The Importance of Being Guilty

Self-blame is no doubt salutary when one is truly blameworthy, but there is also a kind of self-blame that is exaggerated, insincere, grandiose, and exhibitionistic. It is also abstract and collective rather than individual; it is the kind of self-blame that intellectuals specialize in expressing on others’ behalf and which requires no painful or difficult personal reform or change.

Whenever anything terrible happens, or rather is done, in the world, “we” are somehow to blame for it, not the merely apparent perpetrators. The root cause is always in us, the us in question being our biological, cultural, or political ancestors, but never me in particular. We are responsible, but I am not. We have done something to make them behave badly, and if it were not for us the world would be a peaceful, happy place. And to be ultimately responsible for all the evil in the world is at least flattering to one’s sense of self-importance, the defense of which motivates an important part of many people’s intellectual activity.

The kind of guilt I have described is designed to demonstrate the superior moral sensibility of those who express it. “I am not like the mass,” that person tells himself, “who see only appearances. I, by contrast, make no hasty censorious Progressivism: A Prime... James Ostrowski Best Price: $8.99 Buy New $10.95 (as of 08:30 EST - Details) judgments and suffer no vulgar prejudices, and see through to the moral reality of things with my gimlet or X-ray intellect.” And in the process, he displays his superiority for others of like mind to see and approve; for they are the Brahmin caste of moral philosophy to which he wants to belong.

Such, at any rate, were my thoughts when I happened on an article in the Guardian newspaper shortly after the identity of Jihadi John, the man from South London who palpably enjoys beheading people in the desert, had been revealed. I noticed the article because of its headline:

To tackle extremism we need first to understand racism.

I felt a frisson of outrage course through my body, always a delightful and gratifying sensation. The article was written by a repentant fanatic, Maajid Nawaz, and the standfirst went as follows:

Like ‘Jihadi John,’ I was radicalised in my youth. So I know grievances can be exploited if they’re ignored.

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