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A question of guilt

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This article inquires into the social function of guilt, especially collective guilt, and the implications thereof for collective violence and collective memory. The focus is on the relationship between collective violence and collective memory in countries that have experienced cultural trauma, defined as a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric. Analyzing the dynamics—the mechanisms and processes—of remembering and forgetting such trauma, I argue that the idea of collective guilt is essential for making sense of collective violence and collective memory. Specifically, I show that collective violence requires collective action; that collective action produces collective guilt; that collective violence generates perceptions—and misperceptions—of collective guilt; and that collective memory is formed, deformed, and transformed by perceptions—and misperceptions—of collective guilt. The article uses illustrative data from a variety of cases to illuminate these dynamics. It concludes by explaining why understanding these dynamics is imperative for responding to historic injustice in the twenty-first century.

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