by Barry Edelson


The Unbearable Weight of
Collective Responsibility


"A mob is no less a mob because they are with you."
— John Adams *


As inheritors of Western civilization, we recoil at the very idea of collective guilt. We are as perplexed as we are incensed by the marauding masses who have repeatedly stormed our embassies and those of our allies in recent days, supposedly in response to a puerile anti-Muslim "movie" produced by a known charlatan in California. We may take it as given, as many commentators have noted, that these protests were merely a pretext for the murderous raid on our consulate in Benghazi that was, on analysis, clearly pre-meditated and timed to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It is hardly unusual for isolated expressions of discontent, or even entire revolutionary movements, to be hijacked by small bands of highly organized ideologues. But the questions that haunt us are not only the ones asked by the Secretary of State the day after the killing of our Libyan ambassador and three other Americans — "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate? In a city we helped save from destruction?" — but issues more fundamental to our common humanity: Is there something in human nature that harbors a belief in collective guilt and collective punishment? What makes people so vulnerable to manipulation that they can be provoked to violence upon such flimsy pretexts? And what characteristics predispose a particular culture, if any, to irrational acts of mass hysteria?

To the first question, let us turn to Prof. Seth Benardete of New York University, whose extraordinary lectures on classicism in the 1970s were oversubscribed, in spite of the incomprehension that shone on the faces of many of the students in attendance. Prof. Benardete was one of those professors who did not so much teach as think aloud, inviting his acolytes to follow along if they could. In one particularly memorable lecture, after weeks of hacking our way through the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, he posed this obvious but overlooked question: Why is every one of these plays about kings? By this point in its history, Athens had banished hereditary rule. By analogy, imagine if every 19th-century American play had been about the medieval kings of England.

Benardete explained that in the Age of Pericles, democracy was a very young and fragile institution. While many politicians and prominent thinkers of the period were proponents of democrat rule, to the population as a whole it was still an alien concept. No civilization had previously been organized on the principles of individual rights and responsibilities, and the citizens of Athens (i.e., the adult males) did not take to it naturally. Their history was a very violent one. Armed battles between city-states were wars of annihilation, so that survival depended upon every city's inhabitants being able and willing to fight to the death. This produced a militaristic culture in which every citizen was a soldier, and also one in which blood vengeance was nearly ubiquitious, pitting not only city against city, but family against family, tribe against tribe, faction against faction, generation upon generation. Absent any recourse to impartial justice, disputes were settled between the parties involved, most often with weapons.

This deeply ingrained culture of kill-or-be-killed was not easily overcome by political argument. Imagine the Greek counterparts of the Hatfields and the McCoys sitting a few rows apart in the same amphitheater, each plotting to ambush the other after the play, and you get a good sense of what the advocates of democracy were up against. The plays of the great Athenian dramatists were morality tales, intended to demonstrate to their audience how collective responsibilty was anathema to democracy. The tragedies were not about kings per se but about individual members of the nobility, all of them legendary or mythological characters easily recognizable to Athenian audiences, who, by resisting society's attempts to make them conform, effectively break the cycle of generational guilt. The message was strange but plain: only when each individual is held responsible for his own actions, and the sins of the fathers cease to be borne by their children, can there be real democracy.

If a predilection for revenge, and nursing a grudge for however long it takes, are natural relics of a violent past, it is not difficult to see how little it takes to ignite hostilities between traditional rivals. Even in our immensely more "civilized" world, there is no end to the rifts between peoples that flare into violence with the regularity of the seasons: Hindus and Muslims in India, Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Turks and Greeks in Cyprus, Croats, Serbs and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Shi'a and Sunnis throughout the Middle East, Uighurs and Han Chinese in Western China, and on and on. Inter-tribal and/or sectarian conflicts are nearly unending in Nigeria, Burma, Sudan, Sri Lanka and many other places. Borders between countries are more in dispute and tense than otherwise. All it takes is a little demogoguery applied in just the right amount at just the right time to transform long-smoldering resentments, fueled by ancient prejudices and severely biased education, into a shooting war. Every generation's atrocities become pretext for the next generation's bloodletting.

