This poor man is the son of a terrible man, and as a result he is being punished. Why? What did he do wrong? He wasn’t the perpetrator. Yes, so maybe he didn’t know what his father was doing, he didn’t “see the signs”. But really how much do you know about your friends and family? Imagine a suicide. Yes, you do feeling guilty if a family member commits suicide and you had no idea they were even depressed. Guilt is a normal reaction, but that’s not how everyone else sees you. They don’t think you were a terrible son for not realizing that your father was suicidal. Why is this any different?
Is it genetics? Do we believe that people are genetically wired to be “evil” so their family must be shunned too. Well, I’m not sure that it’s that simple, and an easy way to push someone over the edge would be to treat them as though they are a bad person. Countless experiments have shown that good people will do terrible things if pushed far enough. This poor man has lost his father after discovering some terrible things about him, why must we make things any worse for him?
The basic question at the foundation of this is a broader one — one which I have found myself arguing with my boyfriend about on a number of occasions.
Are we responsible for the behavior of our family or our ancestors?
At a basic level, we’d say no. If my mother were to shoplift, people wouldn’t say it was my fault or start treating me as though I were a thief too. But once we get to bigger things like rape or murder the views change. All of a sudden its “the son of the murderer” and the son is treated almost as badly as the murderer himself. Why? Should he be?
As a society we seem to accept that it is our job to take responsibility for our ancestors actions and apologize for them. The Germans are still meant to be apologizing for Hitler and WWII. Why? How many of the German’s alive today were there? How many of them believe any of what Hitler said?
White people in the US are constantly talking about feeling guilty for the slave trade. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it wasn’t fair. Yes, there aren’t words to describe how bad it was. But is it my job to take responsibility for it? To shoulder the guilt of the actions of people I don’t know, may not have been related to, and don’t agree with. I don’t understand why it is. I can see why it’s my responsibility to accept how lucky I am to not be in that position, and how privileged I am in many ways. Maybe I should even feel guilty about my privilege, but why should I feel guilty about something I didn’t do? Please note that I do not in any way mean to belittle the atrocities of the slave trade or of WWII; this is about current guilt, not whether the past actions were bad.
My boyfriend makes a good argument against me. He says that we take credit for things we didn’t do, so as a result of taking the positive we should be willing to accept the negative. This is a good point, if the two were equal. We don’t expect to be praised for the things our ancestors do. We take advantage of it, and yes sometimes we, as a country, take credit for it (“XYZ was invented in the USA, that makes us great”. Personally, I find taking credit for others’ work just as silly). But in general we don’t expect to be praised for work our ancestors do (at least I don’t), so I don’t see why we should feel guilty for the bad things they did either.
I am obviously in a minority here. We, as a nation, are constantly holding ourselves accountable for the actions of those before us and expecting others to do the same. Personally though, I find it all a little meaningless. If I kill your brother what good is it to you if my granddaughter apologizes to your granddaughter? The apology is meaningless. You can’t fully accept responsibility for something you didn’t do, and you shouldn’t be expected do.