably to those around us, and that our welfare depends on the actions of others. This is true whether one is the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich — none of us is here by ourselves, none of us is here on our own, and while I agree that people are entitled to basic food and shelter, those basics exist if for no other reason than that we are a complex and interwoven society.

    Being grateful is not being subservient. Being grateful is recognizing the interconnection, being connected to something greater than ourselves. Indeed, one of the serious problems facing our society is a lack of gratitude, the Galtian Superman theory that the most well-off succeeded on their own, that they need not be grateful for those around them, that they need not ever credit others.

    Certainly, there are limits. I do not believe that people must bow or scrape in exchange for help. But I don’t think that’s what the woman you’re describing was doing. She wasn’t trying to show herself to be subservient to you. I think she was trying to show respect to you for treating her as an equal, as someone who, despite the worst impulses of our society, was worthy of care, worthy of connection, worthy of those basic needs to which she was entitled. She was acknowledging her connection to something larger than her, and you.

  7. Jadey
    Jadey August 26, 2011 at 9:24 pm |

    I’m disturbed to discover I don’t know how to begin explaining something without sharing my context. I’m sure its a character flaw somehow.

    Not at all! I am the same way, and while sometimes it can lead to rambling and TMI, I think embedding our stories within, well, our stories is useful and important. It’s a form of oral tradition – recounting what has come before as a way of acknowledging where we came from and locating ourselves within our narratives. I think it’s like citing sources in an scholarly text.

    Then again, I also love tangents, so my taste level may be in question. :D I totally agree with the rest of your post. Gratitude should be a gift, and obligatory gifts kind of defeat the purpose.

  8. Dawn
    Dawn August 26, 2011 at 9:29 pm |

    Hey, don’t knock it. I’ll happily be grateful if it’ll get me something other than a great big “fuck you” from society.

  9. Jadey
    Jadey August 26, 2011 at 9:31 pm |

    Hmm, although on a second read, I guess I would say that I think the client in your case should also not have her agency negated to the extent that it erases the possibility that it might have been genuinely proffered gratitude on her part. I agree that the language she used, “I wouldn’t want you to think we were ungrateful,” speaks to the culture of obligatory, hierarchical gratitude that you describe, but just as a oppressive society *complicates* something like gratitude (or, as an analogy, sexual consent), it doesn’t render it completely impossible or meaningless.

  10. tree
    tree August 26, 2011 at 10:02 pm |

    all right, i’m shallow, but i have to confess that when i saw the photo, my first thought was: “no cookies? what do you have against tasty baked goods, Kristen J?!”

    @Maibe — i’ve also got Ani’s song stuck in my head now.

  11. LongHairedWeirdo
    LongHairedWeirdo August 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm |

    First, I’m not going to disagree with what you’ve said. But I will offer an alternate perspective.

    I can imagine myself saying something similar, and if I’d said it, then “I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful” can mean “I recognize that you’ve done good work for me, and I wish I could express it in an appropriate way.” It can be an unforced duty… something that one might demand of one’s self, not something demanded by an outsider.

    I’m not trying to suggest that this is what she meant, of course – you were there, I wasn’t. I’m just offering it, because sometimes I’ve been confused by other people’s behavior until I had an alternate perspective to consider.

  12. LongHairedWeirdo
    LongHairedWeirdo August 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm |

    (Um. Did I really miss your update first time I read this? My apologies.)

  13. Miss S
    Miss S August 26, 2011 at 10:38 pm |

    I never thought about gratitude in this way. I kind of see what you mean, but if I were her, I probably would have been grateful too. Not for a system that fucked me over, but for a person or people- you and M- that made things easier. I would appreciate you helping. I would appreciate that there are people out there, like you, that are committed to helping women that are in violent/abusive relationships. If I ever ended up in an abusive relationship, I would be grateful to you, if you offered to help me.

    Here’s my anecdote. My therapist once told me to write down three things every night that I was grateful for or happy about. It could be something like, I am grateful for my family, I’m happy that I was able to handle a conflict with a friend, I’m happy about the dress I bought and I’m happy I was able to afford it.”

    I have generalized anxiety disorder and she thought it would help lessen my anxiety, I didn’t think it would. I was wrong, When I get caught up in my anxious thinking, I don’t think about good things. I think about possible bad things, Outlining things that I was grateful for or happy about made me a happier person. I think because it centered me on the positive things instead of the bad.

    The form of gratitude you’re talking about is different I guess. Very though provoking, thank you.

  14. Cel
    Cel August 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm |

    It seems your argument is that one should not be grateful towards others who provide help, if the nature of the help is in the context of basic survival needs.

    Therefore, if I need to go to a food bank to eat, I should not be grateful towards those who donate food, nor those who volunteer to ruin the food bank.

    Please clarify, is that indeed your position?

    If so, your position is not only indefensible, but also demonstrably destructive – lack of gratitude makes others less willing to help me, which is directly harmful to me if I depend on their help.

  15. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 26, 2011 at 10:52 pm |

    IMO, it’s a balancing act.

    One hand you should not help people for any other reason than that you want to help them (i.e. if you’re helping them to earn their ‘gratitude’ you’re just being selfish.)

    However, on the other hand, if you are trying to help someone, when they are not showing gratitude, it makes you question whether or not you helped them at all, so you could be having the unselfish reaction of worrying that you did the wrong thing.

    Again, I am going to have to break tradition with many of the men who post here and say that I don’t have an answer to this one.

  16. Cel
    Cel August 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm |

    So you’re saying, it’s ok to be grateful, but you don’t have to show gratitude if you don’t want to?

    If so, that runs into the exact same problem of being counter-productive, and is almost as indefensible; if someone is taking the time and money to donate the food that I eat, it is appropriate to show gratitude to them.

  17. Siobhan
    Siobhan August 26, 2011 at 11:32 pm |

    Cel: If so, your position is not only indefensible, but also demonstrably destructive – lack of gratitude makes others less willing to help me, which is directly harmful to me if I depend on their help.

    That’s exactly the problem though, isn’t it? If the only way other human beings will deign to help you survive is when you put on a little gratitude performance for their benefit – well that’s pretty dehumanizing.

  18. Anonoregonian
    Anonoregonian August 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm |

    Why can’t M come be the guest blogger? I mean if we’re turning the tables and fighting for equality, why the hell can’t she come tell her own story herself? Why is it always the social worker or “advocate” who ends up speaking for the people she’s supposedly “empowering”?

    Speaking as someone who has been a “client” to a “worker,” I am really annoyed by this piece. You are so quick to strip the disempowered of their impulse to human niceties like gratitude, but at the same time you cannot see how allowing you “permission” to blog about this and “agreeing with you” could ALSO be expressions of coerced “gratitude.” I am not saying that they are; obviously I don’t know the woman you’re talking about. But it’s a funny blind spot, really. A nice way to use the disenfranchised poor as your personal rhetorical tool.

