With a four-alarm fire under his collar, a poster on a conservative website declares, "Women put Barack Obama in office!' Of course, since he's a conservative, he's saying this like it's a very bad thing. In his mind an entire gender -- half of humankind -- bears equal responsibility for the election of a politician he dislikes.
If I could meet the man face to face, I might point out to him that I am a Libertarian, not a Democrat, and I did not cast my vote for Barack Obama. Therefore, by no logical standard can I be held accountable for his election. However, I suspect that I would be wasting my breath. That man has drunk the logic-killing hemlock known as Collective Guilt, the notion that an entire group of people should share the blame for the actions of some.
By the logic of Collective Guilt, I should also feel ashamed of the drowning of Susan Smith's and Andrea Yates's children, the false accusations of rape leveled against three Duke University lacrosse players, and the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. But I refuse to acknowledge responsibility for crimes, wrongs, and misjudgments in which I played no part, simply because I have certain reproductive organs in common with the responsible parties.
Collective Guilt cannot take root in common sense. Anger is behind it -- the kind of blind, unreasoning rage that, in the early '90s, looked at a white truck driver and saw the four white policemen who were acquitted of the charge of brutality against Rodney King. This rage can't content itself with homing in on one or more guilty individuals. It must target a larger share of humanity, sometimes seeking to hold them accountable for atrocities committed before they were born.
As a student of history, I do think it important to examine the weakness in our human nature that made possible such great crimes as human slavery and the Holocaust. Only by knowing how such things happened can we ensure that they never happen again. But I am too young to have owned a slave, or to have given tacit permission for the murder of millions of men, women and children in concentration camps across Europe. While these crimes may have stemmed from weaknesses that all humans (not just select groups of us) share to some degree, and we owe it to ourselves to examine and understand those weaknesses, I should not be punished for them, in the form of either reparations or some angry man's scorn.
A quick look at those very crimes that make us shudder in horror reveals Collective Guilt at their heart. The Nazis sold the German public at large the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and the failing economy, and so all of them, down to the tiniest infant, should pay for those crimes with their lives. Ministers in the pre-Civil War South declaimed that an ancient curse against one of Noah's sons extended to all blacks, and therefore American slavery was justified. And because huge numbers of people bought these lies, American slavery persisted for decades, and over six million people died in the Holocaust. The individuals caught in these turmoils were never given a chance to defend themselves; they were punished for wrongs, real or imagined, committed by people they had never met.
Why are we so quick to believe in Collective Guilt, when it goes so clearly against anything and everything resembling logic? Simple -- it's an easy way to avoid looking at human guilt, our own imperfect nature. Rather than examine head-on the flaws we all share, we invent a guilty "Them" to stand against a blameless "Us." We can hug our own righteousness if we can heap blame on "Them," and hugging righteousness is, of course, a favorite human pastime.
Each one of us is a member of the flawed human family. In our lifetime we will accumulate a vast store of mistakes, misjudgments, and wrongs for which we must one day be called to account. But each one of us has sins enough to bear as an individual, without adding the additional burden of crimes committed by those who share our gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. When I stand before my Maker, I will accept the responsibility for my own bad choices, not for my race or gender.