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The Tyranny of Guilt
No, western culture doesn't hold the monopoly on historical crimes against humanity - it's time for the rest of the world to come down off their high horses to finally acknowledge their own atrocities
Europeans today, perhaps uniquely, confront an imposed sense of inherited culpability—a collective 'original sin' that not only encompasses the remnants of wartime and Holocaust guilt but also extends to colonialism, racism, and other historical transgressions. This collective conscience has resulted in a formidable load, a load that historically was presumed to be Europe's alone. However, in recent years, this historical debt has been increasingly shared by a cohort of countries, many of whom find their roots intertwined with Europe's own complex past. This expansion of guilt tries to suggest a pervasive legacy, hinting that the shadows of Europe's historical actions extend far beyond its own borders, and tries to brainwash Europeans into believing that it is their fault alone, which is, of course, as far from the truth as is Islam from reformation.
In modern Australia, colonialism is deeply personal, integral to the nation's formation and current identity. Education emphasizes the dark origins of genocide and dispossession by European settlers. The nation now prioritizes addressing historical injustices against Indigenous peoples, notably the 'stolen generation,' with cultural acknowledgments and government apologies. Despite not personally causing these past wrongs, Australians face the challenge of righting historical grievances while preserving Indigenous cultures. The national conversation is increasingly about how to balance redress with respect for cultural diversity.
The trend of national self-reproach has become increasingly common, with notable examples like Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 2008 apology to the indigenous population and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's similar expression of regret to Canada’s First Nations. These moments were hailed for their statesmanlike recognition of historical injustices, while alternative viewpoints or critical historical evaluations were largely overlooked.
The intensity of these admissions seems disproportionate, reminiscent of a defendant in a courtroom exaggerating their own guilt. This scenario is peculiar, as the apologies are made not by the individuals who committed the wrongs but by their successors, who bear no personal culpability. For modern politicians, such apologies may seem like a win-win—offering a chance for grandstanding without any direct association with the past misdeeds.
This phenomenon could be described as a distinctly western fixation, where the act of public contrition is seen as a cost-free means of gaining moral high ground. However, this is misleading; the incessant stream of apologies from certain nations, contrasted with the silence of others, may create an imbalanced narrative. For instance, if Australia continually atones for its history while countries like China do not, it might be inferred that Australia has more to be sorry for, impacting not just international perceptions but also the nation's self-image.
But where does this culture of extreme atonement lead? No matter how much historical introspection is undertaken, the past cannot be altered. A hyperbolic solution would be to divide present-day Australians by ancestry and mandate reparations based on genetic heritage—a dystopian and impractical scenario. Such measures would be as unfeasible as they are unjust, for the guilt of ancestors cannot be neatly transferred to their descendants, nor can history's complexities be resolved through financial transactions. The crime of theft might call for restitution, but in the case of historical wrongs, the path towards reconciliation and justice is rarely straightforward and never resides in reductive measures.
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In the absence of such improbable restitution, Australians seem to have tacitly agreed to maintain a collective penitence. This ethos is furthered by expressions of reverence for Aboriginal culture, elevating it to a paragon of virtue and purity that casts a shadow on modern Australian society. The idyllic portrayal of indigenous life before European settlement has become Australia's iteration of the 'noble savage' narrative, idealizing the past and imbuing it with an unblemished nobility, despite historical complexities.
This romanticized primitivism is not unique to Australia. It is also evident in contemporary attitudes toward European colonial legacies elsewhere, including in the United States. Here, Christopher Columbus has transitioned from a celebrated explorer to a figure of vilification, condemned as a harbinger of genocide rather than the discoverer of new lands. The 500th anniversary of his landing saw a shift in perspective, with some drawing far-fetched parallels between his actions and the atrocities of the Nazis, while others lamented the supposed ecological and societal utopia lost to his conquests.
In response, the U.S. has seen movements to reevaluate symbols of its colonial past, such as Columbus Day, which has been replaced with 'Indigenous Peoples Day' in several cities. This change aims to honor the cultures that existed before European contact, even though these historical events are generations removed from the present.
