Western guilt (concept)  

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"Over the years, I had absorbed a notion of liberalism that was passive, defeatist, guilt-ridden. Feelings of guilt governed my worldview: post-colonial guilt, white guilt, middle-class guilt, British guilt. But if I was guilty, 9/11 shattered my innocence ... For while I realized almost straightaway that 9/11 would change the world, it would be several years before I accepted that it had also changed me." --The Fall-Out (2007), Andrew Anthony

"And it is true also that the very posture of self-indictment, of remorse in which much of educated Western sensibility now finds itself is again a culturally specific phenomenon. What other races have turned in penitence to those whom they once enslaved, what other civilizations have morally indicted the brilliance of their own past? The reflex of self-scrutiny in the name of ethical absolutes is, once more, a characteristically Western, post-Voltairian act." --In Bluebeard's Castle (1971) by George Steiner

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The concept of Western guilt describes a Western culture of remorse within which historic events including Western imperialism, black slavery and the Holocaust produce an emotional response of guilt or sin requiring self-abnegation, penitence, and acts of penance or reparation that can affect political and policy outcomes.

Writing a review of The Tears of the White Man in Foreign Affairs in 1987, Fritz Stern described the ideology of "Western guilt" including the "pious compassion with and exaltation of Third World countries," as a "major topic."

Andrew Anthony of The Guardian describes the way Western guilt influences minds in his 2007 book The Fall-Out: "Over the years, I had absorbed a notion of liberalism that was passive, defeatist, guilt-ridden. Feelings of guilt governed my world view: postcolonial guilt, white guilt, middle-class guilt, British guilt. But if I was guilty, 9/11 shattered my innocence..."


Concept of Western guilt

Intellectual historian Richard Wolin regards Western guilt as a form of "Western self-hatred" that has "persis(ted) unabated" since the publication of Pascal Bruckner's first book on the subject, The Tears of the White Man (1983). Writing in The New Republic in 2010, in response to the 2010 publication in English of Bruckner's 2006 book The Tyranny of Guilt, Wolin reflected that "In reasonable quantities, of course, self-criticism and repentance are praiseworthy: necessary stages in working through a politically or morally compromised past. Yet when indulged in to excess, they can interfere with the sense of reality, and lead to a kind of psychological immobilism. They turn into an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that shuts down the capacity to live fully and honestly and constructively in the present."

In The Tyranny of Guilt, Bruckner wrote: "From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter’s hypocrisy, violence, and abomination.... The whole world hates us, and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think.... Since 1945 our continent has been obsessed by torments of repentance. Ruminating on its past abominations—wars, religious persecutions, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism—it views its history as nothing more than a long series of massacres and sackings that led to two world wars, that is, to an enthusiastic suicide." Douglas Murray includes "not only "war guilt and Holocaust guilt" but also a "whole gamut" that "includes" but are "by no means limited to, the abiding guilt for colonialism and racism."

History of the concept

According to Pascal Bruckner, the idea of the centrality of Western guilt in contemporary politics originated with the Islamo-Leftism of the Socialist Workers Party (UK) goal in the wake of Stalinism of replacing traditional Communism with a worldwide leftist movement that would "spearhead a new insurrection in the name of the oppressed." An idea that reinvigorated Western leftism in the 1960s while imbuing it with the idea that the United States and Israel are the great oppressors, and succeeded in uniting the European Left and the Islamic Republic of Iran in a world view according to which "the Jew has become the Nazi, the Palestinian the Jew and radical Islam is now the victim of Western democracy and not its executioner."

In relationship to specific countries


Many Australians understand their history as an unjust instance of settler colonialism.


Bernhard Schlink 2010 book Guilt About the Past, discusses the the legal and cultural impact of guilt over the Holocaust in Germany, focusing on the impact of the fact that all Germans have been regarded as "collectively, and continuously, guilty," even those who where very young, or who were born after World War II. Schlink argues that German guilt is a form of narcissism that can become dysfunctional, as it did, for example, when Germany initially refused to participate in the NATO campaign to stop the Serbian attacks on Bosnian Muslims.

United States

According to Leftists intellectuals Michael Walzer, Leo Casey, Michael Kazin, et al, writing in Dissent, one of the responses by the American left to the September 11 attacks was to blame American actions including the the Gulf War, Sanctions against Iraq, support for Saudi Arabia, and support for Israel, for provoking the September 11 attack. Walzer later described the left's response to 9/11 as a "radical failure."

