Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Collective Guilt

I had a long and troubling discussion online about collective guilt an hour ago. This devolved from a discussion about overpopulation and its causes, where environment was dismissed by my opponent to be a factor, since our ancestors had survived worse, along with the fact we now have far more control over it. He then complained of "you Americans" ignoring this and wrecking it, at which point my objection to this collective guilt claim followed.

Our discussion then diverged (as often happens) into whether or not Americans (or people generally) can be guilty for what others do. He asserted that as the US is a republic, the citizens are in charge and therefore personally responsible if it does anything viewed as wrong (invading Iraq for him.)

I protested this as the individual citizen does not in any sense control their government, and that if they personally opposed this action (like myself) how could they be deemed guilty? My opponent replied with the assertion even if I did not approve it, other Americans did, and so it was my responsibility. Our views were exactly opposed: he viewed a nation as some corporate entity to which all citizens belong, even if they fight amongst themselves, and I asserted that individuals were responsible only for their acts, not those of any others, especially not when they actively opposed.

Those opposing the invasion of Iraq failed, and so they were guilty along with those supporting it, he argued. Not enough fight had been put up-he felt that most Americans were apathetic. I agreed that indeed this might be the case, but did not see how a collective guilt followed. Being a republic, he felt, made us collectively responsible by default-a monarchy would be different.

My criticism of this idea that citizens in a republic automatically have control over it were repeated. If the minority votes against something, demonstrates, and tries to persuade others not to support it, they are guilty if this fails? I asked incredulously. He said yes, as they did not do enough. All citizens are responsible for their neighbors failure. He made it even plainer by comparing this to my family committing a massacre and me failing to stop them at all cost. Am I not guilty then?

So, the most ancient form of collective guilt is resurrected: that of being guilty for your relatives' crimes. The nation is the ultimate family presumably, and everyone guilty as a whole if they fail to stop any "relative" among them. I asserted this was an impossible standard. My family members that did wrong, and not I, could be held guilty. I told him my opinion of collective guilt, that it was a horrible concept. He countered with the collective guilt held on the Iraqi people, being punished for the crimes of their leader and his regime. I said that was also wrong. They were not all guilty of his crimes-indeed, many were victims.

After this, it was even more blatantly stated: "whether you supported the war or not, you are in fact guilty .. if you cannot refuse the benefits why would you not also accept the guilt that comes with the benefits?" So, by an accident of birth, original sin takes hold. I refused to accept guilt for my existence. This was called "double standard and self-righteousness." It was suggested that I should leave the US for my failure to accept "our" guilt. "That's basically having your family do the massacre, enjoy the loot brought in by them then denying your responsibility in their actions."

Of course, I had no control over my "family" doing any such thing, especially since much of it took place before my very existence. As I vehemently protested, my opponent suddenly declared it had been a "mock fight" to arouse the opposition and make them vindicated. He was taking the "terrorist view" holding every American responsible. That was the danger exactly, I told him. I was powerless, he said, both in what the government had done and that others held me guilty as their citizen. We agreed on that at least.

After my opponent revealed he was (mostly) playing devil's advocate in the discussion, the other person who took his side kept going with the same unfounded assertion. He was far less of a debater, simply repeating himself. At one point he explicitly invoked family collective guilt by comparing it to being born into the Capone family. Funny thing-Al Capone had a son, born with congenital syphilis thanks to his sexual appetites. Was that man guilty of his father's acts? No, rather the victim of them. I told him some of my ancestors owned slaves-did that make me guilty? Yes, he said, if my income came from this. I owed this back. I agree with the last part. The receiver of stolen goods is not always guilty, but must still give them back, if at all possible. I benefited, thus I'm guilty.

As no one asks to be born, they cannot help benefiting. His response: "I don't care." I said then why not kill everyone, since by this logic we're all guilty of everything. He said that was up to me. It was my world. I am a lazy God, it seems. He said to read Jefferson. Invoking a famous individualist to justify collective guilt-the irony was of course utterly lost on him. The discussion petered away with no resolution. Sometimes you just have to rant. It frightens me that people actually feel this way. Born in guilt. Original sin. Horrible ideas, to me. I just want out at these moments-to be unconceived. Too late now though.


  1. Thanks for submitting a pin to the Atheist Blogmap (http://goo.gl/36waM) -- I've got you added.

    Happy Labor Day!