Collective Guilt, Collective Blame, and Collective Wisdom

(Source: Spreaker)

A few days ago I was notified by our Judaic Studies Department about a new film that came out about the history of  German reparations to the Jewish people for the atrocities now known as the Holocaust. I saw the film, followed by a panel discussion with panelists who all looked to be born well after the signing of the Reparations Agreement on September 1952.

I have discussed my history with the Holocaust throughout the 11 years that I have been writing this blog, starting with the first posting (April 22, 2012). When the Reparations Agreement was signed, I was 13 years old, growing up in Israel. The signing followed major debates in Germany and Israel, and among Jews that lived outside Israel. The main issue in Israel was “money for blood,” an argument that boiled down to how anybody could set a price for the government-initiated genocide of six million people. The German government’s intent was to eradicate Jews (among other groups) from the face of the Earth; the toll only stopped at six million European Jews because the Germans lost the war. The main issue that the Jewish negotiators insisted on was that the reparations agreement not be confined to material reparations but rather expand to a public admission of collective German responsibility and sincere regret for the committed crimes, including an official apology to the victims. The main opposition argument in Germany was that the reparations and the moral admission constituted “collective punishment,” both material and moral. Collective punishment for crimes is still an open issue that continues to be discussed:

Collective punishment is a punishment or sanction imposed on a group for acts allegedly perpetrated by a member of that group, which could be an ethnic or political group, or just the family, friends and neighbors of the perpetrator. Because individuals who are not responsible for the wrong acts are targeted, collective punishment is not compatible with the basic principle of individual responsibility. The punished group may often have no direct association with the perpetrator other than living in the same area and can not be assumed to exercise control over the perpetrator’s actions. Collective punishment is prohibited by treaty in both international and non-international armed conflicts, more specifically Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II.[1][2]

When collective punishment has been imposed it has resulted in atrocities. Historically, occupying powers have used collective punishment against resistance movements. In some cases entire towns and villages believed to have harboured or aided such resistance movements have been destroyed. Occupying powers have claimed that collective punishment can be justified by necessity as a deterrent. Another view is that it is a retaliatory act prohibited under the laws of war.

Shortly after the agreement was signed, I grew up and entered high school. My high school got involved in the discussion, including in the form of a mock trial. I volunteered to be the defense coordinator for the trial, advocating for acceptance of the agreement. Our main argument was that we should look at the agreement not as money for blood but as a necessary step to build a strong Jewish state to make sure that the history of the Holocaust would not be repeated. I had to synchronize my position with a personal attitude. My mother and I were entitled to the reparations. My mother accepted but I rejected them. The reason for my mother’s acceptance was simple: she badly needed the money. The reason for my rejection, in addition to the fact that I really didn’t need the money, was a bit more complicated. Acceptance required that I produce a medical certification that I was “harmed” by the experience. Almost every physician in Israel would have issued me such a certificate, once he heard my family’s history, but my main effort in life at that time was to show that in spite of the experience I was growing up as a normal kid, meaning that any failure on my part was of my doing and not because of my earlier experiences. When my mother passed away some 20 years later, I inherited all her savings, so my “honorary” refusal became inconsequential.

As was mentioned earlier in the Wikipedia entry, most legal codes are anchored on individual responsibility. However, collective guilt and punishments are often invoked as “deterrents” or “accelerators.”  These border lines remain fuzzy. A relevant case that again is connected to the Holocaust and the fate of my family is the role of Polish citizens in the murder of 3 million Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation of their country. Below is an example of recent writing on the issue:

The framework of categories introduced by Raul Hilberg—perpetrators, victims, and bystanders—once conventionally employed in understanding the destruction of European Jewry has started to fall out of fashion among historians of the Holocaust. In the case of East Central Europe, particularly Poland, the people situated at the edges of the volcanic eruption of genocide have invariably begun their slide from “bystanders” to “perpetrators” in the recent turn in scholarship since the publication of Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors. Apart from the national debate unleashed in Poland in 2001, the major contribution of the book to the historiography was to banish a view of ethnic Poles solely as victims of Nazi Germany and to substantiate a long-standing claim found in Jewish survivor testimonies that Poles sometimes acted as perpetrators of Judeocide. The Jedwabne pogrom of July 11, 1941, has become the cornerstone of discussions about collaboration and perpetrators at the grassroots level in East Central Europe.