    When you don’t have much, gratitude is more important. It’s easy to be all punk rawk and say “yahhh fuck gratitude!!” when you are coming from a place of relative privilege. When you’ve been treated like crap and lost almost everything, however, gratitude for what remains can keep you going. Gratitude for the few human beings in “the system” who treat you like a person is sincere and should not be dismissed with childish posing like “fuck gratitude.” Gratitude can help you make sense of and redeem an otherwise irredeemable trauma. Gratitude is not a bad thing at all.

    What IS bad is the idea that one must grovel, I agree with that. But groveling is not the same as gratitude. And what is also wrong is an entitlement to thanks. Like those snobbish aunts always writing to advice columnists, counting the minutes until the thank you note arrives, someone who gives only waiting to receive gratitude is giving for the wrong reasons. But waving away a person’s sincere gratitude on the grounds that it is politically incorrect is ridiculous and pointless and actually harmful. That gratitude may be the one thing keeping someone alive.

  19. wobbie
    wobbie August 26, 2011 at 11:47 pm |

    KJ… I’ll concede that society shouldn’t force (read expect) gratitude for providing basic needs. However, this wasn’t a case where society as a whole had gone though a lot of trouble to establish safety for your client’s family. It was M and yourself that were able to ‘twist arms’ to accomplish this goal, and do so in a condensed time frame.

    Given that society shouldn’t expect gratitude, then society also shouldn’t expect ingratitude in places where it has failed. We all challenge social norms, and fight strongly for equality. I applaud the sentiment of your OP, but I find it a little terse, and (if i’m reading the true intent correctly) a little misleading.

    Society operates on feedback. positive or negative, feedback drives our future actions. Reward me, and I’ll be more inclined to do something again. Punish me (not in the thank you, may i have another way) and i’m far less likely to repeat the behavior. Thus, if i want society to see that I like/appreciate something a little gratitude can be largely self serving. God has nothing to do with it.

  20. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 12:37 am |

    I think perhaps there’s something to be said for having something to be grateful for.

    Whether or not you believe in gratitude in any form, there are still thousands of people who slip through the net daily. If getting what we need from society was as easy as “I’m grateful”? Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a sore point.

    I don’t think anyone should have to be grateful for the things they’re entitled to or that they haven’t been fucked over. But being grateful for the fact that someone cares? That’s a whole different ball game. I think perhaps some people take for granted that someone will care about their problems, not everyone has that luxury.

  21. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 27, 2011 at 12:42 am |

    Anonoregonian: What IS bad is the idea that one must grovel, I agree with that. But groveling is not the same as gratitude

    So you basically agreeing with the OP in every way, except you feel she should have said ‘groveling’ instead of ‘forced gratitude.’ Yeah, that certainly warrants a massively condescending personal attack which basically makes a whole bunch of unsupported wild assumptions about Kristen.

  22. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 27, 2011 at 12:48 am |

    Jeff Fecke: Being grateful is not being subservient. Being grateful is recognizing the interconnection, being connected to something greater than ourselves.

    Cel: It seems your argument is that one should not be grateful towards others who provide help, if the nature of the help is in the context of basic survival needs.

    Dawn: I don’t think anyone should have to be grateful for the things they’re entitled to or that they haven’t been fucked over. But being grateful for the fact that someone cares? That’s a whole different ball game.

    Did any of you read the OP? The client never said she whether she was grateful or not. She said “I wouldn’t want you to think we were ungrateful.” What is it with people’s reading comprehension?

  23. Spilt Milk
    Spilt Milk August 27, 2011 at 12:57 am |

    I can relate to the ‘forced gratitude’ notion. In my case, it was used to silence me. I was not permitted to grieve the loss of my mother from my life, for example, because I was meant to be ‘grateful’ that my father was prepared to take care of me. Being told to be grateful was akin to being told that I was undeserving. It was also used to make me feel guilty for what I did have. To stop me from complaining. So I agree with the OP that there are ways that socially mandated expressions of gratitude are really insidious forms of oppression.

    On the other hand, true gratitude is enriching and happy-making. Gratitude can form part of the recovery process, it can make one feel more connected to the world and its expression can really strengthen relationships.

    I’m kinda a fan of gratitude but not the ‘shut up and be grateful’ variety.

  24. Hanna
    Hanna August 27, 2011 at 1:13 am |

    Samuel Beckett: “To those that have nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.”

    I think gratitude is a complex concept, but I absolutely agree it can be used in the most awful way.

  25. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 1:19 am |

    @Fat Steve,

    I was talking about gratitude in a general sense. Just because a personal story is included doesn’t mean people can’t talk about generalities.

  26. Annaleigh
    Annaleigh August 27, 2011 at 1:25 am |

    On the one hand, I like gratitude lists. When I get depressed it has helped to find something, anything that I can be glad about. I also used to do a “vibe” list for a website where I would list both good things and bad things. I know sometimes over the years the bad section of the list came to me very easily and I would struggle to come up with a good thing to add.

    On the other hand, gratitude and thank yous have been used in my life as a club to belittle me or shame me.

    I come from a mostly/poor working class family. Some of my relatives on my mom’s side of the family have managed to break out into the middle class. My parents weren’t among them. My dad got a high school education plus military stuff, my mom didn’t finish high school.

    Because I was considered gifted, one of my middle class aunts spent a lot of time bringing me along to places and exposing me to things I wouldn’t otherwise have involvement. My aunt is considered kind of an expert here in the San Joaquin Valley on navigating the INS and obtaining US citizenship. She makes regular Spanish-language TV and radio appearances, mostly in the Valley, sometimes nationally. A lot of people here town likely know who my aunt is, most of them likely don’t know I am her relative.

    Anyway, I got to visit a lot of places, Univision studios, Spanish-language radio studios, citizenship class, the Mexican consulate, Christmas dinner with an acquaintance of Rigoberta Menchu. My aunt always gave me tons of gifts, a lot of them intellectual, like books, other times things like clothes, jewelry, beauty stuff. She also introduced me to people, who would give lots of compliments about what a great, intelligent, precocious, pretty little kid I was.

    Therein lies the problem. I am shy and introverted, and it was worse back then was I was between 9 and 14 years old because I was being sexually abused. I felt really awkward around people, and a lot of the time saying anything at all to the people I was meeting was a challenge, nevermind taking a compliment and saying thank you. I was really, really grateful for all that I was receiving, the opportunities, the compliments, the stuff, but for some reason I had trouble saying thank you. I wanted to say it but couldn’t. My brain would literally freeze and I would forget. And then my aunt would embarrass me in front of the person.

