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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Collective guilt

The idea of collective guilt has gained a lot of currency in the past half century. And it has been extended to include ancestral guilt.

The essential question it boils down to is, are people responsible for the actions of their ancestors?

Should modern day Italians should feel eternal ignominy about the Roman Empire? After all, at least 25% of the population of the ancient Roman Empire were slaves. (Gladiators didn't go into the coliseum to fight lions of their own volition.)

Should today's Greeks be self-reproachful about the Greek empire? It's estimated that in Classical Athens, between 40 and 80% of the population were slaves. (It would be hard to find a Greek today who didn't have both slaves and slave owners in his ancestry.)

Both the Mongolians and the Han Chinese have, at different times, owned each other as slaves. (Nobody volunteers to become a court eunuch.) Perhaps both groups should both pay reparations to each other.

Slavery has been pretty much universal. According to Wikipedia:

Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679. Russia's more than 23 million privately held serfs were freed by the Emancipation reform of 1861. State-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866...

In Algiers, the capital of Algeria, captured Christians and Europeans were forced into slavery.... According to the Encyclopedia of African History, "It is estimated that by the 1890s the largest slave population of the world, about 2 million people, was concentrated in the territories of the Sokoto Caliphate [in today's Nigeria]. The use of slave labour was extensive, especially in agriculture." The Anti-Slavery Society estimated there were 2 million slaves in Ethiopia in the early 1930s out of an estimated population of 8 to 16 million...

In East Asia, the Imperial government formally abolished slavery in China in 1906, and the law became effective in 1910. The Nangzan in Tibetan history were, according to Chinese sources, hereditary household slaves....The hereditary nobi [slave] system [of Korea] was officially abolished around 1886–87....but traces remained until 1930....The hill tribe people in Indochina were "hunted incessantly and carried off as slaves by the Siamese (Thai), the Anamites (Vietnamese), and the Cambodians".....Enslaved people made up about two-thirds of the population in part of North Borneo in the 1880s....

The Aztecs had slaves. Other Amerindians, such as the Inca of the Andes, the Tupinamba of Brazil, the Creek of Georgia, and the Comanche of Texas, also owned slaves.

Yes, sub-Saharan blacks were sold by other sub-Saharan blacks to white slave traders who then transported them to the New World. And yes, it was a terrible injustice. But why is that the only slavery we ever hear about? Especially when there are estimated to be between 12 and 30 million people in slavery even today:

A report by the Walk Free Foundation in 2013 found India had the highest number of slaves, nearly 14 million, followed by China (2.9 million), Pakistan (2.1 million), Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh; while the countries with the highest of proportion of slaves were Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India and Nepal.

Mauritania was actually the last country to outlaw slavery, in 1981, but they didn't actually criminalize it until 2007. Since then, though many slaves have escaped, only one owner has ever been prosecuted. 

Other forms of slavery, such as forced marriage, are still widespread in parts of Asia and Africa and the Middle East as well.

Apart from the issue of slavery, the central question is, are we responsible for actions we didn't take?

Ted Bundy managed to father a daughter before he was executed. Is she somehow guilty because of his crimes? What Bundy did -- torture and kill at least 36 young women -- is unquestionably worse than owning slaves. And his daughter is only one generation removed. Does anyone suggest she bear some responsibility for his actions?

These days, guilt for what one's ancestors have done is a concept that's applied only selectively, in the service of certain groups who want to keep other groups on the defensive.


Anonymous said...

I have relatives who believe this nonsense regarding slavery in the USA. Somehow, modern day whites are responsible for what their slave owning ancestors did years and years ago. As far as I know, I don't think any of my ancestors ever owned slaves. The argument is poppy cock.

- birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
Only a small percentage of whites even had ancestors who owned slaves. Nonetheless......

Anonymous said...

Everyone should feel smug or proud of their heritage. While someone's father may have been a serial killer, at least one person before him did something extraordinary or that someone wouldn't be around today and they certainly wouldn't be living in the US. There was the suggestion a few years ago that black people should get over their history of slavery and move on. That's easy to say, but that's like saying get rid of a big chunk of your heritage that made you who you are.

I started thinking about this because you didn't say anything about how you felt about WWII and being half Japanese.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Honestly, I think that it's silly for people to take pride in their heritage; they should take pride in themselves. And when people DO take too much pride in their heritage, it usually means they don't have enough to feel proud of personally. I'm guessing that Ted Bundy's daughter, who has evidently changed her name and doesn't advertise her father's identity, feels ashamed of him. (Pretty safe guess.) But, that's a shame, since she's not at fault in the least.

