The Strange Persistence of Guilt

the phenomenon of rising guilt becomes both a byproduct of and an obstacle to civilizational advance. The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.

.. With God dead, all would indeed be permitted. Chief among the outmoded reflexes would be the experience of guilt

.. Atheism would mean “a second innocence,” a regaining of Eden with neither God nor Satan there to interfere with and otherwise corrupt the proceedings.

.. Freud declared the tenacious sense of guilt to be “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” Indeed, he observed, “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”3

.. He sought to “demoralize” guilt by treating it as a strictly subjective and emotional matter.

.. Forgiveness is one of the chief antidotes to the forensic stigma of guilt, and as such has long been one of the golden words of our culture, with particularly deep roots in the Christian tradition

.. To forgive, whether one forgives trespasses or debts, means abandoning the just claims we have against others, in the name of the higher ground of love.

.. the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.

.. I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could.

.. Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.

.. Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.

.. when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.

.. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.”

.. How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world?

.. the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution

.. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed.

.. the fundamental truth about sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that sin must be paid for or its burden otherwise discharged.

.. But in a society that retains its Judeo-Christian moral reflexes but has abandoned the corresponding metaphysics, how can the moral economy of sin continue to operate properly

.. So if one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes. When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.

.. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence.

.. Never has there been a keener and more widespread sense of particularized grievances at work throughout in the world, and never have such grievances been able to count on receiving such a thorough and generally sympathetic hearing from scholars and the general public.

.. But how much penitence is enough? And how long must penance be done? When can we say that the German people—who are, after all, an almost entirely different cast of characters from those who lived under the Nazis—are free and clear, and have “paid their debt” to the world and to the past, and are no longer under a cloud of suspicion? Who could possibly make that judgment?

.. The Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials were landmarks in the establishment of institutional entities administering and enforcing international law. But they also were of questionable legality, reflecting the imposition of ad hoc, ex post facto laws, administered by victors whose own hands were far from entirely clean (consider the irony of Soviet judges sitting in judgment of the same kinds of crimes their own regime committed with impunity)—indeed, victors who might well have been made to stand trial themselves, had the tables been turned, and the subject at hand been the bombing of civilian targets in Hiroshima and Dresden.

.. Or consider whether the infamous Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles, assigning “guilt” to Germany for the First World War, was not, in the very attempt to impose the victor’s just punishment on a defeated foe, itself an act of grave injustice, the indignity of which surely helped to precipitate the catastrophes that followed it.

.. As Elazar Barkan bluntly argued in his book The Guilt of Nations, “In forcing an admission of war guilt at Versailles, rather than healing, the victors instigated resentment that contributed to the rise of Fascism.”15

.. The deeply inscribed algorithm of sin demands some kind of atonement, but for some aspects of the past there is no imaginable way of making that transaction without creating new sins of equivalent or greater dimension.

.. Sin is a transgression against God, and without a God, how can there be such a thing as sin? So the theory would seem to dictate.

.. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.