Why do Western societies feel guilty about past tragedies they aren’t personally responsible for?

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In many Western countries, feelings of guilt can be observed when it concerns slavery, the holocaust, colonialism, and other tragedies. Guilt is usually appropriated by whites. The logic behind this is often strange to follow. Take for instance the guilt of Western European whites who live in countries heavily involved in the slave trade. That slave trade stopped over 150 years ago. Hence anyone involved in it has long since died.

Strangely, those who feel guilty about these events today are not the descendants of slave traders. The vast majority of the population 150 years ago in Western Europe were farmers who were under the cultural and military cosh of the urban elites. Slave traders were invariably urban and often migrated with their slaves. The urban elites in those days also made sustained efforts to culturally change the rural community: via education programmes and armies, the rural dialects and traditions have been gradually destroyed. The movement of the rural population to the cities was mainly after the slave trade had already seized. Hence in terms of genetic lineage, those whites currently apologising for the slave trade are in all probability descendents of farmers culturally oppressed themselves by the same urban elite that benefited from the slave trade.

Is it then the case that the slave trade is so objectionable that promoting feelings of guilt about it stops it happening nowadays? Clearly not. Not only are there various forms of modern slave trade still active and not particularly frowned upon, but ‘the Arabs’, who have been involved in the slave trade much longer than Westerners, are not overladen with the same guilt or reproach. Neither by themselves or by ‘us whites’. Hence it is clearly not the slave trade per se that draws in accusations of guilt.

Is it then the case that the slave trade represents just a series of wrong-doings by whites? Again, clearly not, because the advances in agriculture that Eurasia made in the course of 10000 years were also transferred to African countries when white colonists came, effectively allowing its population to increase far beyond historical population levels. Hence, if Africa were to go back to pre-slave trade technology, more than 90% of its population would perish. Life expectancy of the remaining 10% would reduce by over 20 years at least. Surely on aggregate thus, Africa’s human population has gained from interacting with Eurasia. Why then this need for guilt and the insistence that a racially defined group (us whites) are somehow to blame? It seems like the worst form of racism possible to assume blame ‘collectively’ for no other apparent reason than skin colour.

Similar things can be said about all the other sources of guilt taken up by groups of predominantly white people: whilst nations with something to apologise for invariably don’t, we’re seeing a spate of calls to apologise for things like colonialism, crusades, and other things no well-minded person could possible apologise for without demanding that the whole world apologise for something some ancestor might have done. Where does this need for guilt come from?

A first-thought explanation would be that we are seeing the effect of small interest groups trying to wangle something out of a majority by appealing to a presumed guilt of that majority. Although small groups undoubtedly attempt this, the question is then why a majority allows itself to be lulled into guilt that is not theirs and why it is prone to adopt guilt anyway. This can hence be no more than a piece of the puzzle.

One possible ‘ultimate’ explanation is that we are merely seeing at the aggregate level a by-product of ‘positive guilt’ at the micro-level, by which it is meant that in everyday life it is useful to let people feel guilty for mistakes. Avoiding guilt then becomes synonymous with avoiding mistakes that cost others. Because many of our actions are not observed by others a ‘personal guilt’ is effectively a pre-commitment device to care for others even if they are not looking. Teaching the next generation to have guilt or adopting such a personalised notion of guilt ourselves (if guilt is observable) can thus in some sense be productive. The need for historical guilt is then no more than ‘guilt running away with itself’; an unintended by-product of something that does make sense.

Such a theory would predict that guilt is more prevalent in places where production requires a lot of ‘unseen actions’ or where production is greatly increased if one can blindly trust others to ‘do their bit’. There is something to be said for this in the sense that network economies, which most modern nations are becoming, are invariably about people filling the holes other people leave without this ever being apparent to any observer (i.e. constantly switching duties that depend on need rather than formal rules, which thus begets a lot of room for unseen actions).

Other ‘ultimate’ explanations would have to involve some causal story for the presence of individual guilt. That the guilt we see at the aggregate level is an unintended by-product of something that does make sense seems very likely because of the glaring lack of sensible reasons for this aggregate guilt.