    My struggles with “thank you” were used as a reminder that oh yeah, I was so bright, but I was a poor girl, with parents going nowhere in life, and without manners acceptable to middle class society. And it hurt, a lot.

    I always try to express gratitude, but for some reason I sometimes still forget to say thank you*.

    *I forgot to thank one of my mother’s tenants today when she gave me a bag of grapes. But it doesn’t count and it’s her fault, because she was bothering me while I was trying to complete my laundry…

  27. LC
    LC August 27, 2011 at 6:31 am |

    Have you noticed I start nearly every post with an anecdote?

    it used to be called “Feature style” or “Wall Street Journal Feature Style” when I was going to Journalism school. (It was more specifically, “specific anecdote, show how it reflects a trend, growing trend, return to specific anecdote.”)

    As far as the piece itself, like most people, I am not ready to throw the baby out with bathwater on gratitude.

  28. Mercedes Allen
    Mercedes Allen August 27, 2011 at 6:55 am |

    Thank you for this.

    In my experience being on the side of need, it’s more than something drilled home in a religious context, although there is certainly that — and that attitude still persists in the form of prejudices about the poor and unemployed being “lazy,” “using the system,” etc.

    But as I said, the impulse to show gratitude also comes from being in a position of desperation — of needing help so badly that one is terrified of doing anything socially inept that might jeopardize that help or future help. It’s a vulnerability issue, which sort of makes it all the uglier.

    That said, there is a positive side to gratitude, and a sign that this is changing to some extent. As someone who does advocacy in an entirely volunteer capacity (i.e. I’m employed full-time to pay for my advocacy, rather than the advocacy paying me), it’s nice to know sometimes that what I’m doing is meaningful and worthwhile. So “thank you” is sometimes the only compensation, and it doesn’t happen much, anymore.

    So while I appreciate and tend to agree with what you’re saying, in some ways it’s kind of sad.

  29. Arkady
    Arkady August 27, 2011 at 7:43 am |

    Genuine gratitude is always nice, but the moment it starts sounding or feeling fake/OTT/socially-enforced then it starts getting iffy. When it came to presents from my grandmother my sister and I had to resort to writing thankyou cards, as any verbal expression of thanks at the time of the gift, no matter how heartfelt, would later be discounted and the ‘ungrateful grandchildren’ muttering would start (should add her memory was fine, certainly when it came to anything negative she could use against people when ‘stirring’. She was a very strong women, but not a very nice one)

    The social-enforced stuff reminds me a lot of Victorian attitudes, where the poor had to be oh-so-grateful for the slightest charity from the better-off. Terry Pratchett had an awesome spoof of this kind of attitude with a retelling of Good King Wenceslas in his Discworld novel Hogfather:

    ‘”Let me make myself absolutely clear,’ said the king sharply. “This is some genuine Hogswatch charity, d’you understand? And we’re going to sit here and watch the smile on your grubby but honest face, is that understood?”… “What is going on here, whoever you are, is some fine old Hogswatch charity! And who-”
    “NO, IT’S NOT.”
    “What? How dare you-”
    “WERE YOU HERE LAST MONTH? WILL YOU BE HERE NEXT WEEK? NO. BUT TONIGHT YOU WANTED TO FEEL WARM INSIDE. TONIGHT YOU WANTED THEM TO SAY: WHAT A GOOD KING HE IS.”…
    “Whatever it is, it’s more than he’s got!” snapped the king. “And all we’ve had from him is ingratitude-”
    “YES, THAT DOES SPOIL IT, DOESN’T IT?” Death leaned forward. “GO AWAY.”‘

  30. Doc G
    Doc G August 27, 2011 at 8:54 am |

    Cool – I think this is a really smart angle on the dangers of gratitude and its use as a control mechanism to keep people from demanding a certain standard of living. It reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking – the idea that if you have enough faith or a positive attitude, things will actually go better for you SOUNDS innocuous enough, until you realize that it means that if things are shitty for you then you must not have a good enough attitude.

    Gratitude does have its appropriate place though, doesn’t it? I like Jeff’s idea that gratitude is simply a recognition of the connection between people and the idea that nobody gets anywhere without anyone else’s help. Of course, this type of gratitude would be mutual and between people in equal positions, and when you start out with inequalities in society gratitude too often means different things going in different directions. Perhaps its a hint towards recognizing the difference between fixing/helping and serving that we’ve discussed on this site in the past. If you’re truly serving, you and the person you serve should be mutually grateful, and celebrating that would ideally also be mutual, natural, and not like bowing and scraping. If you’re “fixing” someone, you expect them to be grateful to you (and probably to go out of their way to show it).

  31. Jennifer
    Jennifer August 27, 2011 at 9:07 am |

    Word, Kristen! I agree with with Mercedes said above. I’m a white, privileged type of person. I’ve worked as a volunteer with people who are less privileged and also done interviews as a researcher, and I inwardly cringe at the expressions of gratitude that come from people feeling vulnerable and desperate–you can tell that people feel like if they don’t show the proper amount of gratitude, what little they have may be taken away. I also feel sad at the genuine expressions of gratitude that come from the “I’m not used to being treated like a person” place–that is, people expressing genuine gratitude for something that should be an entitlement.

    I was raised to have a “things could be worse, be grateful for what you have” mindset (it was not coercive or dismissive, however) and I think it’s often helpful to me personally, but this is *very* different than what I talked about above. In this case, it’s more about being happy than being grateful.

  32. William
    William August 27, 2011 at 10:39 am |

    Why is it always the social worker or “advocate” who ends up speaking for the people she’s supposedly “empowering”?

    Because we’re the people who live our lives in the worst moments of other people’s lives. We’re the people who see, day in and day out, the pain that society heaps on people but we have this tiny little stretch of professional distance that allows us to come up and breathe and analyze what we’re seeing.

    Like Kristen J, I’ve been through some of the worst our society has to offer. When that was happening I didn’t have a lot of energy for analysis or critique or the making of connections. All I really had the energy for was fighting to make out alive and mostly whole. Now that my life has moved to one of relative privilege I’m able to think about those things I lived through in the context of power and oppression. Now that I see a lot of patients I am exposed to a lot of stories and my perspective has shifted to one that is less idiosyncratic.

    But enough of the hand holding through what should have been obvious. I don’t think you missed the part where Kristen J talked about her own experience. Its right there in the front. Shes right, you’re choosing to be an asshole, you’re choosing to be condescending.

