By Alicia Barber
I was puzzled by the groups used as examples for collective responsibility during a lecture by Forum Director Thane Rosenbaum. Jews responsible for the financial crisis. Blacks guilty for the crimes of inner city criminals. While I recognized it as a provocative rhetorical technique, I couldn’t help but see a manifestation of the very harm he was, I thought, trying to prevent. Of course, middle class and successful blacks do pay for the crimes of their disadvantaged counterparts in the “soft justice” of inaccurate stereotypes and sweeping generalizations, of which that lecture was certainly not my first painful reminder as a pre-professional in an often unconscious white business culture. Yes, it was an effective way to provoke and engage the audience, but also a way of perpetuating the lucrative narrative in the mainstream media of the dangerous minority, and perhaps the starkest example in the lecture of an opportunity for the collective to take responsibility.
We have to unpack this notion of the “collective” that must feel responsible by differentiating between those who incur a benefit from the sins of their group members, and those who continue to be undercut by false generalizations. One danger of applying the concept is to conflate collective responsibility—recognizing how you profit from, or condone by omission, the sins of your readily identifiable cohorts—with forcibly grouping people according to persistent stereotypes ingrained in our societal psyche—you are black and therefore responsible for inner city crime (but not rural or suburban crime?). Accurately identifying the group and the harm for which they are responsible is crucial in making this work. Fallacious arguments that we all, even seemingly underprivileged groups, have something for which to be sorry undermine the prospect of holding any one group accountable, and work against the justice we purport to be seeking.
Our legal attempts at collective responsibility have proven similarly inadequate because we allow into the discourse red herrings like Blacks are just as collectively responsible for perpetuating their socio-economic subjugation as are whites for initiating it. Nobody is responsible because everybody is responsible. The majority becomes overwhelmed with its responsibility to every minority—the frustration that made “political correctness” a pejorative—and stifles any progressive debate in favor of the more appealing notion of this utopian post-racial society.
The idea of the collective hand of the oppressed group suppressing their own achievement is a popular theme in our country’s politics—black on-black crime, women exploiting their sexuality, the reappropriation into accepted dialogue of the n-word, the b-word, and the f-word by blacks, women, and gays, respectively. Unwilling to see these as complicated responses to years of denigration, we hold these groups collectively responsible for their own frustrated existences and effectively sink the use of collective responsibility as a tool for uplifting the people our system has failed.
In order to use collective responsibility as a tool for bringing justice through legal and legislative means, we must first resist the temptation to declare that we are all guilty for something and allow that to be used as a mitigating tool in bringing the wrongdoer to justice.
Tags: thane rosenbaum