Both in America and Australia, the collective consciousness grapples with legacies of colonization through a lens heavily influenced by Rousseau-esque romanticism, which criticizes modern civilization as corruptive and destructive to once pristine lands and societies. It is an ethos that not only reveres the simplicity of past ways of life but also casts the European settlers as the ultimate disruptors of paradise.
Europeans have historically been implicated in some of the most severe transgressions. Yet, this focus frequently overlooks the persistent issues of racism and discrimination found in various regions and cultures around the world, as well as the troubling reality of modern-day slavery in Arabian countries (especially behind the “glamorous”, soulless facade of the Gulf States), which remain under-addressed and openly tolerated in international discourse. Meanwhile western leaders are repeatedly acknowledging European wrongdoings, as exemplified by President Clinton’s 1998 apology in Uganda for the slave trade—a practice involving both continents (and one continent to this very day), yet the burden of remorse seems to be shouldered by the West alone.
This sentiment persists even as the status of African Americans has progressed, with notable figures serving at the highest levels of government, including a black President. However, this advancement hasn't quelled calls for reparations, which gained significant traction during Obama’s second term. The debate has narrowly focused on compensation for the African American community, sidelining the historical grievances of other groups, reinforcing the notion that guilt is a uniquely European legacy to be perpetually atoned for.
In European nations and America alike, this relentless focus on historical faults can erode national pride, substituting it with a complex cocktail of pride and remorse. A nation confident in its moral infallibility risks repeating its misdeeds, yet a nation obsessed with its historical failings might doubt its capacity for future good. This doctrine of a national original sin breeds a debilitating self-doubt, predicated on the idea that the nation’s inherent flaws preclude the possibility of redemptive actions.
The State of Israel is often cited in this context, its establishment in 1948 deemed by some as a foundational sin akin to those of the European colonialists. This narrative is bolstered by the term 'nakba', denoting the tragedy that befell Palestinians during Israel's creation—a narrative that persists even though the 20th century saw numerous states formed amid significant displacement and violence. However, while other nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh also emerged amidst tumult and are connected to the British colonial legacy, they are not subjected to the same expectation of inherited guilt that is often directed at European descendants.
The question of how to address historical grievances takes on a particularly intense dimension in the context of Israel. While calls to reverse the consequences of European colonization in the Americas by repatriating descendants are rare, there is a notable push, official policy in certain Middle Eastern nations, for the ethnic-cleansing of Jewish Europeans from Israel, suggesting a return of the land to its pre-state inhabitants.
Middle Eastern history, a complex tapestry of conquests and displacements, is typically devoid of retrospective adjudications. Yet, when discussing Palestinians, some propose clear-cut restitution, often attributing the impetus for their displacement to European actions, including the aftermath of the Holocaust—a narrative implying that Europeans’ historical mistakes are now being compensated for at the expense of Arab populations.
Europe’s historical connections to Australia, America, and Israel may lead to a perception that Europeans have uniquely contributed to historical injustices globally. The European pioneers of America and Australia, alongside the significant number of Jews in Israel with European heritage—despite a sizable proportion having origins in Arab countries—create a narrative that points to Europeans as the common denominator in these historical grievances.
This leads to an uncomfortable position for modern Europeans, who may perceive themselves as bearing a singular historical burden. This is a unique phenomenon, as Europe is seen as a continent whose ills have extended globally, a view not typically applied to other regions or peoples. In Europe, it is heavily frowned upon to generalize or essentialize the peoples of any region, yet when it comes to Europeans themselves, such generalizations seem to be more readily accepted. The double standard is striking: While a European might be admonished for attributing the faults of one African or Asian to all, the collective blame for Europe’s past transgressions often falls on the present-day European populace without much objection.
In debates concerning Western civilization, it's not uncommon to encounter the assertion that “we”—extending beyond Europe to encompass the entire Western world—are inheritors of the culpability for atrocities like Nazism, Colonialism and the Holocaust, completely ignoring the historic atrocities of Islamic, African, or Asian states. This perspective persists despite the fact that many in the western audience are likely to be descendants of those who actively opposed Nazi Germany. Such details often recede into the background, overshadowed by sweeping generalizations about the West's darkest historical chapters.
