Responsibility for the past, individual and collective responsibility

Within the framework of the RECOM project in Slovenia “I Respond to the Forgotten Voices”, Prof Dr Svetlana Slapšak gave several lectures on collective and individual responsibility for the past in June, September and October. We would like to present to you a part of the lecture aired on Flight Control, radio show in the Serbian language on Radio Študent.

Collective responsibility

The basic change happened after the 18th century when ethical questions related to groups and not only individuals were posed. The best example of how the French Encyclopedists (Encyclopédistes) contemplated on that is Voltaires Treatise on Tolerance. It is about a court hearing from a trial which ended in pronouncing a death sentence and happened about a century before the Treatise. A protestant in a small French town was accused and tried of many crimes he hadn’t committed. Both his and his family’s testimony were rejected and he was executed. Voltaire proves that he was killed only because of the intolerance towards the group of protestants and not himself as an individual. It is an excellent treatise, which puts the responsibility of a group into the foreground for the first time – one group towards the other group: the group of criminals towards the group of the innocent. Voltaire debunks this binary position and shows these stereotypes about the others, about someone who is different, someone all crimes can be attributed to.

That is a part of his criticism of the Church and Christianity and it ends with an interesting thesis: he feels responsible because he lives in the same country and in the same tradition… He speaks about his responsibility for this event that occurred a century and a half ago. This standpoint is very important and his thesis on tolerance is still the basis of contemplation on collective responsibility.

The legal term of collective responsibility

The legal term of collective responsibility in philosophy and sociology developed in the 20th century, although some theoreticians had already discussed in the second half of the 19th century, e.g. Durkheim and Max Weber. Even though they were not Marxists and they didn’t agree with Marx, they started contemplating the responsibility of certain classes, the working class- the exploited, the exploiting class, the colonizing class, the bureaucratic class and the like, which was largely based on Marx’s studies on classes. Each of these groups has its own symbolic collective responsibility which can relate to functioning within the state, outside the state in the event of war or simply to functioning among different groups, some of which have the power and some don’t. These deliberations were better defined in Marx’s studies, where the responsibility of the capital and its holders on one hand and the responsibility of the proletariat both for their own destiny and for the attitude towards the capitalists on the other, are clearly placed. In fact, the responsibility of the proletariat towards themselves is one of the key ideas which should lead to revolution. Marx specifically proves that the proletariat should reach the point of collective consciousness which leads to revolution. He estimated that such a revolution would happen in some of the industrially developed countries but something else happened instead. The collective consciousness of the proletariat awoke in a different place and under different circumstances. No matter how we interpret this, all of those concepts are concepts of collective responsibility related to the position of a class and in societies which acknowledge the concept of partial equality. Therefore, not full equality, but partial equality in parliamentary systems or in the constitutional monarchies in Europe. In such a mixed system, collective responsibility especially clearly appears in the parliamentary life, life of the society, the dissolution of government, the ideas of equality, the bureaucracy, the laws, etc.

After the First and Second World Wars, the issue of collective responsibility took on a completely different interpretation, shapes and context. Collective responsibility in the contemporary sense appears only with the defining of human rights in the first half of the 20th century and especially in the Resolutions, Decisions and Charters of the United Nations after the Second World War. Thus nowadays we can talk about different levels and connotations of collective responsibility which apply more or less to all the existing great contemplations in the society on one hand, and in feminism, theories of the Other, in multiple identities and especially in the cases of war crimes. This is the field where collective responsibility is especially clearly shown. It is actually shown not as a valid criterion but, on the contrary, as an area of criticism.

Regarding the rights, collective responsibility is related to the legal status of a subject: multiple subject, group subject and collective subject. These connotations are interrelated but they can by no means be reduced to one another. The result of legal contemplations on collective responsibility is in fact quite insufficient. It comes down to a merely symbolic value of collective responsibility which has no legal merit, no sanctions apply to it and which must have an extremely cautious attitude towards the collective and take special notice of completely separating each legal subject from the collective. This results in a psychological situation we all know: we are all dissatisfied when war criminals are on trial. And it cannot be any different! Unfortunately, the symbolic status of collective responsibility always appeals to something modern law cannot take into consideration, and that is retaliation. When we watch the trial of a war criminal who had given the order to kill eight thousand Muslims in Srebrenica, when we listen to their excuses, the tolerance of the Court to their motives and when we get the final verdict that Karadžić is not guilty for what happened in the Eastern Bosnia and Višegrad and it is widely known that he had given the orders to kill people in most horrendous ways, we have a feeling of, not only uneasiness, but injustice. The rationale behind the War Tribunal is to completely separate collective responsibility which is symbolic and always leans towards vengefulness and to only try the legal subject. And that is sometimes impossible to prove. So many well-known war criminals have been released in the final stage of the Hague Tribunal and it is widely known what they had done. Some of the explanations of the Hague Tribunal are unbearable for the ones who have any knowledge of the situation, and even more so for the victims. But they show that the Tribunal and its actions aim to be clearly separated from any contemplation on collective responsibility.

