“Society” is agreed human association with commonly understood rules, standards of behavior, and laws. In other words, people have a “social contract” with the other people in this identifiable group.
When members of a society begin to break the implied and codified agreements, they produce havoc and loss. When members invent rules and standards for their own benefit, and then insist these elements were always present, they should not be surprised when the society rejects, and discredits the usurpation of their rights.
In particular, claims of entitlement for the acts of ancestors are bogus. A discussion from 1970 is an eloquent and pointed debate on guilt and responsibility, related to race in America.
Picture yourself there. 1970 is a year of confusion, contention, and conviction. In the USA, Vietnam is an unfinished, unpopular, unforgiving war; four Kent State students die in protest; music loses the sweetness of the Supremes’, the genius of Jimi Hendrix, gains the lead pounding of Black Sabbath, and the peace of the Beatles “Let It Be;” a crippled Apollo 13 safely returns from the moon to earth; the AMC Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega, and Ford Pinto are introduced; 600,000 people attend the Isle of Wight rock concert; 500,000 die in Bangladesh from the Bhola cyclone.
In August, Margaret Mead, and James Baldwin sit on a stage in New York and converse for seven and a half hours. The transcript of their discussion becomes a book, A Rap on Race.
“Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine; Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue.”*
“Mead and Baldwin arrive at one of the most profound ongoing threads of this long conversation — the question of guilt, responsibility, and the crucial difference between the two in assuring a constructive rather than destructive path forward:”*
One recent reference for guilt and responsibility is the Birmingham bombing of a church, in which four little girls died. Another is the brutal, public murder of a 23 year-old black man, Henry Marrow, in Oxford, North Carolina, where the killers are subsequently acquitted.
In this discourse, Margaret Mead stands firmly on the ground of ‘I am responsible for my thoughts and deeds. I am not responsible for what others did or did not do. I am not responsible for what might have happened or what might have been prevented.’
“Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering.” “I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.” “I will not accept any guilt for what anybody else did. I will accept guilt for what I did myself.”
James Baldwin seems to say that he is responsible for what he did not prevent, and what he failed to do.
“We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.”
“I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.”
But then, Baldwin acknowledges a difference between the past and present.
“Now, a thousand years from now it will not matter; that is perfectly true. A thousand years ago it was worse; that is perfectly true. I am not responsible for that. I am responsible for now.”
Margaret Mead and James Baldwin summarize guilt & responsibility:
MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —
BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.
The travesties of the past leave scars. It our choice to heal or to aggravate the memories and attitudes that spring from these injustices. Healing those memories is not easy, especially when our families and neighbors choose to harbor anger and blame ancestors for their plights.
But now what? Are the people who did the deeds of history still present to pay for their actions? Are the newborn babies of today burdened with the debts of their predecessors?
Victim mentality is not only useless, it is damaging and harmful to everyone involved. What do you expect, if you do not apply yourself in school, and thereby miss the education that leads to a better future? What do you expect, if you decide you would rather be cool with the gang by dropping out of high school? What do you think will happen if you do not learn a trade or acquire the skills that demand a good wage in the “real world?” Whose responsibility is it if you choose not to give all your time, attention, and effort to self-improvement?
Do you really believe that you can rely on talents you might have in sports, music, acting, etc. to achieve wealth and stardom? The reality is, only a tiny fraction of the people who try out or audition, in a tough competitive world, succeed.
Heritage and luck are not dependable, or reasonable foundations for good livelihood, compared to personal responsibility, and accomplishment. Living with the expectation that someone else will meet all your needs is unhealthy, unrealistic, and childish. Maturity brings with it responsibility for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.
“Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.” James Baldwin “A Rap on Race”
*Special Thanks to Wendy MacNaughton from https://www.brainpickings.org for the awesome research and editing of the numerous thought-provoking articles assembled there.