As any thorough examination of history reveals, all societies, ethnicities, and human collectives are capable of—and have committed—grave misdeeds. The selectiveness of historical focus speaks volumes about contemporary attitudes and priorities, just as the omissions and overlooked events reveal silent biases.
The Ottoman Empire, with its six-century reign, stands as a significant example. This empire not only extended its territory across Southeast Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa through military conquest but also imposed its religious and cultural norms, with strict penalties for dissent. It was only the united European forces at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 that halted the expansion of Ottoman rule into Europe.
Following World War I, as the empire crumbled, it perpetrated the first genocide of the 20th century against Armenians in Anatolia, resulting in the massacre of over a million people and leaving hundreds of thousands stateless. Decades later, Turkey, the empire's miserable successor, invaded Cyprus in 1973, maintaining its hold over half of the island to this day—a situation that persists despite Turkey's NATO membership and the southern part of Cyprus's inclusion in the EU.
Acknowledging Turkey's past, one might argue that its historical conduct is neither exceptionally worse nor better than that of other nations. Yet, what is remarkable is the absence of widespread discourse or demands for collective guilt among the Turkish people for their nation's historical actions.
Turkey's contemporary policies contribute to this silence. The nation's strict legal codes, such as Article 301, make it an offense to “insult the Turkish nation,” effectively criminalizing any discussion of events like the Armenian genocide and resulting in imprisonment for those who dare to speak out. Despite ongoing grievances from Greek Cypriots regarding the partition of their island, international relations have not halted discussions advocating for Turkey's full membership in the European Union.
The Turkish government's refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire's brutal past, along with the legal suppression of any discussion of its recent territorial aggressions and ethnic conflicts, might not be unexpected. Yet, it's rather remarkable how the international community does never hold the Turkish people collectively accountable for these historical transgressions. If the purpose of the history taught in Europe is to avoid repeating the darkest chapters of the past, then a question arises: Should other nations also be encouraged to confront and feel remorse for their histories? If not, and if they maintain their pride while prohibiting critical examination of their past, does Europe not then stand out as being uniquely burdened by a sense of guilt for what might be considered common historical misdeeds?
The issue deepens when considering the premise that historical injustices necessitate current-day recompense. If Europe is to embrace mass immigration as a form of atonement for its imperialistic history, should the same expectation not apply to Turkey? If indeed societal transformation through immigration is a punitive measure for past wrongs, then why is this principle not applied globally? Why isn't Saudi Arabia or Iran expected to diversify through immigration as a means to redress their historical actions? If all nations have committed historical errors, yet only some are expected to undergo such penance, it suggests a selective, perhaps even an anti-Western bias.
This idea of inherited historical guilt implies that the sins of ancestors can be transferred through generations. This concept has its parallels in history, notably in the way some Christians held Jews responsible for centuries due to a misinterpretation of scripture, a stain not formally renounced by the Catholic Church until 1965. Today, such notions of inherited blame are widely seen as morally abhorrent. However, the guilt now felt by Europeans is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging in the late 20th century.
Curiously, some Europeans may not only accept but embrace this guilt. Guilt becomes a kind of moral indulgence. It transforms individuals from being simply responsible for themselves to being symbolic bearers of historical sin and potential saviors. This shift can turn an ordinary individual into a figure of moral significance.
An example of this phenomenon was exhibited by a British man named Andrew Hawkins in 2006, who became an emblematic figure of this guilt absorption and the complex implications it carries.
Mr. Hawkins, a theater director, had an unexpected revelation in the midst of his life when he found out he was related to John Hawkins, a slave trader from the 16th century. In 2006, he accepted an invitation from a charity named 'Lifeline Expedition', which is dedicated to reconciling historical grievances, to partake in a journey of contrition to Gambia. There, he joined a group of 26 others who shared a similar lineage. Together, they processed through the streets of Gambia's capital, Banjul, adorned with chains and yokes, signaling a form of penance. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 'So Sorry' and shedding tears, they offered apologies in several languages to a stadium of roughly 18,000 Gambians, before the Vice-President of Gambia symbolically released them from their chains.
