Bill Muehlenberg

I’m Sorry (For What Somebody Else Did)

There are two related tendencies in the West which are as puzzling as they are troubling. One is the habit of claiming victim status. Ben Wattenberg once called this “The Victim Dictum”. It goes like this: “Every Problem Can Be Assigned To a Hostile Outside Agent”. That is, we are all victims – victims of society, of a bad upbringing, of our environment, of our government, etc. And thus apologies are needed, along with reparations, entitlements, privileges, etc. All of which beats taking any personal responsibility for our own shortcomings and choices. 


The other tendency is the annoying habit of the West to make apologies for all sorts of things, and to say sorry to various “victims” of long ago. Thus there are calls to apologise to indigenous peoples, to past war victims, to various historic episodes of injustice and oppression, and so on.


And often the call is not just for an apology, but for some sort of compensation or payback. The West is not only made to feel guilty for all these supposed sins and outrages, but it must somehow atone for these sins as well. It must make due compensation.


But such reparations for, and corrections of, past wrongs seem to me to be problematic, to say the least. Part of it has to do with the issue of responsibility. For example, if my great, great, great, great, great grandfather stole your great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s bicycle, am I somehow responsible for this? Moreover, should I make reparations to you based on this wrong of long-ago? Do I owe you a bike?


That the West must be made to feel guilty for just about everything – including it seems someone’s burnt toast for breakfast or someone’s punctured tire – is of course part of the Political Correctness brigade’s assault on the West. It is part of getting back at Dead White Males for all the evil they have committed since the dawn of time.


So there is now a whole industry which has sprung up which does its best to persuade all Westerners – especially white males – that they are responsible for all misfortunes, wrongs and calamities in life, and they must forever engage in acts of penance and contrition. We Westerners are not only all guilty, but we must be fully reminded of our guilt and shame on a daily basis.


So saying sorry has now become a full time job for many in the West. And the list of grievances is of course never ending. Apologise for something today and we will discover another dozen things to say sorry about tomorrow. Like our public service, this is a life-long job, because the roster of imagined wrongs will be perpetuated ad infinitum, ad nauseum.


English Commentator Theodore Dalrymple has just written a brilliant piece on all this. He refers to this “pattern of political breast-beating” as” the False Apology Syndrome”. He provides a number of key examples here. Consider the whole issue of the Crusades, for example, and all the Western brow-beating that has sprung up because of this. He says:


It is not exactly a new discovery that the Crusaders often, perhaps usually or even always, behaved very badly. It is not in the nature of invading armies to behave well, even when discipline is strong, morale is high, and control of the foot soldiers is firm; it is no secret that these conditions did not exist during the Crusades, to put it rather mildly. They were, however, rather a long time ago. The Crusades were an attempt to recover for Christendom what had been lost by force, with all the accompanying massacre, pillage, and oppression that the use of force in those days implied. No one, I think, expects an apology from present-day Arabs for the imperialism of their ancestors, either as a matter of moral duty or political likelihood. We are all born into the world as we find it, after all; we are not responsible for what went before us.”


Official apologies for faraway events, says Dalrymple, “have bad effects on both those who give them and those who receive them. The effect on the givers is the creation of a state of spiritual pride. Insofar as the person offering the apology is doing what no one has done before him, he is likely to consider himself the moral superior of his predecessors. He alone has had the moral insight and courage to apologize. On the other hand, he knows full well that he has absolutely no personal moral responsibility for whatever it is that he is apologizing for. In other words, his apology brings him all kudos and no pain.”


Consider also the effect on the recipients of such apologies: “Let us take the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade as an example. I doubt whether anyone could be found nowadays who would mount a moral defense of that trade. That it was hideous and cruel beyond all description hardly needs saying, and what does not need saying should not be said, at least not often, for otherwise the lady doth protest too much. The demand for an apology supposes that there is a clearly definable person, or group of persons, who can be held responsible for the trade, or at the very least to have been the beneficiaries of it. In other words, the world can be neatly divided into historical oppressed and oppressor, victim and perpetrator.”


But this is not the case: “Most historical situations and their consequences are more complex and ambiguous than this simple schema would suggest, and the slave trade is no exception. For medical reasons having to do with relative immunity to malaria, if for no others, the supply of slaves depended crucially on the co-operation of African suppliers who captured slaves for sale. No apology from their descendents is required. The trade was abolished almost entirely through the efforts of white abolitionists. However discontented with their lot present-day American descendents of slaves may be, they are much better off than they would have been had their ancestors not been brought to America. Are they morally obliged, then, to offer up thanks to the slave traders who brought their ancestors to America? Thus the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade is a demand that people with no personal responsibility for it apologize to people who have suffered no personal wrong from it. From the point of view of morality, this is a very strange demand.”


All this has to do with guilt, or in this case, misplaced and misdirected guilt: “The False Apology Syndrome flourishes wherever there has been a shift in the traditional locus of moral concern. At one time, a man probably felt most morally responsible for his own actions. He was adjudged (and judged himself) good or bad by how he conducted himself toward those in his immediate circle. From its center rippled circles of ever-decreasing moral concern, of which he was also increasingly ignorant. Now, however, it is the other way round. Under the influence of the media of mass communication and the spread of sociological ways of thinking, a man is most likely to judge himself and others by the opinions he and they hold on political, social, and economic questions that are far distant from his immediate circle. A man may be an irresponsible father, but that is more than compensated for by his deep concern about global warming, or foreign policy, or the food situation in Africa.”


Yes, it is always easier to write out a cheque for some stranger in Africa than to actually be reconciled with your next-door neighbour. Dalrymple concludes, “Guilt, by its very nature, ought to be connected to responsibility; it ought, moreover, to be in proportion to the wrongdoing that is its occasion. To assume a guilt greater than the responsibility warrants is actually a form of grandiosity or self-aggrandisement. The psychological mechanism seems to be something like this: ‘I feel very guilty, therefore I must be very important’.”


Quite right. We live in a very mixed up society. On the one hand, people everywhere feel guilty (for the simple reason that they are guilty, as in the Judeo-Christian version of events). Yet we want to deny guilt – as least in terms of personal responsibility – and talk instead about mere guilt feelings, and how to remove them. But on the other hand, we are told we must feel guilt about all sorts of things which we have nothing to do with, or at least very little. So we absolve ourselves of personal guilt for personal sins, while making up imaginary sins to feel quite guilty about. No wonder we have an army of counselors and psychologists busy at work. Such twisted moralism should keep the shrinks gainfully employed for quite some time.

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