Christopher Hitchens described a panel he was on three weeks after the September 11 attacks in front of a "audience of liberal New Yorkers" who "awarded blame more or less evenhandedly between the members of al Qaeda and the directors of U.S. foreign policy." Fellow panel member Oliver Stone "drew applause" when he asserted that there was a close connection between the 9/11 attacks and the Florida ballot recount, which Stone describes as, "a complete vindication of the fact that capitalism has destroyed democracy." Hitchens described Susan Sontag political analysis of 9/11 for The New Yorker as "disdainful," and criticizes Noam Chomsky's response as a dismissal of airplane attacks as "a mere bagatelle when set beside the offenses of the (American) Empire."

Hitchens described Susan Sontag political analysis of 9/11, published in The New Yorker shortly after the attacks, as "disdainful;" Richard Brookhiser, wrote in The National Review that her essay made it clear that "Sontag felt no grief whatsoever, and was impatient with those who did, describing Sontag's attitude as, part of the "'we deserved it' school of thought."

Types of Western guilt

Postcolonial guilt

Postcolonial guilt derives from the scholarly understanding of Western imperialism and settler colonialism as unique categories of injustice that are not comparable to contemporary or historic forms of settlement, population expansion, or imperialism enacted by non-Western peoples or states. According to Harry Mount, postcolonial guilt dominates contemporary scholarship in British universities.

Sara Suleri, a Yale University scholar of postcolonial studies, understands her parents own marriage (her Welsh mother married her Pakistani father and she was born in Pakistan,) as having been motivated by her mother's feelings of white postcolonial guilt. She describes her mother as Suleri's mother as having erased the boundariesthat separate the political from the personal and of having projected herself as a living symbol of the white race delivering her female sexual acquiescence as a form of penance.

In his subsection on "Western guilt," anthropologist François Bouchetoux describes the academic filed of anthropology as appropriately burdened by "Western guilt" due to the historic roots of anthropology in colonialism.

Environmental guilt

Environmental geographer Martin W. Lewis argues that the environmental movement's "myth of special Western guilt" for degradation of the environment "overlooks the destruction long wrought by human beings in other regions" such as East Asia.

In relationship to specific issues

Migration policy

According to Colin Kidd, in Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, economist Paul Collier argues that Western immigration policy has been driven not by reason, but by emotional responses to postcolonial Western guilt "while stifling consideration of wider problems of global poverty." In a chapter entitled "The Tyranny of Guilt" in his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray describes western guilt as a form of self-flagellation, a kind of moral intoxicant that "People imbibe because they like it... It lifts them up and exalts them. Rather than being people responsible for themselves and answerable to those they know, they become the self-appointed representatives of the living and the dead, the bearers of a terrible history as well as the self-appointed redeemers of mankind. From being nobody one becomes somebody." Murray argues that Western guilt has rendered Europe unable to discuss the cultural impact of mass immigration from the culturally distinctive Muslim world.

Islamic terrorism

Pascal Bruckner's 2006 book The Tyranny of Guilt, argues that the West has inadvertently collaborated with Islamists who seek to destroy Western liberal values and political freedom by focusing on western sins including imperialism, racism and Nazism, and thereby conceding the right of Islamists to impose their standards on the Western countries to which they immigrate. Julia Pascal summarizes part of Bruckner's argument as an argument that "Europe has never recovered from its own barbarity and that now it seeks to cleanse its original sin with a new Eden; even if this Paradise has 70 waiting virgins." Brendan Simms as, "an eagerness to apologize for the sins of colonialism and genocide and other Western crimes," that defines every Western state as a "penitant... never an innocent victim of terrorist attack but a deserving one: It has, after all, provoked the wrath of the oppressed, either at home or abroad."

In his 2007 book The Suicide of Reason; Radical Islam's Threat to the West, Lee Harris argues that this argument from feelings of guilt has replaced reason and Enlightenment.

Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, using the term "penitent state", describes Western guilt as an extreme eagerness to apologize for historic sins such as colonialism and genocide, arguing that a penitent or guilty people, by definition, can never be the innocent victim of a terrorist attack, since its past behavior defines it as an oppressor deserving of the just wrath of the oppressed.

Foreign aid

Economist Karl Brunner argued that the New International Economic Order proposals put forward by developing countries in the 1970s were a kind of ideological warfare drawing on the inclination of Western intellectuals to feel an, in his opinion, unjustified "Western guilt" over Third World poverty. In his 1977 book, The Inequality of Nations, Robert W. Tucker argued that "Western guilt" over the poverty of nations was unjustified.

See also

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