An Odd Epidemic
At one time or another we have all found ourselves unknowingly complicit in some sort of wrongdoing. An offhand remark at the office reveals that you have been inadvertently shortchanging the coffee klatch. An expose reveals that a corporation whose stock you own has been secretly dumping toxic waste into the water. Arriving home from shopping, you find amidst your other purchases an item you forgot to pay for.
But now everyone seems to be having this disconcerting experience all at once. For example...
• On the Right, Trump's candidacy has brought into the open the racism which the GOP has been communicating through innuendo and code words for decades. This has been an eye-opening, guilt-producing experience for some Republicans.
• On the Left, a rash of nasty statements and incidents in Europe and on campuses has exposed the way in which criticism of Israel has become a coded expression of anti-Semitism. This has been an eye-opening, guilt-producing experience for some Israel critics.
• Prodded by protests, institutions of various sorts have recognized with a shock that their revered founders, mascots, flags, etc. are actually symbols of racism, sexism, and other universally condemned practices.
• As the debate over inequality and barriers to upward mobility heats up, privileged people have recognized with a shock that they do not actually deserve all that they have. They are beneficiaries of, and complicit in injustice.
How should we feel about ourselves (and toward others) when we discover that we (or they) have been unwittingly complicit in wrongdoing?
A Biblical Response
An answer may be found in a somewhat neglected bit of the Bible - a description of certain sacrifices in Leviticus.
When a person, without knowing it, sins in regard to any of the Lord's commandments,...and then realizes his guilt, he shall be subject to punishment. He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a guilt offering. The priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the error that he committed unwittingly, and he shall be forgiven. (Lev 5:17-18. see all of Lev 4 and 5.)
At first glance, this seems like a Biblical blunder. If wrongdoing is unwitting, why hold the wrongdoer responsible? Why speak of guilt and punishment? What need of forgiveness? Isn't "I didn't know" a legitimate excuse?
Not always. Most rabbinic commentators take this passage to be talking about cases of negligence. The sin was unknowing, but the wrongdoer should have known. Hence the talk of responsibility, guilt, punishment, and forgiveness in the passage. However, the problem with this interpretation is that the passage does not say anything about negligence.
Anthropologists might take this passage to be about ritual pollution which is incurred whenever certain acts are performed. In ancient Near Eastern religious practices, pollution is pollution whether incurred innocently or maliciously. No matter how it is incurred, it needs to be cleansed. The point is recovering ritual purity rather than moral responsibility. However, the problem with this interpretation is that the passage explicitly refers to responsibility and related concepts.
I suggest a third interpretation. If you run over a kid with your truck despite taking all appropriate precautions, you will feel guilty. Yet since you took all appropriate precautions, you actually bear no guilt. This poses a therapeutic challenge; how to ameliorate painful, destructive, undeserved feelings of guilt.
The discovery that you have unwittingly done wrong poses a similar therapeutic challenge. On my interpretation, the Leviticus passage provides a healing remedy. The passage tells you to do something to "atone for your wrong," even if it is only a gesture. Make a guilt offering. This will seem like punishment to your psyche, and the belief that you have paid your dues will relieve your undeserved feeling of guilt. Now you can forgive yourself, and get on with your life.
But weren't the rabbis on the right track? For example, the GOP southern strategy was not a deep secret. Shouldn't even the Republican rank and file have known about it? If they didn't know, then they were negligent. Or worse yet, they really knew all along, and deliberately engaged in denial. Shouldn't Republicans be blamed, or blame themselves for their complicity in stirring up racial hatred and fear in order to win elections?
Surprisingly, the answer is "No!"
A general principle of morality is this: When accomplishing something would be beyond the capacity of most people, don't blame folks who fail.
Now apply this principle to the complicity question. Consider how difficult it is to think ill of a good friend, or revise a long-held allegiance to a beloved organization. Cognitive dissonance and inertia are powerful forces. Consider how we all tend to see what we expect to see, and believe what we want to believe. Thus, it is really really hard to recognize systematic wrongdoing. Evil hides in plain sight amidst our loyalties and longings. After our attention is called to it, we wonder how we could have missed it. Yet until we have eyes to see it, we are blind to it.
We give a pass to elderly people when they express morally objectionable views which used to be mainstream. Similarly, we should excuse ourselves (and others) for not seeing blatantly obvious wrongdoing. Of course, this is not an excuse to keep our eyes deliberately squeezed shut, or to do nothing when they finally open.
So how should you feel about the fact that you (or others) have been complicit in wrongdoing? That depends.
• If you (or they) knew about it all along, then feel guilty (or blame them). Do your best to make restitution (or penalize them).
• If you (or they) did not know about it all along, then you shouldn't feel guilty (or blame them). If you need help dispelling undeserved guilt, follow the prescription in the Leviticus passage.