How Covid-19 can illustrate the challenge of mapping the murky waters of guilt and innocence

The extraordinary scene at Bondi Beach in March presents an interesting backdrop to a discussion of collective and individual guilt and innocence. Days earlier, the government had requested that individuals observe sensible social distancing measures to help slow the spread of Covid-19. Yet, for the hundreds of beachgoers packing Bondi Beach, individually and collectively, there appeared to be a complete absence of guilt in disregarding those guidelines. No doubt they had some theory that meant it didn’t apply to them.

To understand guilt and innocence we have to start with conscience, because, at a personal level, our conscience is determined by our moral set of values. So we have a code that we may have gained from our family or our profession, or from our industry or from our company, a kind of a code by which we live by. We will feel guilty when we breach that code, and we will feel innocent when we live by that code. We can get into judgements about other people if they live by a different code – even though they feel innocent because they’re living by their code – we judge them as guilty.

At a collective level, when we talk about a group of people, there may, of course, be lots of different codes at play, so we talk about an organizational code of conduct or an industry code of conduct. If we abide by that, we feel innocent, and if we breach it, we experience guilt. However, once again, we could have individual interpretations of that, and when we go to the collective conscience (and this comes from the systemic work specifically) we live according to our sense of guilt and innocence based on those personal codes.

For example, society has some expectations on how, say, responsible members of society ought to behave. This is where it gets interesting from a systemic point of view because people can be operating at their personal conscience levels (“I’m young, I’m only mixing with other young people and we’re not affected”), and therefore feel innocent, but be in breach of the collective conscious expectations, and therefore be guilty from a collective perspective. We saw this in the scenes last week, where people in their own minds thought what they were doing was fine, but from a collective perspective, it was not fine. Conflicting messaging from the Prime Minister may be in part responsible for this. It was only 10 days ago that the Prime Minister said he’d still attend a rugby game, minutes after banning large gatherings outside. He later changed his decision but had role modelled the idea that the new guidelines were perhaps discretionary leading the beachgoers to feel innocent. Later they were condemned as guilty by the Prime Minister, perhaps they were following his previous lead.

Another example of how innocence and guilt can intersect can be seen in a practical organizational context. Think about an organization which, as so many will now have to face, for the survival of the business, a leader might have to contract the staffing levels. Is that person willing to stand on the side of the collective and recognise inwardly “Okay, even though, personally, I might feel compromised and feel bad about letting people go because it affects their livelihood and their families, but for the benefit of the enterprise, I accept the feeling of guilt at a personal level?”

This is the interesting thing about guilt: what is the context? What we know from systemic intelligence is that if we can acknowledge the truth of the situation and understand what the merits are, we can feel innocence for the collective, even if we experience guilt at a personal level, and we can dignify that and carry it in the right way.

In recent weeks Denmark has given us a beautiful example of higher order collective consciousness. Their response to the Covid-19 crisis has been to take a larger systemic perspective.  The Danish government has told private companies hit by the effects of the pandemic that it will pay 75 percent of their employees’ salaries for three months to avoid mass layoffs. The philosophy is that the government wants companies to preserve their relationship with their workers. Their perspective is that it will be harder to have a strong recovery if companies have to spend time hiring back workers who have been fired.  In other words, they have chosen to put whole economy into freeze mode because the government is afraid of the long-term damage that the alternative will do to the entire system.

Meanwhile, a narrow collective perspective is being modelled by President Trump in seeking an exclusive vaccine deal with the German company which has been taking a leading role is developing medication and vaccines for the coronavirus. He reportedly offered $1bn to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States”. A classic example of an individual displaying his own code of conduct, feeling innocent in securing the vaccine only for his countrymen and no guilt about the implications of this for the rest of the world.

It will be interesting to observe the systemic effects for both nations.

As we have seen, guilt and innocence is not always clean and clear; it’s not always something that you can simply look at and take a position on. It’s something that you may need to map systemically to reveal and understand what is actually at play. The beauty of systemic work is that when you can see the dynamics, you can change the way you recognize what’s going on. When you acknowledge something that is present that you hadn’t acknowledged before, you can actually see what is useful about the situation and what is limiting about the situation.  Once you have acknowledged all the dynamics that arise –  which may be complex and difficult and in a stuck pattern – something new is possible.


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