Morality and Discourse in Serbia


Belgrade, Serbia. Photograph by Jamie Silva

by Keith Doubt

Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia,
by Eric Gordy,
University of Pennsylvania Press, 272 pp.

The intellectual integrity of cultural anthropology is based largely on its commitment to cultural relativism as a principled notion. Cultural relativism is the principle from which the discipline achieves its sense of empirical objectivity. Cultural differences are cherished as just that, cultural differences. No difference is stipulated as superior or inferior, better or worse. The commitment guards against ethnocentric judgments, colonizing prejudices, and, worst of all, grand theorizing with metaphysical pretense. This ethos in the discipline of cultural anthropology guides the recent book by Eric Gordy titled, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia.

While cultural initiatives rarely investigate and never sentence, they offer some of the keys to understanding that have been missing from political legal projects: the ability to hear and identify with the lived experiences of individuals, a route to engagement that participants in the public can understand, and openness to interpretation that constitutes an invitation to dialogue. (p. 179)

There is a contrasting notion in the social sciences to the principle of cultural relativism, namely, the assumption that social science has a valid knowledge-base and ethical responsibility from which to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others and how some social structures are better for community life. Social science depicts certain normative orientations and collective sentiments as more functional for the vitality of human life and sociability. For example, human rights scholars assume that a genuine respect for the principle of human rights is good: good for people in society, good for their communities, and good for their governments. Gordy understands this perspective but recognizes its unintended consequences, given his political knowledge of what Max Weber calls the ethical irrationality of the world in his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation.” In politics, it is necessary to employ force in realizing one’s values. When, however, force is employed, no matter how good the intentions behind the use of force, bad results follow or evil consequences occur. Weber calls this the ethical irrationality of the world which is the reason for the sense of disenchantment that characterizes the spirit of the modern world. In politics, actions whose motives are seemingly good can lead to bad results. The reverse is also true; actions whose motives are seemingly bad can lead to good results. Weber calls this the paradox of consequences, an ever-repeating empirical and historical pattern, and Gordy understands this matter well. There is a hubris that informs the forceful use of law and legal process at both the national and the international level, and Gordy wants to debunk this hubris that guides international interventions in societies experiencing conflict and social violence.

To introduce the structure of his book, Gordy writes, “the ordering of the chapters is meant to lead readers through the logic that brought the study from apparently clear and relatively simple moral questions to greater complexity and uncertainty, and to an insistence on the importance of the cultural and social context” (p. xv). After relatively simple moral questions implode upon themselves when confronted with empirical scrutiny and historical accounts, the significance of cultural variables within their own milieu and within their own historical context assume their rightful place. Gordy demonstrates this truism in several ways: He analyzes surveys and opinion polls on the political attitudes and political self-understanding of people in Serbia; he critically reads newspaper reports and media commentaries on important political moments such as the arrest of Slobodan Milošević, the assination of Zoran Djindjić, and the trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former-Yugoslavia of Vojislav Šešelj . He shares vignettes and personal memoirs from popular culture and passes on folklore from everyday life in Serbia.

In the last chapter, Gordy undertakes a New Yorker style analysis of a recent iconic film, a snuff film titled “A Serbian Film.” The analysis is provocative in that it intellectualizes how the virtue of the film is that it does not romanticize the victim. In recent Eastern European cinema, Gordy points out, the victim is depicted as righteous by default, simply by virtue of being a victim. The difference this film makes, according to Gordy, is that it refuses to “essentialize” the victim. When other East European films depict victims as heroes by default, the message becomes that suffering wrong is less base than doing wrong. Although suffering wrong, the soul of the victim remains undamaged; indeed, it becomes stronger, nobler.

This matter introduces a simple moral question, which is worth reviving from the ancients. In Plato’s Gorgias, the following simple question is posed and debated: Is it better to suffer wrong or to do wrong, granting, Socrates says, that nobody willingly chooses either. If, however, one is forced to choose between suffering wrong and doing wrong, which choice is the better choice? Which choice is the right one to make? The Socratic argument is that the better choice, the more advantageous choice to the actor making the choice, is to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong, although, of course, only masochists willingly choose to suffer wrong. Socrates argues that the cost of doing wrong is far, far greater than the cost of suffering wrong. Doing wrong harms the human soul of the wrong-doer much more deeply than the bodily harm of suffering wrong, even when bodily harm is the ultimate harm of death.