In this context, American and European attempts to instill democractic values into riven societies like these seem like fantasy. This does not mean that people cannot change; we are not genetically programmed to favor one particular form of government over another. No one who truly understood the choices available would elect to be brutalized and suppressed. Many more people still want to come to America to experience freedom and prosperity than want to leave. There is nothing instrinsically different about these perpetually warring peoples, nothing that prevents them from desiring liberty and living peacefully according to a different set of values. But getting from here to there is the work of centuries, as the ancient Greeks surely understood.

Et tu, America?

We can perhaps better understand the eruptions of mass rioting that we have witnessed in the last week in Egypt, Libya and many other places if we pause for a moment to notice that we have not exactly perfected our way of life here in the birthplace of modern liberty. There are many examples of notably un-democratic, retrograde behavior amongst our own population. Consider this anomalous story from the week's news: a professional football player on the Baltimore Ravens is outspoken in support of gay marriage, prompting an elected official to ask the team's owner to silence him. Now let us not descend into the collectivist darkness from which we are attempting to enlighten ourselves: the self-righteous actions of one Maryland state representative are not emblematic of the behavior of all who oppose same-sex unions, any more than someone who murders an abortion doctor represents everyone who is pro-life, or a maniac who randomly slaughters movie-goers in Colorado is a stand-in for everyone who owns a gun and believes in the Second Amendment. Extreme attitudes and behavior may be explained by the culture from which they emerge, but cannot, if we are in fact a democratic society, be blamed upon that culture as a whole. Indeed, we can counter stories about men behaving badly with examples of men behaving like adults, such as the owner of the Ravens rejecting the legislator's ham-fisted attempt to stifle a dissenting opinion, and a member of another team supporting his fellow player by writing a scathing response to said legislator.

Unfortunately, much of the news coverage of this incident has focused on attitudes towards gays among professional football players and other athletes, and how much courage it took for two successful scions of this decidedly masculine and presumed anti-gay heritage to speak out publicly. True, but entirely beside the point. The really important questions are not whether the NFL is ready to accept openly gay players, or whether boys who were raised on a steady diet of casual homophobia are ready as men to start curbing their tongues and changing their attitudes. The more fundamental issues are the same ones that apply to the rioters in Cairo: Why is it necessary for others to share our beliefs? Do we really and truly respect those who differ from us, or do we all secretly wish that everyone else were like us? Can we truly call ourselves a democracy if we move in lockstep with demagogues, instead of taking responsibility for our own words and actions, and resisting attempts to make us conform to social norms that may not actually reflect what we think and feel?

It is ironic in the extreme that amongst those who rail against all forms of governmental action as the imposition of "socialism" upon those who wish to be left alone, are some who would not hesitate to impose their personal views of the world upon all of their fellow citizens, and see no inconsistency in the use of sheer power to yield collectivist results that they cannot achieve by persuasion. If the perpetrator of that imbecilic video is guilty of any crime (incitement to violence, perhaps) then by all means he should be prosecuted. But if we hound this unworthy person into prison simply because Muslims feel slighted, then we have surrendered the moral authority that enables us to stand up against the forces of reaction that mindlessly assault our embassy compounds. In the days immediately following 9/11, a CIA agent was asked in a televised interview which civil liberties he thought the country should be willing to forgo in exchange for greater security. His answer: "None." Standing up for the right of free speech is not a defense of any particular irresponsible exercise of that right. It is a defense of your right to self-expression and mine, as well as those who would do us harm. Forcing speech to conform with any standards whatsoever is arguably the most collectivist action we can take as a nation, and one of the most dangerous threats to individual liberty. If we, as democrats with a small "d", do not understand this, then how on earth can we ever explain it to all those angry mobs out there?



September 2, 2012


* Adams speaks this memorable line in the HBO series "John Adams" (2008), but its attribution as an original quote cannot be confirmed.


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