Countering Collective Blame


A few weeks ago, I encouraged people to show support for Jews and Muslims in the United States: to show up – with permission – and stand outside places of worship holding signs of support. Since then, we have seen increased acts of violence against both of these communities. Look at the news, even locally, and you can see evidence of the increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

It’s encouraging to hear that people are sharing this message and actively engaging in this work. When we publicly stand with groups under pressure, it’s powerful not only for them but also allows the whole community to take a deep breath.

However, I’ve also received messages from individuals who express their inability to stand with Muslims and Jews. They cite disagreements with certain statements and actions by people in the United States and/or the Middle East. This is a manifestation of collective blame.

Collective blame is a fundamental component of the dehumanization process. It occurs when a whole group is held responsible for the actions of an individual, a group of people claiming that group identity, or the policies of a nation-state. Here’s how it typically unfolds:

  • Individuals who commit violence often claim they are acting on behalf of their in-group.
  • Groups perpetrating violence frequently assert divine sanction for their actions, using any available tradition to justify their violence.
  • Nation-states act according to their policies, and the majority religion within these states should not be blamed for these policies.

It’s essential to remember that those individuals, groups, and nation-states are responsible for their actions, not others who share their religion or political affiliation.

As Former President George W. Bush aptly stated,

“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” This mindset strains our understanding and common purpose. Americans have the advantage of renewing our unity by remembering our values. Our nation is not held together by blood or background, but by shared commitments to common ideals.

George W. Bush

Indeed, we have often failed as individuals, groups, and as a nation to live up to these ideals and values. Our debates about the nature of these values and their practical implications can be intense.

Yet, agreement on every issue, especially contentious ones like the situation in the Middle East, is not necessary to stand together for each other’s safety, dignity, and community participation. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate U.S. policies towards Israel, Palestine, China, or Ukraine. As a democracy, it’s our right and duty to voice our opinions.

We must learn to disagree on policy and debate our values passionately, while simultaneously standing together as Americans and as human beings.

Standing with Muslim and Jewish communities is not about policy agreement. It’s about resisting collective blame, a key element of the dehumanization process that leads to increased violence. Once this web of dehumanization grows, it threatens the safety of every group.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

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