The Conversation

I've Got No Use for Collective Guilt

Former CNN host Soledad O'Brien delivered the Class Day speech to Harvard College undergraduates on Wednesday. The Class Day speaker is chosen by students, not the administration or faculty, which is even more troubling given that O'Brien's stock-in-trade is the exploitation of purported racial grievances.

A Harvard literature professor by the name of Philip Fisher invented the idea of "nightmare envy"--the curious longing that some affluent, first-world intellectuals have for the claims on victimhood and suffering of their poorer counterparts at home and abroad. O'Brien both shares and exploits that envy.

In her speech, she recounted the discrimination her parents--an interracial couple--experienced in Maryland in the 1950s. The tale was a way of telling graduates not to listen to those who said they could not achieve their goals--as if the country had not changed in 55 years, as if doors were ever closed to Harvard graduates.

My wife is also a child of an interracial marriage, whose parents experienced the same, or worse, treatment. She herself was turned away from schools because of her color, in the waning years of apartheid. And yet neither she nor her mother harbor the same sense of grievance or entitlement to which O'Brien clings.

Thinking about O'Brien's family story, I remembered an experience from my own childhood, when one of my mother's colleagues called our house after watching a PBS special on the history of Christian persecution of Jews. My mother was out, so she asked me: what could she, as a Christian, do to atone for the past?

That put me, a teenager, in an awkward position--having to forgive an adult for something that she had not personally done and that I had not personally experienced. I tried to tell her that while that history was important, and it would be better to be vigilant about the present than feel guilty about the past.

As I did so, I remember feeling profoundly uncomfortable. There was something tempting, almost gratifying, in the prospect of accepting and reinforcing her guilt. But I also sensed that if I said she owed me something, when we both knew it was not directly true, I would be the guilty one--and she might later resent me for it.

I had no use for collective guilt. 

Guilt can be positive, when applied to specific individuals and choices, because it urges us to make amends and improvements. But collective guilt punishes those who have not sinned, and rewards those who have not suffered. It traps both in a cycle of self-destructive resentment.

Yet collective guilt is quite lucrative today. Some of its beneficiaries use it as a form of rent-seeking, or as a cover for their own failures and insecurities. It also preserves the experience of victimhood in perpituity. 

It seems to me that if a voice told Soledad O'Brien she could not achieve something, it likely came from within.


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