The Guilty and the Responsible

by Chris Horner

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. – Hannah Arendt.

The quotation from Arendt is often thought to apply to the aftermath of the events of 1939-45, of the Nazi atrocities, especially, of course, the Holocaust. In fact, although it is fair to say it was considerations of that sort that prompted her into thinking about guilt and responsibility, she was very aware of the problematic nature of claims of collective guilt in the post war era. The question is about culpability: the way we ought to think about guilt. She rejected the idea that there is a kind of collective guilt, say of a whole nation (in 1945 the German people, and presumably their helpers in the occupied countries, of whom there were too many). We can widen the question to include Allied war crimes, which generally went unpunished. And of course, pressingly, we turn our gaze to our world and its burden of historical and ongoing crime and oppression. 

Arendt rejected collective guilt in part because it tends to blur the difference between the specific actions for which actors need to be held to account, and the vague sense that guilt is shared. Guilt here is being seen in two senses: in the legal sense  (X is guilty of a crime) and the feeling of guilt (X feels guilty). Arendt wants to separate them, partly to keep the sense that some are the actors who need to be held to account for actions but also for another important reason, which links to her more general concerns about the difference between politics and morality.

We need to distinguish between two concepts that are often associated: guilt and responsibility. The two concepts do go together, of course. We hold a person guilty of a crime if we regard them as responsible for committing it: that is why we don’t treat the mentally unfit in the same way we do people who know what they are doing is wrong. This applies to the minor and trivial as well as the unspeakably terrible. So Bob steals a bike and he is guilty of it, because he did it, knowingly. And Adolf Eichmann is guilty because he knowingly took part in the Holocaust – he is responsible for what he did. If I did neither of these things, then I am not responsible in this sense and not guilty. But can I be responsible for things I did not do?

To answer that, let us refocus our gaze. Think about the things your country – your politicians, say, your armed forces, maybe even your forebears – have done. Were any of them criminal? Were they even atrocities? Perhaps they were: think of the ‘Trail of Tears’ and the genocide against the native peoples of the USA and Australia; of slavery and the slave trade; empire; systemic racism; of inequalities that continue to crush and deform human potential. There’s a lot of that in the past and in the present. And so the question now is where you stand with regard to those things: whether you are somehow guilty or responsible for crimes you did not commit and could not have prevented.

One of the problems of the guilt language is that it too easily slips into feelings, about how bad one one feels, and moralism, about how bad some people are, without translating into any meaningful action. It is here that an important distinction lies. I, as an adult white British person am not guilty of the crimes of the British Empire, nor of the racism of my police force, nor of the ongoing treaties that my leaders have made with oppressive regimes. I didn’t create a situation in which homeless people sleep in the streets. Nor am I guilty, I hope, of racist or sexist acts, although I do think that there has to be a residue of both in my unconscious, since my upbringing was saturated in an ideology that sought to normalise both; I think of it as stuff that got on my psychic hard drive before I was able to block it. Honest reflection and the willingness to listen to others ought to be useful for here.

But I do have responsibility. I am responsible because I am a citizen of the country that did and does those things. As a citizen I need to lay aside moralising as well as the warm bath of personal self reproach and do something, however little, to stop this kind of thing in the future. I did not ask for my advantages (being white, male, etc) and I refuse to be made to feel guilty for those particularities, but I do have the political duty to do what I can to change the way such things contribute to the injustice I see around me. So I would say, for instance, to those other white men who feel defensive when such things come up: get over yourself. This is not about you as a guilty or innocent individual, about being a nice or nasty. Nor is it mainly about groups of good versus bad people. It is about the public world of action, and about being a citizen. That is why you have to care about the world we have inherited and will pass on to others. You aren’t guilty for the things you didn’t do, but you do have a responsibility for what happens in the country in which you live, and for what it does in the world. This is a political responsibility that you must not try to evade. You have to act.