Ivory tower watch: collective responsibility and saying ‘yes’ to racism

A lot of people were very upset when evidence emerged of American war crimes in Iraq. The particular images that will always stand out are the photos taken of torture at Abu Ghraib, but there were several other incidents of massacres and, generally, soldiers not behaving as they are supposed to.

But what if these crimes were not only the fault of the people who committed them, or even the commanders who may have been negligent in not preventing them? What if every single competent adult American was in some way responsible for the massacre in Fallujah?

If that sounds familiar, or kind of like something you may have heard from violent Islamists, you would be right. Al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups often talk about the ‘Zio-Crusader alliance’ that they are fighting — which essentially means that every single Western person is attacking Islam and therefore they are all legitimate targets for retaliation. It is that attitude which led to the recent riots in Sydney — the idea that any Australian authority figure can be held responsible for acts committed by the American army overseas, because they are part of the same ‘people’ — or something.

Well, it is not only al-Qaeda that prescribes to this kind of thinking — apparently it is shared by the odd Ivy League professor. In ‘Citizen Responsibility and the Reactive Attitudes‘, Amy J Sepinwall from the University of Pennsylvania sets out to show that all Americans share some blame for war crimes in Iraq (although she does distinguish herself from Islamists by saying that it’s a matter of degree. I’m convinced…).

Her basic argument relies on the idea of citizen’s responsibility. She illustrates this through the following analogies (my bold):

Consider the marital union, for example. Individuals in a marriage must act with a certain regard for their union. While exit is a real option, each nonetheless bears an obligation to the other to put the possibility of exit out of his or her mind, at least while less disruptive options exist. And, each is obligated to the other to present a united front to the world, for maligning one’s spouse to others would degrade the union and violate marital trust.

Similarly, individuals in a joint business partnership must each also operate with a certain regard for the joint venture, and commit themselves to working out the kinks of the operation before contemplating dissolution. And, where one partner is empowered to, say, manage the partnership’s business, the other partner may not publicly disparage the result, and disavow responsibility for it. To do so would be to make a fool of the producing partner, and to exhibit a reproachable lack of loyalty.

… some amount of fidelity follows from membership in the nation-state, as well. Thus, with appropriate adjustments for strength of commitment to the nationstate, we may transpose the foregoing observations to the context of the   citizen’s responsibility for American atrocities committed in the course of the war in Iraq. The citizen harbors a commitment to the nation-state and that commitment obligates him in special ways to his fellow citizens. Most relevant here, his commitment entails that he may not step outside the nation-state to point a finger in righteous indignation at his state’s transgressions; instead, he must stand in judgment with his fellow citizens, in recognition that the nation-state is his as well as theirs. To do otherwise is to denigrate the shared venture; it is to demonstrate a solipsism incompatible with citizenship.

Do you see the problem there?

To me, the most obvious one is that, in a liberal democracy, a citizen canin fact, ‘step outside the nation-state to point a finger in righteous indignation at his state’s transgressions’. I do it all the time.

That is not the only flaw in her logic. There is also the fact that business partners, spouses and citizens are not necessarily responsible for everything that their fellow partners, spouses, or citizens, do; and this applies especially when we are talking abut breaking the law.

If one partner embezzles money without the other knowing, the other is not responsible. If a wife is dealing drugs without her husband’s knowledge, he is not responsible. If a soldier breaks the law while on a tour of duty, the citizens of that country are not responsible. Responsibility can only come with some form of acquiescence — it only applies to people on whose behalf the person who committed the act was acting.

For a nation-state, that means that the state had to have been acting — ie the soldiers who committed war crimes must have done so on behalf of the state and, by proxy, its people. That was not the case at all in Iraq. The soldiers that committed war CRIMES were breaking the law — and that is American law, not just international law. Where it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they were tried and punished. Certainly the public officials involved were sanctioned — they lost their jobs, had their names disgraced and faced public scorn and derision. How exactly can we then hold all Americans responsible?

Well, there’s the fact that Americans have no right to decide their own guilt when there’s another ‘rational’ explanation. Using the example of a person who was opposed to the war (‘the dissident’), Sepinwall explains that, really, it’s all a matter of perspective (my bold):

The dissident believes that her resistance cancels out whatever responsibility she should come to bear in virtue of her commitment to the United States as a whole. She has  arrived at this self-judgment because she has synthesized the dimension of her identity that flows from her citizenship and the dimension of her identity that flows from her dissidence and arrived at a coherent conception of herself in which her dissidence is much more definitive of who she is. But though each of us is empowered to perform this synthesis and arrive at a self-understanding that makes sense of the disparate and sometimes conflicting strands of our identity, none of us is entitled to have others conceive of us as we conceive of ourselves. In particular, the dissident cannot legitimately expect that her self-understanding will govern the Iraqi’s conception of her; he is entitled to believe that citizenship looms larger as a constituent element of an American’s (or anyone’s) identity than do acts opposing the policies or practices of one’s government. And, so long as he does hold this belief, he will harbor resentment toward the American citizen, no matter how valiant her efforts at resistance.

To inhabit the dissident’s perspective on America and herself, the Iraqi must abandon a stance of righteous anger through which he might seek to vindicate the worth of his lost loved one, or the Iraqi people as a whole. He must instead contend with the notion that he cannot find an outlet in blame for his loss and injury that corresponds sufficiently to their (perceived) magnitude. He would then incur not just the pain of his tragedy but the profound burden of self-restraint in stifling his own sense of the injury and deferring to that of one of his (apparent) injurers. Should we really reproach him for spurning this path? Given the additional pain of forbearance, is he not entitled to presume the legitimacy of his own perspective, and proceed with resentment?

No, he is not entitled to do that. Know why? Well, let’s apply the same theory, just to a slightly different scenario.

Say, for instance, a group of Lebanese Muslims were to viscously gang-rape a white Australian woman while making remarks like ‘how does it feel to do it Leb-style?’ and otherwise making it clear that they are identifying with the community of Lebanese Muslims in Australia and claim to be acting on behalf of that community. Would a relative of the victim not be entitled to feel a little resentment against Lebanese Muslims and not just the individual perpetrators? Isn’t there some degree of shared responsibility by the Lebanese Muslim community?

Say that a little while later, a group of Lebanese Muslims then attacked some lifeguards — the embodiment of Aussie pride. Are white Australians not entitled to a little resentment?

Well, you see, that happened. The ‘white’ community did feel resentment towards Lebanese Muslims as a result, and then that lead to the whole Cronulla Riots incident in 2005. I would be willing to bet that Ms Sepinwall would not see that as justified, but perhaps it is just a matter of degree. Perhaps indignation and resentment would have been justified, without going on a race-riot.

Like, say, the indignation and resentment that many victims of crime committed by Aboriginal Australians feel towards Aboriginals as a whole. The kind of indignation and resentment that results in this disadvantaged group being shut-out from jobs, routinely harassed by police, and far more likely than any other group to be imprisoned. Sounds justifiable, no?

Or perhaps Ms Sepinwall did not really think through the consequences of allowing a victim to hold not only the perpetrator responsible, but the entire nation to which the perpetrator belongs. That kind of collectivism is what leads to racism and terrorism. It is not OK.

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