  33. Nicole C
    Nicole C August 27, 2011 at 12:02 pm |

    I struggle a lot with my Christian beliefs (because there are so many Christian a-holes out there), but I always am mindful to carry the basic principle of God’s grace – You can’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. I work at an all girls’ school that’s big into community service, and one of the overlying messages we stress to the girls is that you don’t have to EARN respect. Respect is innate. Everyone should respect you simply because you’re a person (and vice-versa), whether you believe in God’s grace or not. You don’t have to be smart, rich, pretty, talented, “successful”, or powerful to earn respect, you get it no matter what. I HATE that we reinforce as a society that it’s something you earn, and the idea that you should be forced to feel grateful for what little respect (if any) you might be given is wrong – you’re entitled to it.

  34. Glauke
    Glauke August 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm |

    My background is completely different from yours: my parents are non-believers. So your anecdotes really help me understand where you’re coming from.

    Also, great post. Again.

  35. Bitter Scribe
    Bitter Scribe August 27, 2011 at 1:27 pm |

    In “Down and Out in Paris and London,” George Orwell describes a scene where tramps in a church, after consuming free tea and food at a church, openly jeer as the church’s pastor and others try to “save” them:

    It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps–from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor–it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.

  36. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm |

    Fat Steve:
    IMO, it’s a balancing act.

    One hand you should not help people for any other reason than that you want to help them (i.e. if you’re helping them to earn their ‘gratitude’ you’re just being selfish.)

    However, on the other hand, if you are trying to help someone, when they are not showing gratitude, it makes you question whether or not you helped them at all, so you could be having the unselfish reaction of worrying that you did the wrong thing.

    Again, I am going to have to break tradition with many of the men who post here and say that I don’t have an answer to this one.

    have you considered that people who help people without expecting gratitude receive something else for their trouble? moral superiority, validation form social peers, acting in line with extrinsically embedded expectations, and so forth.

  37. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm |

    Kristen J:
    Not to me.Not when comes to basic things people need to survive.People are entitled to those things.

    Oh? How basic? Are people entitled to cancer treatment? Needed to survive, or be happy? People survive all the time living in cardboard boxes and eating out of dumpsters. Since clearly that condition meets the terms of “need to survive,” are you saying that people are only entitled to a box in the park and a some dumpsters to eat from? Or do you mean that people are entitled to a certain arbitrary standard of living decided by you, some other individual, a vote, or a committee, etc.?

  38. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm |

    Kristen J:
    Obviously, some certain arbitrary standard of libing decided by me.

    libing :)

  39. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm |

    @William,

    Not all social workers are created equally, I wouldn’t want one of the local social workers here advocating on the behalf of anyone, if only because they’ve got an appalling history of forcing what they think is best for the person onto people (and sometimes they don’t even bother with that so much as bullying the people they’re supposed to be representing so they can close the case without dealing with it).

  40. Copcher
    Copcher August 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm |

    This is a great piece. I do think that saying thank you is a nice thing to do when someone does something nice for me, but I agree 100% that expecting people to go out of their way to show how grateful they are, especially when the thing they are grateful for is someone helping them out of a really really really crappy situation, is awful. It really bugs me that the crappier the situation a person is in, the more grateful they’re supposed to demonstrate they are when someone helps make the situation a tiny bit less crappy. (That was a really awkwardly worded sentence. I wish I could think of a better way to write it but I can’t.)

  41. LongHairedWeirdo
    LongHairedWeirdo August 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm |

    What IS bad is the idea that one must grovel, I agree with that. But groveling is not the same as gratitude.

    This reminds me a bit of a dictionary war. There might be a better, truer definition of a word, one that “should” be its only meaning. But if a word is used a certain way, by enough people, that’s one of the real definitions.

    Gratitude, or being grateful, does include the possible definition of “you should grovel sufficiently”. There might be another, better, purer definition, but even if there was, there is still this other one.

    “Write down why you’re grateful to God!”
    “If I’m any sort of trouble to you, I’m afraid you’ll think I’m ungrateful”.
    “Those people using food stamps aren’t acting the way I think they should act! They’re ungrateful!”
    “Why are you calling out a behavior by me that you find hurtful? I’m a *good* romantic partner and you’re ungrateful!”

    That idea, that concept, is one that is targeted by the word “gratitude” or “gratefulness” or whatever the heck you want.

    And, I agree with the author – *fuck* that concept, by whatever name it is called.

    I might disagree if gratitude was *never* used to mean “a sufficiency of groveling ” but it is… and I do think it’s rude to attack a person’s particular word choice just because it’s different from one’s own.

  42. Cagey
    Cagey August 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm |

    Speaking as a person of color and as a queer person, ‘gratitude” is something I often hear that I am supposed to have. I’m supposed to be grateful to allies who do the minimal amount of work to examine their own privilege. I’m supposed to be grateful that they care enough to do what any human being with empathy and a sense of decency would do. I’m supposed to be grateful for how far we’ve come in their personal journey. It seems that kind of social performance of gratitude is nothing but a silencing tactic: Don’t remind us of how awful it still is out here and how much more we actually need to do, just make us feel good about the things we have done, no matter how small”. It’s another way of asking for cookies–no–demanding cookies with the implicit threat that the positives they want you to celebrate may be revoked if you are deemed insufficiently pleased by them.

  43. Brigid
    Brigid August 27, 2011 at 6:07 pm |

    LongHairedWeirdo: This reminds me a bit of a dictionary war. There might be a better, truer definition of a word, one that “should” be its only meaning. But if a word is used a certain way, by enough people, that’s one of the real definitions.

    Indeed, I believe that it is important to notice that people refer to “gratitude” when they are requiring someone, or being required, to grovel. Gratitude is assumed to be something positive, so calling it that erases the power imbalance and coercion of the interaction.

    Likewise, commenting on this post to insist that generally speaking, in situations that bear no resemblance to the ones Kristen J wrote about in the post, gratitude is awesome! (though I’m sure many commenters who have done so have nothing but the best intentions) serves to perpetuate this insistence that anything we call gratitude — even if it’s a code word for groveling — is good, and how dare we criticize it. Refusing to acknowledge what Kristen J is actually talking about, which is clearly NOT a positive thing, only helps to silence those who experience “gratitude” in oppressive ways.

  44. Anonymouse
    Anonymouse August 27, 2011 at 6:13 pm |

    There’s a difference, to me, between being grateful and being thankful or appreciative. Having been on both the receiving and the giving side of social work help, I have never been grateful and I have always tried to make sure that the youth I worked with knew that the last thing I wanted for them to feel was gratitude. But I’ve been appreciative and thankful for the helping hand I’ve received. And while I don’t do the work for the thanks, I’ve gotten those and I won’t lie – it felt good to know that someone gotten something they needed as a result of the work they did with my support.

    And as for that jerk upthread demanding to know what gives Kristen or anyone else the right to tell someone’s story, William nailed that, as usual. We are there and we are witnesses. The ability to advocate and tell stories is one of the ways we can use our privilege to try to do some good.

