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Monday, July 4, 2011

I'm so Sorry for what Bob did to you!

  So today is America's Independence day and I imagine that there are thousands of blog posts going up with an independence day theme. I suspect that most of these posts will be either patriotic or political. What I am thinking of as patriotic will probably be reflections on the benefits and responsibilities of being American or will be a sort of anti-patriotism wherein people bemoan the many atrocities and injustices our country has committed.  The political posts will be just that, political. They will be making use of the day to push some agenda which will be backed by a sort of mild-jingoistic sentiment. And I actually have no problem with any of these approaches; I think that today is a good day to reflect on our country. It is a perfectly worthwhile topic, it bears thinking about, and the holiday celebrating it's birth is certainly an appropriate occasion. But that's not quite what I hope to do with my post today.
  Earlier this morning, I read C.S. Lewis' essay:  Dangers of National Repentance from God in the Dock. What he said there really struck home with me so I thought it might be worth discussing here, echoing the points as I understand them and then throwing the question out to y'all to see if you have observed similar things.
  Lewis wrote the essay on an occasion when England was considering the the idea of repenting (basically saying they were sorry and accepting some of the guilt for) their part in causing the war. His basic message in the essay is that the problem with national repentance is that the wrong people are doing the repenting and the wrong people are resisting the repenting. He points out that the demographic most strongly in favor of this national repentance is the group of young intellectuals and religious/spiritual types. The problem, as he sees it, is that this demographic had nothing to do with causing the things they are so eager to repent of. Recognizing that this may not seem to be much of a problem at first glance (it's not really the end of the world for me to say sorry for something I had no part in; a little foolish or insensitive perhaps but not intrinsically catastrophic), Lewis points out that because these people had nothing to do with causing the war since they were to young to vote or influence popular opinion at the time, when they "repent" they are really blaming other people. He argues that this will cause them to look down on the people who really did have something to do with England's policies leading up to the war while simultaneously being able to veil their scorn with a sort of solidarity of regret. Thus they get to sound very pious and ethical by saying "we were wrong" while at the same time they escape any actual uncomfortable guilt because they can only mean by it "they were wrong".
  I found this pretty convicting. I am inclined to wonder how often I have tried to apologize (in the new sense, say I am sorry for) something I am not responsible for and in doing so have only been scorning (either purposefully or in ignorance) the people who were genuinely responsible for the acts I am apologizing for.
  Now, I realize that this interpretation of corporate repentance requires a decidedly individualistic approach to the concept of guilt. In fact it seems to deny corporate guilt in all circumstances other than when all members of the group are actually guilty of the relevant act. What do the rest of y'all think? Is corporate guilt a real thing? Can I really be guilty of or repent for things that other people who are associated with me by nationality, religious conviction, ethnicity, gender, or even family ties  have done? Is it actually wrong for me to try to repent for someone else's wrongs; in those terms it certainly seems ridiculous?
  Finally, how would you take it if I did it "for" you? Say you practiced some form of what you thought of as tough love on a mutual friend of ours. Then say I went up to them an apologized on "our" behalf for what you had done without consulting me. Would you be offended? Would you feel betrayed? Is there any way in which you think my doing that might be helpful to you, the mutual friend or to the situation as a whole? Would it make things better or worse if you thought you really had done something wrong? 

1 comment:

  1. Maybe we should say, "We don't all agree", "Not in our Name" or "The cheese stands alone" as opposed to, "We apologize".

    People accept collective blame as a way to accuse in a similar fashion as taking credit to support a point. For instance, I don't know how many times I have heard that America is the greatest nation because we landed on the moon. I think its a very reasonable way to measure greatness, how far could your theoretical influence reach. The problem is that these claims are made by people who oppose government spending. NASA wasn't funded by bake sales. I'm not trying to make a value call on the concept of government/private ventures in general- but I will say that if we relied on the profit motive alone, the space program would have been limited to satellites until some precious minerals were discovered on Luna. Yet, the limited-government, American exceptionalism types typically don't bat an eye at noting the Apollo program as a notch in Uncle Sam's belt.