Is There Such a Thing as “Collective Guilt?”

Is There Such a Thing as “Collective Guilt?” November 29, 2016

Is There Such a Thing as “Collective Guilt?”

I often wonder what it is that causes difficulties, if not impossibilities, in really understanding each other. What I mean is this: What presuppositions about reality underlie seemingly intractable disagreements between people? Why is it that often, in a discussion with someone else, I have the feeling that we are simply talking past each other? That we are like two ships passing in the night or two people who live on different planets?

Occasionally I ponder whether one such fundamental disagreement on the presuppositional level has to do with some people’s belief in collective guilt and my tendency not to believe in it.

Recently I read a beautiful published essay written by a man I know and respect very highly. In it he was apologizing to his ten year old daughter for “our” letting her down by electing a president who has spoken about and treated at least some women so disparagingly even in vulgar language. I agreed with everything he said to his daughter—with one exception. In fact, what he wrote to her brought tears to my eyes because I feel exactly the same way. I have two daughters and a granddaughter (to say nothing of a wife of 43 years!). My heart aches and breaks for them and for all women—even those who voted for the president-elect.

However, as much as I agreed with the writer about his general sentiments, I found myself resisting one aspect of his wonderfully written and published essay. Throughout it he wrote in the second person plural placing himself—and by implication all Americans—among the guilty. The tone was deeply apologetic as in “We let you down.” But did he and did “we”—who did not vote for the offending president-elect?


*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

In fact, contrary to what one might have thought, not knowing the facts about the recent election, Americans did not let the writer’s daughter or women down. At least two million more voted for a female presidential candidate than for the man who regrettably (in my opinion) won the election (or will officially win it when the Electoral College meets). So, my question in response to the essay is “Who let his daughter down?” He wrote it as if he let his daughter down but, knowing that he voted with the majority (or at least plurality) for the woman candidate, I wonder why. The only answer would seem to be belief in collective guilt. Somehow or other we, Americans, all share in the shame and guilt of electing a president who, as I wrote here, is (in my opinion) a sexist barbarian unlikely to promote the cause of girls and women. I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment—especially since two million more voted for the woman candidate than for the sexist barbarian male candidate! If I had written that essay I would have pointed that out to my daughter to assure her that it is not America’s fault or my fault that our president-elect is such a huge disappointment to those of us who care about respecting females.

Now, having said that, let me return to my original point. Probably the reason I disagreed with the essay writer, a man I greatly respect, is that he believes in collective guilt and I do not (I think).

This might explain also why I tend to dislike the word “mansplaining”—as I have written here recently. (That blog essay was published here about a week ago and discussion about it is still happening in the comments section.) I see it as an example of holding all men guilty for the bad behaviors of some men and, I suspect, even if unconsciously, many feminists do that. And, as I said in the comment section, responding to a feminist defender of the term, I do not believe it right or fair to put a word describing an entire group of people in a negative term unless all in that group are actually guilty of the negative behavior the term names. I am quite confident that not all men speak condescendingly to women. I do not deny that some do, but I also think some women speak condescendingly to some men.

Are all men guilty of the sexism of some men? I don’t think so. Are all white people guilty of the racism of some white people? I don’t think so. Were all Germans guilty of Hitler’s and the Nazis’ crimes against humanity? I don’t think so. Were all Americans guilty of the sin of slavery? Were even all Southerners guilty of it? I don’t think so.

Now, having said that, I will go on to a qualification that seems obvious to me: Insofar as a person knows about an injustice being perpetrated against a person or group and insofar as he or she has the wherewithal to speak out against it, to fight against it and does not, he or she is guilty of that neglect and perhaps shares in the guilt of the perpetrators of the injustice.

So, what my disbelief in collective guilt means in practical terms is that I do not think it necessary or appropriate for people to apologize for acts committed by others over which they had no control. I feel no need or desire to apologize to the British and Irish people for the heinous acts of my Viking ancestors. Okay, you may say, that just sounds silly. Yes, it does, but it makes my point. Bring it closer to “home.” Why should I repent of or apologize for the sins of my ancestors or of my fellow Americans if I do not agree with those sins or perpetuate them? Why should I repent of or apologize for the sins of other people—past or present–if I disagree with them just because I belong to a group of humans that includes them? (Pay attention to the word “just” in that sentence! It means “only.”)

None of that rejects or undermines collective expressions of profound regret for what happened or is happening to a group of people or an individual—even when the person or group expressing the regret had/has nothing to do with it.

Now, I realize that some Christians will point to biblical passages that seem to them to teach collective guilt. I do not interpret the Bible, as a whole, as teaching collective guilt. I do not believe children, for example, are born guilty of Adam’s or their parents’ sins. They are born into a terribly fallen, corrupt world and with a fallen, corrupt human nature that will lead them inevitably into guilt as they mature and become free and responsible moral beings who choose to embrace sin knowingly and willingly.

Nor do I believe children are born guilty of social injustices perpetrated and perpetuated by their parents and co-citizens or anyone else. They only accrue guilt when and if they knowingly and willingly participate in those social injustices.

Nothing that I have written here denies the very real phenomenon of willing ignorance and unconscious participation in evil including injustice. As they say, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Many human persons grow up able to know about and fight against injustice and evil but choose to close their eyes and minds to it. But they are not guilty of evil and injustice unless they have the wherewithal to know about it and struggle against it.

I suspect that one reason why I often find myself in disagreement with someone else and they find themselves in disagreement with me—about social justice issues—is that I do not believe in collective guilt and they do. They may not know that they do; it might be revealed only in their words and actions. But I often detect it where I suspect the person with whom I disagree is not even aware of it.

I could go on and on with this because it is such a deep and perplexing subject. But I will end on this troublesome note expressed in a question: Does privilege in a society where people are under-privileged automatically bring guilt? In other words, am I guilty of being a white male in a society full of sexism and racism? I do not think so unless I could be doing more to help empower and lift up the under-privileged around me and intentionally don’t.

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