Responsibility for the written/spoken word

Collective responsibility is only narratively present in the court of law, but it has no value. There is no way of pronouncing a collective verdict. And that was the first valuable lesson learnt from the trials in Germany after the Second World War. The standard set only at the Nuremberg trials with a very important element which puts collective responsibility into a specific, more or less closed corner was the responsibility for the written/spoken word. The key question is if the word produces action. When I dealt with the issue of free speech, there was no doubt for me that words didn’t cause actions. This was the basis of all our defences of various artists who were persecuted by the government for something they wrote, performed or painted… And we very often used the new theory of authorship, introduced by Umberto Eco in the end of the 1960s. That is the basis of modern literary poetics. The author doesn’t have complete control over his literary work, that is, he/she is not the owner of its interpretation, but the interpretation is determined by the reading. In the reception theory introduced by the Germans, literary work is studied based on the reading and the reader. That is the third component of a literary work: text- author- reader. The readers become important and they determine the reception of a literary work. It made sense in terms of totalitarian socialism, so that even certain judges started repeating that the author wasn’t accountable for his/her text. That standpoint came from the Russian formalism, French structuralism and generally from all the theories that started to question authorship. Umberto Eco wrote a book called Opera aperta (The Open Work), where the reader can write in, input his/her things. It shifted the interpretation of a literary work and posed a new question about what the text actually meant and who wrote it. The link between word and action is especially denied. That phase was successful in a specific legal system. The system of trials for verbal offense disintegrated by itself in Yugoslavia, sometime in the third year after Tito’s death. That kind of defence in a totalitarian regime was a completely unexpected result and the West couldn’t understand what we were doing with their theories. But the oppressed Soviet authors understood it quite well. The understanding based on the interpretation of text and literature was very important for legal concepts and the concepts of human rights.

The Marrakesh Declaration on Human Rights (Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration) clearly repeats what is written in the UN Charter: the inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights of all human beings, one of which is the right to migration and there is no difference between economic and other migrants. Every person has a right to go anywhere he/she wants and to live where he/she wants. It is absolutely irrelevant whether migration was caused by war or economic reasons. The paradox is that the capitalistic system which is based on self-interest, on an unrestricted desire for the acquisition of wealth, disapproves of the most indigent people for coming there for economic reasons. When one is able to see that, it is perfectly clear that the basic reason is racism and not economic scare. And then a newly shaped question of collective and collective responsibility is posed.

At the Nuremberg trials and earlier, it was argued that a registered and confirmed hate word was a crime and it was punishable by law because it indirectly caused crime. There was no doubt that hate words produced physical effects of hate.

The purpose of reconciliation

The purpose of reconciliation is to use the symbolic value of collective responsibility for a good cause, mutual reconciliation. RECOM has collected nearly a million signatures for mutual reconciliation of people in the region of Yugoslavia and those people made a commitment and are legally responsible if they break that commitment. Former soldiers reconcile easiest and fastest, they don’t have problems like the others. The media don’t talk about an entire series of local soldiers’ associations of Albanians and Serbs who have individually and collectively made peace and who call one another “brother”. They know full well what they went through and there is a possibility that some of them are calculating on shorter sentences should it come to trial. But they’ve made a commitment. Reconciliation is based on texts which are partly symbolic and partly must be based on concrete evidence, on truth.

We should certainly contemplate the methods for the prevention of crimes based on fostering collective responsibility. Collective responsibility doesn’t have to be a consequence of something, but a basis for something that will be applied so that certain positive results would be produced in the society. And this production of positive results, reconciliation and the like is where collective responsibility is imaginary, narratively skilfully executed without relying on this or that case, not even on truth. It is only necessary for the text to be good and to persuade people that there is no reason to accuse or attack one another and the like. Paradoxically, the very fluidity and impreciseness of collective responsibility in the law, has a clear and useful application in social behaviour. When we know about the stereotypes and facts, we have two basic tools for the application of collective responsibility as a powerful instrument. Thus, collective responsibility is practically reduced to political correctness, keeping to the facts, adherence to (at least) recent history and socially useful usage of stereotypes. Political correctness is a product of a policy called positive segregation or affirmative action, which started in the USA and England in the end of the 1970s and was based on the principle that those groups who had suffered more injustice by the majority in the recent past, had more rights than the others. We have once again come to the point where freedom of speech is to a great extent connected to social action in relation to collective responsibility. Freedom of speech in a society which is based on freedom of speech must be strictly controlled. Thus we come to the essence of the propaganda study in America after the Second World War when they published Goebbels’ private letters. The propaganda, that is hate speech, causes material consequences, psychological disorders, the effect of brutalization of society, physical assaults on individuals or on an entire group- the entire series of phenomena which directly lead to war. Before that, they cause serious psychological disorders in citizens, aberrations in social behaviour, they produce injustice, destroy the ability to think and, worst of all, destroy critical thought. The propaganda only serves to blind the citizens, to take their time, to scare them so they couldn’t think critically. Collective responsibility is vitally connected to NGO action in Anglo-American countries which had amazing social results (e.g. Angela Davis was reinstated to her position at the University). Political correctness and consent to non-fulfilment of justice is crucial to understanding collective responsibility as a constant source of good stories which can be used to make the citizens resilient to hate speech. It is, of course, a utopian assumption unless the state takes administrative, legal and bureaucratic actions which must signify closure of the source of hate speech.