If you're asking how I feel about WWII and the half of my family who fought for Japan, I don't feel anything -- as far as how it impinges on what I think politically. There was a war, and Japan lost, and that's it. Even if I were completely Japanese, and a Japanese citizen as well, I don't think it would make me feel that Americans owed me something. They had the superior weaponry, and they won the war, end of story. I've never heard of anybody in Japan agitating for reparations, either. Being half-Japanese certainly affects my personality and has a lot to do with who I am, but the WWII part has almost nothing to do with that.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we should feel guilt about something our father, grandfather or great grandfather did. But unfortunately we are affected by people's perceptions i.e. society and media. So to avoid people forming judgment of us because of our ancestry and it affecting our relationships, we hide under the cover of the victim or become the patron saint of the cause. After all a book is judged by its cover. You are right about taking pride in oneself. I am responsible for only what I did - period.


John Craig said...

Sherie --
"So to avoid people forming judgment of us because of our ancestry and it affecting our relationships, we hide under the cover of the victim or become the patron saint of the cause."

Well put.

Mark Caplan said...

There is the idea that, not individuals, but the United States as a whole, as a continuous entity since 1789, owes certain groups reparations for the harm it caused them by, say, legalizing slavery or barring women from voting. Sometimes a corporation will buy another corporation unaware that the second corporation had, say, polluted underground water supplies. The innocent first corporation is on the hook to pay damages since the two companies represent a single continuously operating legal entity from when the damage occurred.

John Craig said...

Mark -
True enough. But there's also the idea that after 150 years, the last 50 of which have been the Affirmative Action Era, the descendants of the people who were enslaved don't really have a claim on the wrong done their ancestors.

Japanese-Americans were interned during WWII, and some recompense was given them, but no one is clamoring for special privileges (such as affirmative action in college admissions) for their descendants. Nor should they be.

Anonymous said...

I don't even have guilt for my own actions, except for how I let myself down.

Let's face it, every other living human that I might harm has either already harmed me or else they would AS SOON AS THEY GOT THE CHANCE.

Plus, we are all absolved FROM ALL HUMAN GUILT by the majestic words of OPRAH:

"Everybody is just doing the best that they know how."


Anonymous said...

"Being half-Japanese certainly affects my personality and has a lot to do with who I am, but the WWII part has almost nothing to do with that."

Do you like the band named "Half-Japanese"? They have many good songs.

a lot of their songs are very innocent and sweet, like "A Song of Joy," but my favorite is "Dumb Animals"

"This high school really sucks
All my teachers are so fucking ignorant, I hate 'em
And I'm gonna go tell 'em so.
Mrs. Kenser, I hate you
Mr. Pent, You're stupid
Mrs. Lanham, I can't even stand looking at you
You're so fucking ugly
Mr. Fryer, Sir
Mr. Asshole. I hope you fuckin rot in hell
And burn eternally
I'll never forgive you for what you did to me
I should be the one running this school
"Get down on your knees you little animals!"
"Get down on your little fucking knees!"
"I'll make you work, I'll make you work so fucking hard you'll be my slave"
"Get down on your knees!"
You teachers are so stupid
"Get down on your knees!"
I hate all you stupid animals"


John Craig said...

That sounds like the sociopath's (universal) motto.

Anyway, this post wasn't about personal guilt, just group guilt, which is an entirely different thing. Group guilt is all about one group pressuring another into making concessions.

Anonymous said...

So Major League Baseball has been concerned about the decline of African Americans making the big leagues and have sponsored development programs for "inner cities" youth (transparent euphenism). African Americans are largely being replaced by African Dominicans, African Venezuelans and Japanese players. Would NBA, NFL or any pro sports league actively sponsor a "suburban" development program targetted at increasing the numbers of Latinos, Asians and Caucasians in their league?

John Craig said...

I hadn't heard of the band until you just mentioned them. Just listened to one of their songs ("Put some sugar on it honey"), can't say I'm crazy about their music. I generally put punk "music" in the same category as rap "music" -- neither is really music.

I can identify with the lyrics of that song though.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I've had that same thought about the "crisis" in major league baseball, in fact wrote about it here:

Shaun F said...