  45. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm |

    Cagey:
    I’m supposed to be grateful that they care enough to do what any human being with empathy and a sense of decency would do.

    You are expressing what is called activist privilege, which is a sub category of ideological privilege/awareness. Activist privilege/awareness is defined as the feeling that any person not sufficiently sensitive to the privileged individuals specific complaint of oppression is not empathetic or decent, or more broadly, is not a good person. Some people consider privileged a problematic term here, and instead refer to this as having queer/racial/ethnic/lower class/religious/atheist awareness.

    In this case, its beyond dispute that a majority of people are not born with the awareness of a given kind of oppression. A conscious individual is limited by various access to resources.
    Cognitive, time, natural, spacial, cultural, educational, economic, etc. This means that every person has to prioritize their resources, in this case cognitive and time related resources, within the strictures of their culture. Aside from that, before deciding if they can spend these two resources on increasing their awareness of oppression, they have to be aware that it exists in the first. The human learning process functions in certain ways. Oppressed groups become aware of their oppression organically, through experiencing it. People with privilege can experience oppression observationally, which isn’t as effective. It doesn’t produce the same feelings about the oppressive actions, and it doesn’t make them urgent in the person’s mind. Often individuals who posses lots of privileged statuses, and may be spacially separated from privilege don’t really encounter it at all. Other exposure comes through literature, academic learning, and the media.

    Examining your own privilege is like examining your own body’s chemistry and biology, or the physics of your environment. It doesn’t happen naturally.
    Further, empathy is not an all encompassing skill. You can empathize with some things and not others. And a sense of decency is totally relative to culture and circumstances.
    People don’t do anything without assessing costs and benefits. Examining privilege, much less fighting it, takes a large amount of certain resources which a person only has a limited amount of. If someone is examining their privilege its because they get something from it. Since there are relatively few people who identify as “allies” to a given activist cause, its therefore obvious that not any “human being with empathy and a sense of human decency” would do what you claim they would. So you can pay in gratitude, sometimes known as humiliating yourself to make someone else feel good, or you could pay in money, which probably wouldn’t be effective, or you could identify some other value gained from examining privilege in regards to the oppression you experience, and try to sell that as a reason for people to do it.
    Do you think that people after gratitude are inherently more awful than someone indoctrinated from childhood against their will to examine privilege? Does being in an oppressed group, which is one way that people are motivated to discuss and deconstruct privilege, make you one of the few people with empathy and decency? Since even people in very oppressed groups tend not to examine some of the privilege they have relative to others, and to deal with their own bigotry, does that mean that no one in the world has empathy and human decency? If no one has those attributes, why do we have words and concepts describing them?

  46. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 6:28 pm |

    Anonymouse:
    There’s a difference, to me, between being grateful and being thankful or appreciative. Having been on both the receiving and the giving side of social work help, I have never been grateful and I have always tried to make sure that the youth I worked with knew that the last thing I wanted for them to feel was gratitude. But I’ve been appreciative and thankful for the helping hand I’ve received.And while I don’t do the work for the thanks, I’ve gotten those and I won’t lie – it felt good to know that someone gotten something they needed as a result of the work they did with my support.

    And as for that jerk upthread demanding to know what gives Kristen or anyone else the right to tell someone’s story, William nailed that, as usual. We are there and we are witnesses. The ability to advocate and tell stories is one of the ways we can use our privilege to try to do some good.

    Was it here or feministing where there was a big discussion on The Help and how having a privileged person come in and “speak for” an oppressed group was problematic?

  47. CassandraSays
    CassandraSays August 27, 2011 at 6:44 pm |

    I suppose that by this stage in life I shouldn’t be surprised that many people rush to defend the ideas behind the concept that those with less power should grovel when anyone does anything nice for them, and that not doing so is bad. And yet it still shocks me to see it here of all places.

    Can we go back to Kristin’s actual point now, please? (Although I am not as generous and kind a person as Anonymouse above, clearly, because I suspect that a lot of the people harping on the meaning of the word “gratitude” know exactly what Kristin meant by it, and it’s that true meaning that makes them uncomfortable, and it’s easier to quibble about definitions then deal with the icky underlying social issues.) So, the idea that people should be grateful for being provided with basic life necessities like food and shelter – this idea is messed up. It’s a failure of empathy and ethics. Let’s break it down – which groups in society are most often expected to be grateful? Who are they expected to be grateful to? Could it be that there’s some power imbalance there, and how is that underlying the expectation of gratitude? And if the gratitude is given, what and everyone thinks this is a good thing, what does that say about how society views the people being required to be grateful (again, for very basic things that every human needs). Why does society not think that these people deserve to have their needs met? Why are people who ID as progressives giving support to that way of seeing things?

    (Kristin actually covered most of these questions in the original post, in an allegorical way, but apparently we need to be a bit more blunt here in order to get the point across.)

  48. DouglasG
    DouglasG August 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm |

    The image that springs to mind for me after reading this post is that of the odious Christian do-gooder Mr Brocklehurst from *Jane Eyre*. How unfortunate that Ms Kristen when young had a Brocklehurstian figure or authority in her life.

  49. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm |

    @Anonymouse

    However you are still not the person who is intimately involved with the situation or the one who is the main target of societies bias and privilege/marginalisation in the situation.

    You can tell what you see, and I’m sure you do, I’m sure your intentions are good. However a lot of the time when a “witness” speaks for a marginalised group, they drown out actual voices, and may even cause harm.

    Or have you forgotten the journalist who endangered a rape victim by blabbing her story?

    Another example would be the local learning disability nurse here, the bright spark decided that only people “who could not learn” qualified for her assistance, apparently she also defines that group as “blind people and people with brain damage”. Funnily enough neither is a learning disability, and last time I checked being blind didn’t make you incapable of learning anything and brain damage was a condition that has a varied impact. So the learning disabled nurse does not actually help the learning disabled despite the fact that she’s supposed to support and enable them to self advocate. I dunno what she actually does to be honest, but I’ve seen her refuse to help learning disabled patients only for them to be railroaded by doctors and endangered because they’re not getting the support they need to self advocate.

    She sure seems plenty willing to tell people who is learning disabled and who is not, and to claim people who can’t self advocate can because she says so.

    Not everyone has good intentions, and even those with good intentions can be harmful.

  50. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm |

    CassandraSays:
    I suppose that by this stage in life I shouldn’t be surprised that many people rush to defend the ideas behind the concept that those with less power should grovel when anyone does anything nice for them, and that not doing so is bad. And yet it still shocks me to see it here of all places.