Socrates’ interlocutors, of course, laugh when they hear Socrates make this argument. They say Socrates is being ridiculous. Socrates’ interlocutors point out that any rational human being with a pragmatic sense of self-interest chooses doing wrong before suffering wrong. Doing wrong is often an effective strategy to avoid suffering wrong. Only the foolish, seduced by the socialization of their society, believe the better choice, the more advantageous choice to the actor making the choice, is to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong. Given the fact of natural right, it is always better to do wrong rather than suffer wrong. Utilitarian reasoning, the sophists argues, makes the correct answer obvious.

With telling examples from his research, Gordy demonstrates that much of the cultural discourse in Serbia is gripped by the tension in this simple moral question. Is it better to suffer wrong or to do wrong? Although some Serbian people committed injustices against close neighbors and fellow-citizens in ex-Yugoslavia, the Serbian people suffered wrong at the hands of other ethnic groups or from the forceful interventions of the international community. The cultural discourse in Serbia raises these facts, facts that are inconvenient facts for the judgmental international political actors who are inclined to ignore or deny them. Gordy collects this discourse and mimes it. The discourse tacitly assumes that it is more egregious to suffer wrong than to do wrong. This logic guides not only the political ideology in the campaign to create a Greater Serbia, but also the war against terrorism currently being conducted by the United States. The moral banality behind American exceptionalism is that when the privileged do wrong, it is not really wrong-doing.

Let us consider an example of how this moral question structures political discourse within Serbia. The human rights lawyer Nataša Kandić, made available the infamous Scorpion video showing Serbs in a paramilitary group called the Scorpions murdering unarmed Bosnians in cold blood during the genocide in Srebrenica. The video is a snuff film; it is pornographic. While the maker of the video seeks to show that doing wrong is less base than suffering wrong, it instead unequivocally shows that doing wrong is more base than suffering wrong. A friend in Sarajevo told me that almost every Bosniak family in Bosnia attained a copy of the video. This evidence of the Scorpion’s wrong-doing was debated and vehemently denied in the media in Serbia. Kandić accused one of her adversaries, Tomislav Nokolić, a nationalist politician, of having taken up arms against civilians during the recent war. She, though, lacked sufficient evidence to back up her charge. A court found Kandić guilty of libel. She was sued and paid a fine.The wrong that Nikolić suffered then became the primary subject in the media; the evidence of the Scorpion video showing wrong-doing became the secondary issue. Nokolić’s having suffered wrong became worse than the Scorpion’s having done wrong. The sophist’s answer to this simple moral question trumped Kandić’s human rights advocacy.

Gordy recounts Karl Jasper’s The Question of Guilt to describe his book’s subject. Written by a German philosopher after World War II having learned fully about the Holocaust, Jaspers formulates four kinds of guilt. The first type of guilt is criminal guilt. The criminal violates the law and evidence of the violation is conclusive. The second type of guilt is political guilt. A political leader commits a crime and, in so doing, implicates the citizens of the state. The third type of guilt is moral guilt, where an individual is directly responsible for his or her deeds, even when these deeds were carried out under orders from a commanding officer or state figure. With this third type of guilt, an individual may be legally innocent, but morally guilty. In turn, an individual may be morally innocent, but legally guilty. In literature and history, this dichotomy is often described and dramatized. The fourth type of guilt is metaphysical guilt. This type of guilt assumes that there exists a solidarity among men and women as human beings, as part of humanity, that makes them co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world. Metaphysical guilt has religious connotations. To review the four types of guilt, criminal guilt answers to the law; political guilt to state authorities; moral guilt to one’s conscience; and metaphysical guilt to a higher power.

Jasper’s philosophical account of guilt frames the subject of Gordy’s book. The book’s subject, Gordy says, is not the criminal guilt of individual Serbs during the recent wars when genocide and crimes against humanity occurred in the campaigns of the Serbian Army to create a Greater Serbia. Nor is the subject the political guilt of Serbia’s leaders and the people who followed them. Nor is the subject the moral conscience of an individual who committed or may have thought he or she committed a war crime. Rather, the subject is the metaphysical guilt of Serbian people and whether it does or does not explain where the people in Serbia are in relation to their recent past and the wars waged against neighboring republics of former-Yugoslavia.

It must be stressed that Gordy does not seek to lay a “guilt trip” on the Serbian people. Indeed, he seeks the opposite. He wants to block international actors and, in general, the world, from laying “guilt trips” on the Serbian people, and Gordy does this in two ways. First, with Jaspers and good judgment, Gordy insists that the criminal guilt of individual people is different from the metaphysical guilt of a nation. The two types of guilt cannot be interchanged. It is not only politically dysfunctional but also morally perverse to collapse the distinction. Second, following social science, Gordy argues that the term guilt is too metaphysical, too vague and too capricious, in its application. He thus replaces the term guilt with the term responsibility, which, Gordy argues, provides a more behavioristic and therefore objective frame, focusing on social circumstances, individual perceptions, and political groups as the truer explanatory variables. To talk in terms of guilt, Gordy says, induces shame, and shame is an unnecessary emotion. Shame has no real utility.

