Blanket Guilt or Precision-Guided Accountability?

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By Mike Cronin

Q. What do all of the following have in common?

A. You might be tempted to answer racism or bigotry, but that doesn’t cover the last item. The correct answer is that in all of the above examples, an entire group is being held accountable for the supposed sin of an individual or individuals. It is a hallmark of collectivism.

Consider: The sniper who killed the Dallas police officers on Thursday was seeking revenge for the deaths of some black men who had been shot by some white police officers in other states.  In other words, in his mind, since some white police officers in other locations had killed black men, all white officers were racists. The sniper committed the very same crime he believed the white officers had committed:  he held a group responsible for the actions of a few, or of one.  He tried, convicted, sentenced, and shot the Dallas police officers for crimes they didn’t commit, or for the non-crime of being white.

Mr. Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims is less combative, but it still stems from a collectivist mentality: If some Muslims are coming here to do us harm, then we can reduce the potential for such acts by banning ALL Muslims from entering the country. There is certain soundness to the logic here: If no Muslims can enter, it must follow that the jihadist sub-set of Muslims can’t enter.  Nonetheless, setting aside the difficulties in enforcing such a policy, the idea goes against the principles of individual liberty: it applies a sanction to an entire group for potential crimes yet to be committed by some members of that group.

Consider:  If you take the Bible literally, then you believe God created Adam, the first human.  Adam was tempted by Eve (who was herself tempted by the serpent) to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.  Human souls have been tarnished by this “original sin” ever since. Put another way: Humanity is being held to account for a supposed sin we could do nothing about, because it happened thousands of years before any of our births. In essence, we have been born convicted of a crime we didn’t commit and commanded to atone for it or suffer eternal damnation.

The problem is that collectivism belongs to our infancy. Our country was founded on the principles of individual liberty and personal responsibility, but they conflict with the collectivist principles at the root of most religious doctrines, so there has been a constant duality in American culture.  For example: During World War Two, The US Government rounded up US citizens of Japanese ethnicity and “interned” them in concentration camps for the sin of merely having common ancestry with an enemy; yet after the war, our government largely did not hold the Japanese people accountable for the brutality of their vanquished rulers.  Instead, General MacArthur’s occupation forces went after the actual individuals who led the Empire.

It is all too human to project our fear, or anger, or hatred, or resentment over the sins or crimes committed by an individual onto a group, yet there is no justification for doing so. Humans have been doing this since we were stone-age primitives trying to protect our “turf” from rival clans. It takes some enlightenment to dial down our naked aggression and apply accountability with precision.  It is a thing we must learn if we are to advance as a species.

Are You Guilty of Enjoying White Privilege?

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By Mike Cronin

On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find myself recalling a class on multiculturalism in my MA program. During the class, one of the topics was “white privilege.”  The essence of white privilege is that being born white, especially as a male, comes with certain privileges that members of other demographic groups don’t get.  The course hinted that white men could and should feel guilty about this privilege, and that they should take unspecified actions to atone for this guilt. 

I had very mixed feelings about this. I acknowledge that, as a white American male, compared to most people in the US and the world, I have a relatively benign position in life. I even accept that due to the accident of my birth, I began life with more advantages than most. If life is a game, then I acknowledge that I started on the easiest setting.  What I could not, (and still cannot) accept, is that I should feel guilty about it.  Guilt implies wrongdoing, and wrongdoing implies a choice between right and wrong. Infants have no understanding of right and wrong, and have not developed the mental faculties to make conscious choices. I cannot be guilty of being a white male, because it is not wrong, and because I had no choice in the matter. 

That means I have nothing to atone for. On the other hand, knowing that just about every other demographic may be “playing life” on a more difficult setting than I am requires that I ask: As an adult with the ability to understand right and wrong and to make conscious choices, what should I do, if anything, about “white privilege?”  I cannot undo history, nor can I change  anyone’s heritage.  I could give money to various causes, but that would have mixed results at best. 

The answer that I arrived at: Context matters.  While, as whole, white males may get the best “starting position” of any group, all groups are made of individuals, and individual circumstances vary. Some white males had it worse than I did, and some had it better. Likewise, while as a group, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, women, or others might not have had as good a starting position as white men, there are individuals in each cohort that started life out in an even better position than I did. In other words, the answer to “white privilege” is not to feel guilty and attempt to atone for something outside of one’s control, but rather to see and interact with every person as an individual, not as a representative of a demographic group (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.). The best thing anyone can do to create a level playing field is not to dole out compensatory advantages to some members of this or that “underprivileged” group, but simply to not hate or act against others because of their differences – to not purposely be bigoted, prejudiced, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, etc. Instead, respect individuals, and be a proponent of individual rights. Since the smallest possible minority is an individual, individual rights ARE minority rights.