    Can we go back to Kristin’s actual point now, please? (Although I am not as generous and kind a person as Anonymouse above, clearly, because I suspect that a lot of the people harping on the meaning of the word “gratitude” know exactly what Kristin meant by it, and it’s that true meaning that makes them uncomfortable, and it’s easier to quibble about definitions then deal with the icky underlying social issues.) So, the idea that people should be grateful for being provided with basic life necessities like food and shelter – this idea is messed up. It’s a failure of empathy and ethics. Let’s break it down – which groups in society are most often expected to be grateful? Who are they expected to be grateful to? Could it be that there’s some power imbalance there, and how is that underlying the expectation of gratitude? And if the gratitude is given, what and everyone thinks this is a good thing, what does that say about how society views the people being required to be grateful (again, for very basic things that every human needs). Why does society not think that these people deserve to have their needs met? Why are people who ID as progressives giving support to that way of seeing things?

    (Kristin actually covered most of these questions in the original post, in an allegorical way, but apparently we need to be a bit more blunt here in order to get the point across.)

    A lot of the problem people have is what qualifies as a basic necessity though. If we accept that people deserve basic necessities based purely on the fact that they are human, what exactly does that entitle them to?

  51. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 8:17 pm |

    I think it does apply to the type of gratitude you brought up in a way.

    Sometimes I find that, some of our peers tend to have an attitude of “anyone who could possibly be privileged must be grateful that we’re willing to teach them about how privileged they are”. While it’s not as damaging as the whole “poor unfortunates must be grateful even if we’re actually treating them badly” crap, I think it tends to feed the the idea that being a good person is something that has to be earned through public displays of “gratitude” and the “right” behaviour, rather than something to be because it’s worth being.

    Which I doubt helps people to do the right thing rather than whatever they think might lead to the moniker “good person”.

  52. McSnarkster
    McSnarkster August 27, 2011 at 8:50 pm |

    “Was it here or feministing where there was a big discussion on The Help and how having a privileged person come in and “speak for” an oppressed group was problematic?”

    Yeah, I was seriously thinking about this. How nice that social workers have observed the problems of the underprivileged. Skeeter observed and heard about the problems of the maids, too. Why can’t we hear from the people who didn’t just observe, but actually experienced it? I don’t mind observations, but it seems like that’s nearly all of what we get, and I’d feel better about “fuck gratitude” if the gratitude at the core of this post wasn’t someone else’s (especially coming from someone else and directed towards the author).

    Anyway, I don’t care what people are “supposed” to do, or what basics people are “entitled” to. That may be how life is “supposed” to go, but it still too rarely happens, so I’m going to be grateful when people actually do what is right. (Of course, at my church, the main bit of gratitude that was really instilled in me was being grateful to Jesus for dying for our sins and grateful for God’s forgiveness. I have no problem with that kind of gratitude–considering the sorts of things humankind has gotten up to throughout history, the sorts of things we’re still getting up to, the sorts of things we regularly fail to do–the idea that someone out there might still forgive us and love us anyway is pretty amazing. So I guess I’m coming from a different place here.)

  53. Hanna Joergel
    Hanna Joergel August 27, 2011 at 9:04 pm |

    Jadey@9: Gratitude should be a gift, and obligatory gifts kind of defeat the purpose.

    Spiltmilk @34: I’m kinda a fan of gratitude but not the ‘shut up and be grateful’ variety.

    Cagey@52: It seems that kind of social performance of gratitude is nothing but a silencing tactic: Don’t remind us of how awful it still is out here and how much more we actually need to do, just make us feel good about the things we have done, no matter how small”. It’s another way of asking for cookies–no–demanding cookies with the implicit threat that the positives they want you to celebrate may be revoked if you are deemed insufficiently pleased by them.

    @CassandraSays: So, the idea that people should be grateful for being provided with basic life necessities like food and shelter – this idea is messed up.

    Me: Welcome to the life of an adopted child. I’m almost 41 and I’m not over this bullshit. Thanks Kristen J for the post.

  54. Dominique
    Dominique August 27, 2011 at 9:06 pm |

    I love, love, love this post. And to answer detractors – it isn’t that gratitude is bad, or wrong. It’s that too often the powers that be pervert the ideal of gratitude to fit their own purposes, i.e., to preserve an unacceptable status quo. Of course, gratitude is one of many emotions and attitudes that get coopted toward other ends.

  55. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm |

    @Kristen,

    I think we all get that social mandated and demanded behaviour is really sucky and can be used to control people, however the other party is right as well, it is deeply problematic when others speak for the marginalised.

    At the end of the day, you do have a point about social expectations of gratitude, but at the same time, some of the things you’re doing are problematic and you have erased the client, she has become a cipher for your “realisation”, instead of a human being.

  56. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 10:04 pm |

    @Kristen,

    Nobody has suggested that at all, just that you need to be more careful because you’re slipping into certain methods that can be hurtful. People are not attacking you, just explaining that what you’re doing is problematic and why it’s problematic.

    The defensiveness isn’t helping and to be honest, given your reactions to being told by marginalised groups that some of the things you do are unintentionally hurtful? You’re slipping past problematic, and toward potentially harmful to the people you want to help.

  57. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm |

    Kristen J:
    You know who else was erased in this story.Mr. Kristen.And my parents.And Sunday school.And God.Yup, I erased God.Because everyone’s experience on Earth (and in Heaven) is more important than mine.So I can’t discuss my life, or the oppression I’ve experienced, or how my understanding was impacted by my interactions with others because obviously that leads me to erase people.

    As a Radical Ideologist, yes thats a proper noun there, the whole concept of erasure fascinates me. In RI philosophy its considered a given that people experience the same event in radically different ways. And by same event I refer to a shared experience, and not even 2 people who were both abused as kids, but an experience where 2 people interact directly with each other, or experience say, an eclipse or a power outage. It is also considered inherent that by giving one’s own recollection of an event, one is always going to be viewed as erasing another person’s experience, even if the interaction is between 2 people without a significant power divide. So say we are talking about the earthquake on the east coast. 2 siblings who live in the same house and grew up in a similar environment will experience the earthquake in radically different ways. When one says that the earthquake was fun and no big deal, and how could anyone have been scared of a little thing like that, they could be erasing the experience of their sibling who was scared to death and possibly even wet themselves. It would be hard to find 2 people who should have had a more similar experience based on heuristics, but they didn’t react and experience it the same at all.
    In psychology there is a whole area devoted to objects and agents. Agents are beings who have agency, which is sort of a like a conscious will. They experience feelings and make decisions and such. Basically people. And there is supposedly a time in development when children are supposed to learn that other people are not objects, but agents, which means you interact with them, rather than acting on them. But there are some dissenting theories. One is that people cannot truly experience another person as being a real agent like them. The theory accepted in RI is that while people may experience themselves as agents, really no one is an agent, because conscious will is an illusion. Anyways, people can only relate their own experiences to others, but cannot experience something the same as someone else. Proponents of RI accept as a given that when people say: “the earthquake was scary” or any statement about reality as if it were objective, what they really mean is that they felt or thought that thing, or going with our example the person meant, “I was scared by the earthquake.” So in this belief system, erasure is considered a nonsensical concept. Even if reality is objective, which many debate, it doesn’t matter because our experience is subjective. So, in Kristen’s post, she is relating an effect a perceived experience had on her, rather than describing an objective and concrete event. This leaves open the possibility that the other “agents” involved felt differently about the event.
    Indeed if we generalize the specifics of the story we can come to a practically useful conclusion. Sort of like a mad lib.