Participating in such a ceremony could be perceived as not just a moral gesture, but also a display of a deeper psychological struggle. Hawkins and his peers were fortunate to encounter the Gambians, who received their act of penance with a kind of bemused grace. Such Western gestures of self-reproach are not universally received with kindness. Recalling a past event, a journalist interviewing Yasser Arafat was amused along with the Palestinian leader when they discussed an American delegation that had come to apologize for the Crusades—a conflict America had no part in. Arafat was ready to capitalize on the visitors' historical misapprehensions for his own ends.
European societies today perhaps epitomize this compulsion of self-attributed guilt; they are the first civilizations to reflexively question their own role in their misfortunes. This unrelenting historical guilt also manifests in present scenarios. For instance, years before the migration crisis intensified, Karsten Nordal Hauken, a Norwegian politician, was violently assaulted in his home by a Somali refugee. Despite the attacker being convicted and slated for deportation after his prison term, Hauken was plagued by guilt over his assailant's future fate in Somalia.
It's one thing to practice forgiveness, but it's quite another to empathize with the perpetrator of one's own trauma to such an extent. This could suggest that masochistic tendencies are a constant in human society, possibly amplified by cultural narratives that equate such feelings with moral superiority, thus nurturing a higher concentration of such dispositions.
Masochists have a unique predicament when they encounter true sadists, individuals who might affirm the masochists' negative self-perceptions. While the world has no dearth of individuals ready to exploit others' sense of self-reproach, Europeans seem particularly inclined to indulge in self-criticism, even in the face of those who might wish them harm. This phenomenon turns existential guilt into a complex dynamic, where the acceptance of guilt becomes almost exclusive to Europeans amid a broader global context that does not share this sentiment.
As Western and European societies engage in deep introspection and self-criticism for the actions of their forebears, it's notable that no comparable expectation exists for other cultures to atone for the historical wrongs of their ancestors, not even for transgressions within living memory. This might be due to a scarcity of individuals in the West who take pleasure in such self-flagellation, or perhaps it's more so because there's a lack of such self-critical inclination in other societies, rendering the exercise futile.
Take, for example, the devastating Mongol incursions into the Middle East in the 1200s, events like the massacres at Nishapur, or the razing of Baghdad, which were cataclysmic both in human and cultural losses. The memory of these events, unlike those of the Crusades, does not prompt a call for the descendants of the Mongols to accept responsibility. This isn't just because tracing lineage would be challenging, but because it's improbable that the descendants would entertain the notion of inheriting blame for their ancestors' deeds.
It's peculiar to Europe and its diaspora to be self-critical to the extent of fixating on historical lows. More puzzling still is the concurrent expectation for Europeans to recognize non-European societies by their historical highs. This asymmetry—Europeans judged by their darkest chapters and others by their shining achievements—indicates that the phenomenon is as much political as it is psychological.
However, this pervasive sense of inherited guilt in modern Europe isn't necessarily a permanent state. It's worth questioning whether future generations, like the young Germans distanced by time from the 1940s, will continue to bear the weight of ancestral actions. Could there come a time when they declare an end to inherited guilt, refuse to let it dictate their actions, and reject the notion that their lineage uniquely predisposes them to atone? It's conceivable that this pervasive 'guilt industry' might be a phenomenon restricted to a single generation, eventually giving way to a new era of historical perspective.
The narrative of European sole culpability in historical injustices is a myopic view that overlooks the global mosaic of guilt and responsibility. While Europe's colonial and wartime transgressions are undeniable, they are but one part of a complex tapestry of human wrongdoing. The pervasive legacy of colonialism, slavery, and racism is not a burden for Europe to shoulder alone. For a more equitable and honest reckoning with the past, it is essential that all nations examine their histories with candor and acknowledge their roles in historical injustices.
As long as some countries continue to sidestep their brutal legacies, the global dialogue on historical guilt remains a skewed and ridiculous narrative. It is critical for nations around the world to not just confront but also take tangible steps towards addressing their past, ensuring that reparations and apologies are not selective but universal. Without a comprehensive and collective approach to historical accountability, the cycle of blame and the theater of apology remain an empty charade that needs to be exposed whenever possible.
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