Written by: Michael Kravshik.
As Westernist culture has become more self-reflective, historical injustices have become an important issue in public discourse. We increasingly look back on the past, and evaluate circumstances that do not meet the high standards of our current moral code. This exercise brings with it both shame and guilt. At its core, this is a positive effort. We don’t want to allow ourselves to forget past wrongs because we wish to ensure that similar misdeeds are not repeated. Sometimes however, this effort is taken too far and we burden ourselves with guilt that is not ours to bear. It is my opinion that we should not bear the guilt of our ancestors. Our only responsibility is to study their mistakes and ensure they are not repeated.
This concept is difficult to discuss because while it sits in the hearts and minds of millions of people, it has no tangible existence. However, the evidence shows itself very clearly in certain situations, and I hope that these two examples will give the reader a good idea of what I am referring to.
During the 1930’s and 40’s, my grandparents lived through horrible mistreatment by a German government gone mad and a German people who lost their way. A few years ago, a friend and I met two German girls on the beach who we spoke to for quite a few hours. Sometime during the discussion it came to light that we were Jewish. The immediate response of the two girls was to very genuinely apologize to us for the Holocaust. Their intention was really quite admirable. It was a great reminder of the strides that the German people have taken since the war to accept responsibility for their actions and come to terms with their past. Accepting the truthful history of your nation is important, but should all Germans today really have to take responsibility for these actions? These two girls were in their early twenties. There is a good chance that their grandparents may have been Nazi’s, supported the Nazi’s, or fought for Germany during the war. That being said, I can’t possibly hold them responsible for the actions of their grandparents. I can even admit that the apology gave me a warm feeling, but it was not their apology to make. They have a responsibility to learn about that history, to understand the inherent wrongness of it, and to fight the possibility of a recurrence. However, it is really their ancestor’s guilt, and only the few surviving Germans who committed those wrongdoings personally should be bearing such guilt.
This concept applies to many situations. Another example is that of native peoples (American, Canadian, Australian, etc…). The entire situation surrounding them is complex and differs depending on country and region. I am not debating or discussing any particular policy or current treatment of natives in this post, only what is relevant to the general concept of ancestor’s guilt. There is no doubt that many very bad things were done to the native populations of the newly colonized lands of European empires. The question is, should I feel guilty for it? My answer is no, I do not feel any guilt for those misdeeds. It’s important to note the difference between feeling bad that something happened and feeling guilty for it. I feel bad when I hear about a local teen being murdered by a crazy person, but I don’t feel guilty or responsible for it. No one should feel responsible for the wrong doing of his or her great-grandfather or any person that isn’t him or herself.
This example also brings to light an even more interesting phenomenon, something I like to call ‘imputed ancestors’ guilt’. For example, Modern-day Canada is made up of people from a plethora of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Yet, some people still believe that these people, the people who make up the modern country of Canada, should bear responsibility for wrongful deeds done to natives. The difference between good old-fashioned ancestors’ guilt and its ‘imputed’ variety is that a good amount of the ancestors of Canadians today weren’t even the culprits of these wrong doings. In fact, many times they themselves were victims of it. Why should a Sikh Canadian feel responsible for what their neighbor’s ancestors did to the natives, when their own ancestors were likely getting the same treatment? I mentioned my own roots earlier, and I feel just the same. If I do not believe that my 10th generation Canadian friend should share the guilt for what their great-grandparents did, then I certainly can’t justify feeling any personal guilt for the matter.
Learning about historical misdeeds is extremely important in the fight to ensure they are not repeated, but that doesn’t mean guilt and shame runs in your blood or comes with your citizenship. All of the horrible things of the past should be taught to everybody, not just the descendants of the culprits. However, people can only be held responsible for their own actions, and should not be burdened by the guilt of past generations. The only thing we can be guilty of is disregarding our responsibility to teach each new generation about these wrongdoings and the necessity of preventing them in the future.
This is my opinion. What’s yours?
Special thanks to Dorothy Charach for her editing advice