  58. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 10:24 pm |

    @Dawn,
    Kristen is displaying the same feeling as any person on the stronger side of a power divide. This is an implicit danger involved with subjective experience and the concept of erasure. If Kristen is erasing the other people involved, you are erasing her in your response and any person saying anything about anything involving another person is guilty of erasure. This makes erasure a useless idea in practice.

  59. Dawn
    Dawn August 27, 2011 at 10:35 pm |

    @Matt

    Kristen however is the privileged person on the occasions when she erases a voice. That is an issue.

  60. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 10:43 pm |

    Dawn:
    @Matt

    Kristen however is the privileged person on the occasions when she erases a voice. That is an issue.

    Well, if you are saying that you disagree that any statement of subjective experience inherently erases some other subjective experience, then we are in assumption dissimilarity and can;t ever achieve consensus. I consider the idea of erasure to be impossible to cleanse of inherent contradiction. I would have preferred if Kristen used a less problematic example however, to avoid the arguments about erasure.

  61. Henri Bemis
    Henri Bemis August 27, 2011 at 10:51 pm |

    I’m really not seeing the erasure here. And, like many others who have posted, I’ve been on both sides. Kristen J’s client is a human being – one who expects a certain level of privacy and discretion from people she works with. As has been pointed out many times, her client approved this post as it is, and I have no reason to believe it would have been posted at all if that hadn’t been the case.

    Not everyone will be comfortable having their personal experience used to illustrate a point, and I completely respect that. Other people might be fine with it as long as personal details aren’t revealed, and I completely respect that. Other people might want their experience shared only if their SSN and bank account numbers are broadcast on a Time’s Square marquee, and I completely respect that (though I’d advise against it).

    So, this is an expression of both of their experiences that has been approved by both of them. That seems pretty ideal to me.

  62. Matt
    Matt August 27, 2011 at 11:30 pm |

    Kristen J: Henceforth I will try to process my childhood experiences away from other human beings.:)

    A less problematic example would be solely about how gratitude was used to control you. Such as the first part of your post. After all its clearly less problematic based on the ratio of complaints about you erasing your parents or priest. However its often the case that a statement is only problematic in retrospect. People who are attempting to be ” a good person” can’t possibly understand how everyone else in a social space will feel about what they say, so they only know they screwed up if people complain. Really the most important basis for a less problematic example is the amount of derail caused about issues you hadn’t intended to discuss.

  63. feministadoptee
    feministadoptee August 27, 2011 at 11:55 pm |

    Hanna Joergel:

    Me: Welcome to the life of an adopted child. I’m almost 41 and I’m not over this bullshit. Thanks Kristen J for the post.

    My thoughts exactly. It gets old quickly.

  64. Medea
    Medea August 28, 2011 at 5:08 am |

    McSnarkster: I’d feel better about “fuck gratitude” if the gratitude at the core of this post wasn’t someone else’s (especially coming from someone else and directed towards the author)

    That gratitude may have been the trigger, but the core of the post was the gratitude that Kristen J. was supposed to feel as a child. And there is no way to write a post about a social phenomenon without drawing on things that other people have said or done.

  65. chava
    chava August 28, 2011 at 5:59 am |

    Please tell me this is self-parody.

    Matt: A less problematic example would be solely about how gratitude was used to control you. Such as the first part of your post. After all its clearly less problematic based on the ratio of complaints about you erasing your parents or priest. However its often the case that a statement is only problematic in retrospect. People who are attempting to be ” a good person” can’t possibly understand how everyone else in a social space will feel about what they say, so they only know they screwed up if people complain. Really the most important basis for a less problematic example is the amount of derail caused about issues you hadn’t intended to discuss.

  66. William
    William August 28, 2011 at 8:55 am |

    I would have preferred if Kristen used a less problematic example however, to avoid the arguments about erasure.

    Matt, you’re being sanctimonious and your attention is beginning to look highly selective. Kristen tied her own experience to the experience of a client in a situation very similar to her own and then ran her interpretation past the client. Seriously, this is starting to look a lot like silencing.

  67. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin August 28, 2011 at 10:57 am |

    A friend of mine who was raised Southern Baptist has talked about why she is reluctant to accept help from others. In her upbringing, help was always offered with strings attached. Often it came with a lecture about not being Godly enough or the expectation that someone could butt into their business.

    So I see where you’re coming from, but I think we could all be more gracious for the things we receive. Aid that you provide as part of your job should be given without the need to grovel. That’s unnecessary and demeaning. I would like for conservatives to view the basic need for services like these before they start throwing words around like “underclass”.

  68. Quercki
    Quercki August 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm |

    When I “remember Job” I think about his wives and many children that the Judeo-Christian God killed to prove how “faithful” Job was.

    Gratitude for me is often problematic. I’ve had several relationships where someone did things for me that I may or may not have wanted and then expected me to be “properly grateful.” Sometimes they wanted groveling or acknowlegement of my “inferior” status and sometimes it was pre-payment for “favors” they wanted. (For example, see the transactional model of “I took you to a nice dinner and a movie, now you have to ‘put out’ for me.”)

    Recently, my roommate and I made and ate dinner together.

    “Thank you for making the chicken,” he said. “Now it’s your turn to thank me for making the salad.”

    My reaction wasn’t the one he wanted. I don’t think coercing/promting gratitude is a good way to treat an equal.

  69. Matt
    Matt August 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm |

    chava:
    Please tell me this is self-parody.

    That, would be telling.

  70. Sarah
    Sarah August 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm |

    I grew up in the Bible Belt, as well, and I know exactly where Kristen’s views originate. Though we weren’t well-off, we had more than we needed. (I’ll define “need” along Maslow’s Hierarchy’s Physiological and Safety bases–the basics humans need to survive mentally and physically.) As such, I wasn’t the person who was socially mandated to express how grateful I was that someone would be a decent person. I was on the side that got to expect people to express how thankful they were that there are Good People out there.

