Are we complicit?

Human law has always understood the concept of complicity. Every legal tradition has struggled with the problem of how to deal with those who encourage, help and abet others to commit a crime. Under Roman law, accomplices were treated as if they themselves were the perpetrators. In common law, complicity is a recognised type of criminal liability, and the distinction originally made between a principle perpetrator and an ‘accessory’ perpetrator, i.e. accomplice, no longer holds. Juridical complicity is a recognition that guilt can be shared even indirectly, and that responsibility spills beyond the confines of the simple question: ‘who did it?’.

While criminal justice doesn’t find complicity hard to grasp and to apply, our wider culture still tries to come to grips with the idea that a certain outcome, a certain trajectory a society has taken is the result of the complicity of wider groups. In the realm of cultural responsibility, I think we are reluctant to establish indirect scopes of liability. Who is responsible for racism in the US? Who was responsible for the temporary success of the German Nazi state? What about the endurance of corruption and venality in post-communist Romania?

In particular, our assessments tend to form webs of direct liability. A particular political figure, a government, a party or a social group may be responsible for whatever we want to commend or condemn. As for wider groups, a community or even nation as a whole, cultural complicity, insofar as it really exists, dissolves into implicity – which falls beyond the scope of liability. In other words, we don’t tend to blame large groups when smaller ones are available, and especially when we who pass the judgment are part of those wider groups. How many people in present-day Romania believe that the issues plaguing the country are the result of silent complicity of the larger population before and after 1989? How many Americans, I wonder, think that pretty much everyone is responsible today for the racial evils of the past and present because of quiet complicity over the years and decades? As more voices raise in defence of the idea that it’s not enough not to be racist, but one has to be anti-racist, the issue of cultural complicity becomes ever more relevant.

One of the earliest to understand the indirect links of responsibility was the ancient Greek (in fact Assyrian) satirist Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD). Lucian understood quite well that there are subtle and unacknowledged links of complicity running through our culture. Writing about the origin of wealth and inequality, he is not at all implicit about complicities:

My view, however, is that the flatterers are more of a disgrace than those who are flattered; in fact the flatterers are almost responsible for the arrogance of the flattered. For when they express admiration for these men’s wealth, and praise their gold, and crowd into their gateways early in the morning, and come up to them and address them as if they were masters, what else should we expect them to think? But if by common agreement they were to abstain, even for a little while, from this voluntary slavery, do you not think on the contrary that the rich men would come to the doors of beggars, imploring them not to leave their wealth unviewed and unwitnessed, not to allow the beauty of their tables and the size of their houses to remain pointless and unappreciated. For what they are in love with is not being rich, but being admired for being rich. the truth is, a very beautiful house is of no use to the inhabitant, nor is gold and ivory, unless there is someone to admire them (Nigrinus 23).

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