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From Collective Guilt to Common Ground

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos
September 23, 2021

We are living in a very unsettled and troubled time, one marked more by division than unity. Good intentions notwithstanding, it is apparent that polarizing notions like, “Identity politics,” “Cancel culture,” “Political correctness,” and the like are not helpful in finding common ground. Rather than seeking to bridge the ever-widening divide between people holding different points of view, these highly charged labels serve to focus attention on what separates people as opposed to what connects them.

Today the often-heard expression, “Diversity, equity and inclusion,” seems to have achieved the status of a ubiquitous workplace mantra. This phrase is being used as a well-meaning guide for business and government leaders to advance organizational and even societal transformation. However, such efforts at systemic reform are doomed to fall short if they inadvertently sow the seeds of division and discord among people rather than engage them in authentic dialogue and collaborative action.

The late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, espoused the notion that, “Diversity is the beginning of synergy.” But diversity alone is not sufficient for synergy to occur. Synergy requires interaction or collaboration; it comes from the Greek word synergos, meaning, “Working together.” Therefore, no matter how “diverse” a group may be, synergy only begins if there is awareness of interdependency and the spirit of cooperation among the group’s members. Synergy also needs some kind of united effort in which there is mutual benefit for the stakeholders involved.

In today’s highly polarized and politically charged environment, it is important to minimize barriers to inclusion, both to increase diversity, including diversity of thought, and to facilitate synergy, by leveraging the power of meaningful engagement through the process of dialogue, group problem-solving and other means of collaboration.

One of the barriers to advancing diversity and synergy that is either ignored or misunderstood is, “Collective guilt,” a term and psychological phenomenon introduced by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung in 1945. Also known as, “Guilt by association,” it is the belief that members of a group are in some way responsible for the actions of other members of the same group, even though they were not directly involved in committing those actions.

Holding all Germans, by association, responsible for the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Holocaust during World War II is a prime example of collective guilt. So is holding all Muslims responsible for the coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

But not everyone subscribes to the concept of collective guilt, especially when blame is extended over multiple generations of people solely due to their group identity or membership.

The application of collective guilt, running from one generation to another, is a dangerous doctrine which would leave few modern nations unscathed.”

—Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990)

The world-renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, for example, vigorously opposed the notion of collective guilt of Germans shortly after being liberated from the Nazi concentration camps. He realized that blaming all Germans or labeling all of them as “Nazis” would only consume his life with bitterness and hatred.

Although he did not forget his past, Dr. Frankl learned from his experiences that blaming the collective does not heal. Instead, he discovered a way to find meaning in suffering and was able to forgive those who had tried to destroy him. In Frankl’s own words, “As for the concept of collective guilt, I personally think that it is totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behavior of another person or a collective of persons.”

The manifestation of collective guilt occurs in two ways: (1) as self-imposed by members of the group deemed guilty; and (2) as a projection on others who are profiled (by nationality, race, ethnicity, age, gender, political affiliation, etc..) and identified as members of the group deemed guilty.

It is the latter expression that most applies to bridging and healing the divide between people. The hazards associated with this form of collective guilt need to be avoided if authentic connection, reconciliation, healing and meaningful, systemic reform can be achieved.

Our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, describes and applies the core principles of Frankl’s system of logotherapy and existential analysis in life, work and society. These meaning-centric principles, among other things, provide practical guidance on how to avoid the pitfalls of collective guilt, both self-imposed and projected on others.

The first principle pertains to the “ultimate freedom” to choose our attitude in all situations. Although we may not be in control of the conditions that confront us, we can choose how we respond to them, at the very least through our choice of attitude. This choice will largely determine the degree to which we will be able to find meaning in our suffering, connect meaningfully with others and extend beyond ourselves to move toward forgiveness.

Forgiveness means letting go of our suffering. It has much more to do with our own well-being than that of the person(s) we forgive. When we hold on to our suffering—our resentment, hurt, blame and anger—we are inside ourselves with self-pity even if we project individual or collective guilt on others. Our suffering becomes a veil through which we see ourselves and others.

Forgiveness, however, does not mean forgetting, diminishing or condoning the misdeed. It has more to do with freeing ourselves from its hold. When we forgive, we liberate ourselves from captivity. When we extend beyond ourselves along the path of forgiveness, we actually stop working against ourselves, begin to look at ourselves from some perspective and avoid the inevitable pitfalls of collective guilt.

As part of the healing process and search for meaning, we must be able to escape not only our inner mental prison but also release those who may be held guilty in the prison of our thoughts solely because of their group identity or membership. Only in this way will we be able to reach common ground by going to a higher ground.


Author: Alex Pattakos is founder of a think tank, Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com), and author of two international bestselling, award-winning books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology and culture. A former ASPA National Council member, Pattakos currently is writing a new book, Public Administration and the Search for Meaning: Rediscovering the Soul of Government, a title in the Routledge ASPA Series in Public Administration and Public Policy. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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