    I understand the point of view in this piece completely. I’m often praised for the volunteer work that I do (which is, honestly, minimal and not at all an inconvenience in my life), and it frustrates me. In my free time, I do a bare minimum to try to improve others’ lives–others who have been unlucky, whether their circumstances were a matter of good or bad choices. I have been incredibly blessed and lucky in my life, but my choices could have easily led me down some awful paths. I don’t expect socially-mandated expressions of gratitude. I feel guilty when people thank me for being a decent person. If we expect others to tell us how Awesome we are just because we did something decent and kind, our bar is set rather low, is it not?

    Kristen wasn’t speaking of honest, genuine feelings of thankfulness and joy. Kristen was speaking to the societal expectation that if we are helped–whether we “deserve” it or not, whether we are helped with our basic human needs or something people consider frivolous–we should express that in a way that is acceptable to the helper. Her point had nothing to do with expressing the way we feel in the moment, genuinely and honestly.

    I know people got really carried away deconstructing the piece by focusing on the dictionary definition of gratitude and thankfulness instead of hearing what Kristen said and responding to that. I think those that missed the point, either on purpose because her point makes them uncomfortable, or accidentally because they can’t relate to her experiences and the language got in the way, really missed out on a vital conversation about societal pressures and how they affect the disadvantaged.

  71. FashionablyEvil
    FashionablyEvil August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |

    Please tell me this is self-parody.

    You know, I’m starting to think we need a new category in Feministe’s Next Top Troll for all of the sanctimonious, performance-art type comments there have been around here recently.

  72. Safiya Outlines
    Safiya Outlines August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm |

    Some of the comments round here a like battleships, the repeated use of particular words and tactics to detonate someone’s post or argument, basically saying “You can’t say that! You can’t say that!” until the OP or whoever gives up. I’m surprised no one’s used ableist yet.

    I can’t be the only one to notice that the two instigators here have been trouble makers on numerous other threads. I know people don’t like banning and deleting, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep a space productive. Racialicious is heavily modded, but it means you have amazing conversations with a lot less of the rubbish.

  73. Nyara
    Nyara August 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm |

    Thank you for writing this.

    I was raised by my grandmother, and the “you should be grateful” refrain was one that I got constantly through my childhood. Interestingly, I never got it from my grandmother herself. But plenty of other people (teachers, extended family, the occasional therapist) liked to tell me how I was failing to show proper gratitude whenever I screwed up. (Getting an “Is this how you repay your grandma for her sacrifices?” in response to my low grades in highschool, for example.) It’s a really nasty way of controlling people. And since gratitude is seen as an inherently good thing, if you try and point out that there’s something wrong, you’re the one with problems.

    FashionablyEvil: You know, I’m starting to think we need a new category in Feministe’s Next Top Troll for all of the sanctimonious, performance-art type comments there have been around here recently.

    I second this thought.

  74. Annaleigh
    Annaleigh August 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm |

    Safiya Outlines: I’m surprised no one’s used ableist yet.

    I can’t be the only one to notice that the two instigators here have been trouble makers on numerous other threads

    True that. *sigh*

  75. Skateaway
    Skateaway August 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm |

    A lot of people have eloquently expressed how outwardly-expressed gratitude is a mechanism of social control, and I totally agree.

    Kristen also touched upon how the “attitude of gratitude” (ugh!) can be used to control us in our own heads. Yes, there are times when focusing on the positive can be helpful and healthy, but when all a person is allowed think is, “It could be worse,” we play into the hands of the powerful. We forget exactly what the kyriarchy wants us to forget: “It could–and should–be better.”

    As a USian, I get gratitude-bombed when people say, “We live in the greatest country in the world! You can’t criticize it! Think of the freedoms we have! You must hate the US and freedom and all we stand for!” As a woman I hear it when people say, “What’s the point of feminism? Women have equal rights now.” –always with the subtext that those rights are a special favor, one that can be taken away. (Richard Dawkins managed to mash both the “free-world” and “post-sexist” arguments together in his horrid “Dear Muslimah” comment. He deserves a prize.) I use gratitude to silence myself about my health problems / disability: “At least you can walk / see / whatever. Quit being a baby,” as though I don’t sometimes suffer, and as those other disabilities are so inherently awful and unlivable, I should be glad not to be “those people.” I have no doubt people of color deal with it all the time, too, about how very equal and “post-racial” things are now, and why can’t you rabble-rousers stop stirring up trouble? And on and on and on, for every inequality we can name. Things are awesome now. Be grateful. Stop being angry. And for heaven’s sake, SHUT UP.

    “Gratitude” is an amazingly effective silencing tool, both externally and internally.

    Thanks for this post, Kristen.

  76. anonymous
    anonymous August 28, 2011 at 4:21 pm |

    gratitude is wonderful but only when it is offered freely and sincerely. our society needs more of this kind of gratitude, where we count our blessings and those who have helped us to have those things that enrich our lives.

    gratitude is terrible when it is given after it is demanded by another, and/or used to control others.

    that’s my take anyway…

  77. Matt
    Matt August 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm |

    FashionablyEvil: You know, I’m starting to think we need a new category in Feministe’s Next Top Troll for all of the sanctimonious, performance-art type comments there have been around here recently.

    Feeding the trolls only makes them stronger.

  78. Darque
    Darque August 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm |

    I disagree with this post. I think that many people recite platitudes in an attempt to be more pleasant and to make human interaction easier.

    Example: When someone asks me “How’s it going?” they’re usually not interested in hearing the answer. They might care about my day if they are a close friend, family, or a coworker, but generally they don’t. If I started paying attention and viewed all of these interactions as deception, I don’t think it’d be good for my mental health.

    Likewise, gratitude is many times a reflex when people receive something. “Thank you” is one of the most overused expressions in the English language. Yet, I think it is at the very least, an acknowledgement that someone else has helped us.

    Religious cults suck, and “thanksgiving” (in the sense of saying what you are thankful for) is a stupid practice, but when gratitude is directed at another human being, I think it’s useful and brings people a little closer together. When it’s a thoughtful thank you – one accompanied by a genuine expression of gratitude, it’s even better.

  79. Lis
    Lis August 28, 2011 at 9:09 pm |

    I would happily use my class privilege to offer Matt real cash money to shut the hell up.

  80. Annaleigh
    Annaleigh August 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm |

    Matt: Feeding the trolls only makes them stronger.

    Holy lack of self-awareness, Batman!

  81. Matt
    Matt August 28, 2011 at 9:37 pm |

    Annaleigh: Holy lack of self-awareness, Batman!

    Actually I was aware that you consider me a troll.

  82. Matt
    Matt August 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm |

    Lis:
    I would happily use my class privilege to offer Matt real cash money to shut the hell up.

    Paying me to shut up would totally work, I am short of the cash right now.

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