They Were Terrible
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose you identify with a large, unselective group – a nationality, religion, ethnicity, political party, etc. An historian comes along and shows that this group once committed a monstrous atrocity – say mass murder. This leaves you with four options.
1. To keep your identity and share the blame: “We were terrible.”
2. To renounce your identity and avoid the blame: “They were terrible.”
3. To redefine the perpetrators’ identity and avoid the blame: “We weren’t involved.”
4. To keep your identity and deny the facts: “Never happened – and they had it coming.”
If you value your identity, the first two options are bitter. The third option’s only slightly more palatable, because it makes group membership contingent on good behavior rather than a birthright. No wonder, then, that humans around the world gravitate toward the fourth option.
Intellectually, of course, denial’s unconvincing. When outgroups evade ugly truths, we readily detect their dishonesty. But when you deny, fellow group members will back you up. If you’re sufficiently clannish – or if your group is very common – you’ll rarely be called to account for your childishness.
What alternative is there? As I’ve argued before, you simply shouldn’t identify with large, unselective groups. Truth matters more than any tribe. And if you’ve followed this advice, you can interpret history honestly, without bruising your ego. Americans, Catholics, Irish, or Democrats committed grave wrongs? Then they were terrible. It’s got nothing to do with me.