Throughout this blog and in other writings, I have invoked potential collective guilt in labeling the existential end-of-the-century threat of accelerating climate change “self-inflicted genocide” (see again the first blog in April 2012 and the two blogs that follow).

In a working legal system (to differentiate from a system that works to serve power), to convict an individual, you need to provide convincing evidence of the individual’s guilt. Can you do the same with collective guilt? One way is to prove that the collective education system and public communication are biased to encourage the crimes that are committed. In many cases, this involves cherry-picking of instances. Recently, a controversial technology has developed in which one can “chat” with a “collective” in the form of cumulative internet learning machines. These sites, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing Chat, and Bard by Google, provide detailed, well-written, answers that represent collective internet “wisdom.” I tried this technology, asking it to answer a general question in one of my recent blogs (December 14, 2022). Below I quote from an NYT Op-ed in which three “deep thinkers” write about this technology:

In 2022, over 700 top academics and researchers behind the leading artificial intelligence companies were asked in a survey about future A.I. risk. Half of those surveyed stated that there was a 10 percent or greater chance of human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment) from future A.I. systems. Technology companies building today’s large language models are caught in a race to put all of humanity on that plane.

Drug companies cannot sell people new medicines without first subjecting their products to rigorous safety checks. Biotech labs cannot release new viruses into the public sphere in order to impress shareholders with their wizardry. Likewise, A.I. systems with the power of GPT-4 and beyond should not be entangled with the lives of billions of people at a pace faster than cultures can safely absorb them. A race to dominate the market should not set the speed of deploying humanity’s most consequential technology. We should move at whatever speed enables us to get this right.

More recently, an interesting exchange was presented in the NYT between the author/journalist Kevin Roose and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. I cite below the relevant two paragraphs from this interview. The first question shown here relates to the issue of approaching AGI (AI that surpasses human intelligence). “Human intelligence” is not defined. Presently, we have 8 billion humans on this planet. Which of them is being used as a comparison? There is no escaping from the conclusion that the intelligence that we are referring to is our collective intelligence, in which case, AI is only the tool for extracting it. The interview blames this tool for imperfections and dangerous consequences. This blame should more appropriately be directed at our “collective wisdom.” The second paragraph puts the AI feedback to the collective concern with climate change:

On whether he’s worried about the danger of creating artificial general intelligence, or A.G.I., an A.I. that surpasses human intelligence:

When is it A.G.I.? What is it? How do you define it? When do we get here? All those are good questions. But to me, it almost doesn’t matter because it is so clear to me that these systems are going to be very, very capable. And so it almost doesn’t matter whether you reached A.G.I. or not; you’re going to have systems which are capable of delivering benefits at a scale we’ve never seen before, and potentially causing real harm. Can we have an A.I system which can cause disinformation at scale? Yes. Is it A.G.I.? It really doesn’t matter.

On why climate change activism makes him hopeful about A.I.:

One of the things that gives me hope about A.I., like climate change, is it affects everyone. Over time, we live on one planet, and so these are both issues that have similar characteristics in the sense that you can’t unilaterally get safety in A.I. By definition, it affects everyone. So that tells me the collective will will come over time to tackle all of this responsibly.

Recently ChatGPT was banned in Italy over privacy concerns.

I am trying the AI systems now as extra credit for my students in my Cosmology course who are trying to probe the “wisdom” of the collective to answer deep personal, cosmological questions and their concluding opinions about the quality of such probes.

Stay tuned.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Collective Guilt, Collective Blame, and Collective Wisdom

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