Published on August 21st, 2014 |
by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © By Angie Schwendemann [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Blame Game
The world has a blame problem.
This might sound ultimately pretty trivial, but it comes down to the basis of our democracy, and in a very wide sense, to the operating conceptions and fundamental assumptions behind society. Take any international or domestic political event, from the Ukraine, ISIS, and Gaza, to the Tilbury container full of Sikhs or, more poignantly, the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and you will find a complex political and social battle of narrative being fought. This often takes the form of blame.
Take Ferguson (and other racially charged shootings, like Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death in Florida). A host of concerns and issues explode out of a single event, which is generally healthy, except that often the result is a politically motivated clouding of what we might objectively say the main issue actually is. The militarization of US police forces, the problem of the right to protest versus order, or “peaceful protest or riot”, and the character assassination of Martin Brown, as well as the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, are all valuable public debates, yet all obscure the large issue. This is the treatment of African-Americans in wider American society, and the resulting complex socio-economic problems that have resulted.
The blame game begins. Martin Brown is revealed to be a petty thief – Swisher Sweet cigars from a convenience store, so we are not talking a Professor Moriarty here – and while the Ferguson police chief Ron Johnson is blasted for releasing the CCTV footage of the robbery, the point that Johnson was trying to make was made to those that favour ‘law and order’. To be blunt, Johnson has confirmed the stereotype of the young black male to Suburban America, allowing millions to say that Brown would have gone on to commit worse crimes in the future, etc. To someone who says, ‘what is wrong about being informed?’, the answer is, that it was motivated to obscure the issue, the fundamental miscarriage of justice and the reasons why it happens so often when young black men are involved.
There is a vicious cycle at work here. Not just in Ferguson, or the US, but across the globe, in virtually every chronic issue and problem, and it goes to the root of problems of democracy and the way society works. This is the power of blaming the victim. And we need to question why it is such an effective tactic. Regardless of the actual truth of a given situation, the fact that blaming the victim is so common and so alarmingly effective needs to be examined.
This problem can come in many guises, ranging from political and international to social and even interpersonal. I am not trying to argue that every ‘blaming of the victim’ is necessarily wrong or incorrect, I aim to question why it is so commonly used in our society.
The best international example is the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israelis displaced the Palestinian population, creating a ghettoized society which naturally (i.e., anyone in there situation would feel exactly the same way) seeks to destroy Israel, which appears to be an invader. Israeli defensive posture and periodic invasions and bombings are blamed on Palestinian rocket-fire at Israel.
But it gets more complicated, and at the same time more simple because of its similarity with other chronic problems. There is the socio-economic argument for Israel: that it is the only democratic country in the Middle East, the only country with a strong and balanced economy, i.e., not based on oil exports. This argument parallels the argument in the US: that black communities and young black men are where crime happens, and this justifies police action. Thus the controversial ‘broken windows theory’ of policing, which leads to various forms of racial profiling, from New York’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, to Ferguson’s curfew (which I would argue is probably not the wisest response as it creates a ‘power situation’ where those who believe they are seeking justice are criminalised for taking the only immediate action available to them). The result is criminalisation of an entire demographic.
Every stereotype has an element of truth. Yet this is a terrible reasons to treat people as “guilty until proven innocent.” Once a group has been stereotype and criminalised, the result is an actual encouragement of criminal behaviour, as the objective truth of the individual is ignored. Why behave nicely, when you will be treated like a criminal regardless?
The painful truth here is that societies seem to generate there own scapegoats; every society has a class of ‘untouchables’. If you find a society that does not, please let me know. In less emotive terms, because there are always going to be inefficiencies, corruption, mistakes, bad judgments, and general messy mediocrity in society, the groups that most clearly illustrate these flaws are blamed. In a personal sense, the flaws and mistakes of others allow us to feel good about ourselves.
If we conceive of society as a system, with a distribution of efficiencies and inefficiencies (what works well, what does not), a few conclusions can be reached after a few minuets of thought. First of all, the nature of life and society is fundamentally inefficient. And by this, I mean that being human is messy and complicated, a study in personal foibles rather than a string of perfectly correct actions. Second, it seems to me that the efficiencies and inefficiencies are ultimately linked, or the efficiencies come with a complex or hidden cost most people are unwilling to recognize. For example, Wal-Mart in the US sells a huge variety of products at low-cost. This is the efficiency. The inefficiency is underpaid employees, not just in stores in the US, but in the factories in China as well, where most of the products are made. I will hint at the environmental costs of this business model as well. Thus the prices paid in the store are effectively much lower than its true cost, which is transferred to swaths of employees and the environment.
This view that I have just presented generates many objections, I have found, and raises a number of philosophical issues about personal responsibility and even free will. Where do we draw the line? How far does my responsibility go in complex situations, ranging from the personal to the massively global? The short answer is that it varies, and you will never know for certain, and that it is important to think carefully about such things (the very act of being aware of the consequences of your actions – in the fullest sense- is intrinsically valuable), and no, there is no magically impartial judge panel that will ultimately vindicate your actions, and that people will fight viciously to appear in the right.
Speaking from personal experience, I have found that even in situations where I think I am largely ‘in the right,’ I am still in many ways partly responsible, usually from some form of inaction (or action caused by mental inaction; mental or emotional laziness). This does not excuse or justify the ‘offending action’, but rather partly explains and in an indirect way authorised the ‘offending action.’
Of course, that does not make things any less complicated. To what extent am I responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Israeli is staunchly supported by the US) or even global warming (I like road trips and cheap products at the store).
The practical conclusion to be drawn here is that behind every issue as it is presented there tends to be a deeper story, and ultimately, some form of human weakness is really responsible. Try to untangle each issue from all the other issues, then proceed from there.
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