John - I suspect I have seen “group guilt” fostered on the German people through their (re)education system by the German Government about WW 2. In 1997, I was in Nurenberg at a hotel. The front desk girl was very attractive and I began chatting with her, in a significant way. And we hit on the topic of WW 2, and her temperament changed where she expressed a shame associated with her grandparents conduct. I didn’t get it, I tried to explain how it wasn’t her fault and she couldn’t be responsible for it. But she was too, for no better expression, indoctrinated. And for some reason, I fear this type of pscycho-social engineering is creeping into our education system.

John Craig said...

Shaun F --
Yes, the Germans have been thoroughly indoctrinated, no question. And that mentality was best demonstrated by Angela Merkel letting in all of those "Syrians." (In quotes because a lot of others with fake passports came in too.)

And yes, education in this country, and I assume in yours as well, has turned into indoctrination in a big way.

Rona said...

While one should be proud of mostly his own achievements a society whose members don't feel any collective pride or shame is a weak society of unattached individuals.

Imagine a family where neither kids nor parents experience pride in each others accomplishments.

I think people who have a sense of connection with their culture and regard for the accomplishments of their ancestors will be more likely to want to prove themselves and to contribute for the good of whole society rather than seek only individual happiness.

A sense of national pride allows people to participate in something greater than themselves and inspires them to make their lives meaningful, not just comfortable.

Greeks had it right,“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

I'd say this kind of society, where individuals make sacrifices today for the benefit of future generations is only possible when there is a organic connection between the two, both sharing good and bad, pride and shame.


John Craig said...

Rona --
You're right. I should have said that pride in one's ancestors is never a good substitute for pride in one's own accomplishments, not that it in itself is misplaced.

Great quote from the Greeks.

Steven said...

Yeah, guilt for ancestor's actions never made any sense to me. I wouldn't think for a second that a 30 year old German has any moral responsibility whatsoever for what Hitler did.

A few countries have asked for reparations from the British for colonialism. They argue that although the current British people are not responsible, we still benefit from it. I suppose the idea is that Britain got a big economic boost from colonialism that has snowballed til today whilst the development of colonies like India was retarded and held back.

It seems to me that those countries have benefited a great deal from British science and technology and in many cases parliamentary democracy. We didn't have to colonise them to share those inventions, of course, and morally speaking it would have been better to just trade with them fairly rather than dominate and exploit. However, regardless of whether or not we colonised them, they have still benefited enormously from things we invented or discovered. Haven't trains benefited their economy for example? So the net effect of Britain existing and them interacting with Britain could be positive already.

Likewise, its dumb to say Europe developed solely by stealing other's resources. It also wouldn't have been possible without European ingenuity and the long history of intellectual and technological development within Europe.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Couldn't agree more. In fact, I'd go further on the German front, and say that not only are 80-year-old Germans -- born in 1937 --innocent, but the vast majority of German citizens who were of age during WWII were just ordinary people who went along with what their leaders wanted. The average 20-year-old German soldier during WWII was, on an individual basis, no more morally good or bad than the average American 20-year-old soldier of the era. Soldiers are just young men who are brought up in a certain environment and have no more control over that environment than you or I have. And soldiers have to follow orders everywhere, otherwise militaries don't function.

As far as Britain goes, agree there too. Yes, they were colonialists, but since when have losers in wars from 150 years ago had the moral right to claim recompense? Let's go back to the Germans: they lost 72 years ago, and Eisenhower supposedly let a million German prisoners of war die in prison camps through starvation; are the Germans demanding recompense for this? After all, the Germans never invaded the US.

And yes, while colonialism was obviously unfair -- by today's standards, back then it was all about might making right -- those colonialized benefitted in certain ways too. Just as virtually every single black alive today in the US is far better off than he would be if his ancestors had never been taken from Africa. As Muhammad Ali is reported to have said when he first visited Africa (for his fight with George Foreman in Zaire, "The Rumble in the Jungle"), "Thank God my ancestors got on that boat."

Anonymous said...

How come we never hear about whites being slaves when the arabs conquered North Africa along the Mediterranean during the spread of Islam and the Islamic conquest starting around 700AD. How come no one ever talks about the fact that there were more white slaves held by arabs and more black slaves held by blacks than there ever were black slaves held by whites.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Good question. And, I assume, a rhetorical one.....So I don't have to answer, because it doesn't fit with the narrative our media masters want us to think in terms of.