THE NEW ORTHODOXY
Who decides what is orthodox in the public realm today? No-one is quite sure but there is plenty of guilt in the air and little absolution.
Is the western world guilty of revelling in neurotic guilt?
As Christianity has diminished as a public force across Europe, some believe that a new secular priesthood has arisen in its place which has taken hold of the tenets of faith and in particular identified new forms of guilt of which we should be ashamed.
Writing in ‘The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism’, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner deplores the attitude of contemporaries who blame the west for everything that is evil in the world and welcome any punishment that follows. This was seen most starkly on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which were greeted in some quarters, incredibly, with something approaching satisfaction. It is witnessed in the trend of world leaders to apologise for events that happened long before anyone living was born (e.g. Tony Blair and the Irish Potato Famine), confessions which, however well-intentioned, are easy to make when you know you are not really responsible for the evil. It is demonstrated most worryingly for Bruckner in misplaced cultural sensitivity towards radical Islamists who are, in their methodology, engaged in a ‘pathology of imitation and not otherness.’
Bruckner may be the espresso-sipping philosophers’ loftier answer to the London cabbies’ ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ but both stereotypes are raising unsettling questions about phenomena over which people feel they have no control. Who decides what is orthodox in a public realm that is relegating Christian faith to private expression? No-one is quite sure and yet the effects of the new orthodoxy are everywhere to be felt.
Much hinges on the concept of collective guilt. Is it possible for a nation to be guilty of wrongdoing or is this only the remit of those who hold power? Hearing the taped testimony of suicide bombers who claim that ordinary citizens are deserving of death because they are implicated in the actions of their government has most sensible people deciding against collective guilt. The judicial development of the concept of individual guilt aimed to limit exposure to tribal revenge where lots of innocent people get killed. The command of Exodus chapter 21 for ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, though often presented carelessly as a barbaric world we have left behind, was instead a means of limiting revenge, protecting the innocent and preserving social order.
The German lawyer Bernhard Schlink (popular author of the novel ‘The Reader’) draws a distinction between judicial and moral guilt in the collective. For him, membership of a people engenders solidarity; we cannot simply be citizens of the world and escape inconvenient feelings of common responsibility and guilt. Schlink is speaking into the post-war psyche of Germany but his words have wider relevance. We may not share judicial responsibility for actions taken by others but if we always avoid moral responsibility for actions taken in our name it encourages a worryingly quietist approach to public life. ‘It was nothing to do with me’ was a convenient staple of post-war Germany.
Judging moral guilt at a collective level belongs to God. No-one else has the forensic skill to do this. Due to our philosophical bias, we assume we shall always stand before God as an individual, radically alone and disentangled from the complex networks of thought and action that govern a society. The reality may prove more different, though we – and especially the purveyors of the new orthodoxy – should not prejudge this as casually as we do.
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