How, though, does Socrates come to convince his interlocutors that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong? Does Socrates use logic? Does he use reason? Does he apply laws? Actually, as Richard McKim astutely points out, Socrates uses the emotion of shame. Shame is the tool with which Socrates refutes his interlocutors. Socrates’ interlocutors blush and come to agree that is baser to do wrong than to suffer wrong. The Scorpions who murdered other human beings in cold blood during the genocide in Srebrenica were doing wrong. The video shows that it was baser to do wrong than to suffer wrong. The video that Kandić attained with considerable courage and made available to the Serbian public makes this point clearly. When shame, however, is taken off the table and shamelessness becomes a virtue, it becomes impossible to give the right answer to this simple moral question. Without the possibility of inducing shame, Socrates would never have been able to refute his interlocutors.

The matter is significant not only philosophically, but also sociologically. For example, which of the following societies is healthier? A society that collectively believes that it is worse to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong or a society that collectively believes that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong. For example, Stand Your Ground Laws in the United States favor the argument that it is better to play the odds and to do wrong rather than to suffer wrong. Which society is more functional for the vitality of its members? A society based on the law of the strongest or a society based on a law that is greater than the law of the strongest? The question is answered in Emile Durkheim’s sociology, but Gordy argues that Durkheim’s work “offers strikingly little guidance on understanding crime or ameliorating its causes” (p. 165). In the context of Serbia, the collective sentiment appears to take no offense to crime, according to Gordy.

There is a disappointing omission in this work given the argument that to understand Serbia it is necessary to lookcritically at Serbia’s culture. The works of Ivan Čolović and Radomir Konstantinović, two contemporary Serbian intellectuals and cultural critics, are neither acknowledged nor discussed. While Čolović is mentioned in a brief footnote for his research in ethnomusiciology, his more important works, for example, the book, The Balkans: The Terror of Culture, are neither reviewed nor discussed. Likewise, Konstantinović’s book, Filozofija palanke [Bumkin Philosophy] is not referenced. Filozofija palanke analyzes theautochronous character of Serbian nationalism, its parochial practices andits childlike worldview. Konstantinović examines Serbian politics and everyday life from within its own milieu and from inside its particular historical context. Though published in the sixties, Filozofija palanke remains timely. His approach is deconstructive. Konstantinović, in fact, was a close friend of Samuel Beckett. Several Serbian intellectuals consider the work to be the most important book on Serbia today.

Interestingly, there was a Festchrift in Sarajevo where leading Sarajevo philosophers gathered and honored Konstantinović in his presence with their essays commending his work shortly after the recent war. Moreover, a new edition of Filozofija palanke was re-published recently at a Sarajevo publishing house in 2011. Some time ago, Jürgen Habermas asked after the possibility of translating and publishing this philosophical work into German. The book, though, remains untranslated and is only available to people who read Serbian.

Nationalist intellectuals in Serbia hate Konstantinović ‘s book, and in deference to this group and how it frames an understanding of Serbia, Gordy does not mention the book. Gordy thus downplays the significance of those intellectuals who resist Serbia’s wrong-headed political culture. Mentioning three leading human rights advocates, Nataša Kandić, Sonja Biserko, and Staša Yajović, Gordy echos the dominate political frame and writes with no additional discussion that they “are the objects of charges that they are anti-Serbian, that they are traitors, and that they represent a domestic fifth column standing for foreign interest” (p. 114). These human rights advocates are women who take offense at crimes committed in the name of a Greater Serbia; they understand that it is more base to do wrong than to suffer wrong; they articulate a law that is greater than the law of the strongest; they want their society to understand this truism; and their souls are nobler.

Piece first published in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 36, No.2 (May 2014). Republished with permission of the editor.

Cover image by fluvio di marco


McKim, Richard. 2002. “Truth and Shame in Plato’s Gorgias” in Platonic Writings/ Platonic Readings. Edited by Charles L. Griswold. University Park, PA: The Pennsylavania State University Press.

Plato, 1960. Gorgias. Ttranslated by Walter Hamilton. Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Weber, Max. 1946. Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne (Buybook, Sarajevo) and Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press). With Omer Hadziselimovic he is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary, bilingual journal, Duh Bosne / Spirit of Bosnia. His most recent book, Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina is forthcoming from Central European University Press.