Categorical violence and categorical responsibility

PanychAug. 24, 2014 

Oleksiy Panych, professor of Philosophy, Kyiv

I am reading “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder. In his description, the events of 1930s-1940s in Central and Eastern Europe look like unprecedented orgy of what Charles Taylor calls “categorical violence” – when people are oppressed just because they belong to a certain category (Poles, Jews, “kulaks”, “national intelligentsia”, etc.). In the course of persecutions, oppressors recall actual deeds of some representatives of a certain category (e.g., Jews, who served as commissars, or Poles, who spied against the Soviet Union in 1930s), and expand the guilt and responsibility for it to all other representatives of the same category. This results in millions of deaths of (personally) guiltless people.

How to resist it?

There is a radical solution: “everybody is responsible for oneself only”, there is no collective guilt.

However, if so, there are no nations, thus there is no national repentance as well as national mobilization, even for the noblest aim. There is only an aggregate of atomic individuals. But this is the best nutrient medium for political manipulations, which sooner or later result in a new categorical violence.

Is there any other solution?

I would say yes; but this solution presupposes ethical asymmetry of an imputation of responsibility in the first vs. second/third person. Simply speaking, one cannot impose to anybody the responsibility for any deeds committed by other representatives of his/her group, but one can willingly assume this responsibility oneself. The first way – to impose responsibility – immediately leads to endless circles of violence; the second way – to assure responsibility – slowly leads to collective moral cleansing.

That is why the best and the most conscientious representatives of a group are those who say “forgive us”. Us, Russians, peoples of Donetsk region, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Lithuanians, Jews. A group has a chance to moral cleansing only if such voices are heard and authoritative.

The difference between assuming responsibility and imposing responsibility is a subtle one; moreover, every display of the first could be abused by the adherents of the second.

However, I do not see any other way of formation of collective ethos.

Otherwise we cannot survive.

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