Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts On The Blame Game

At times like this, the nation pauses
Long enough to look for causes.
That’s not quite so. It’s true we pause,
But only look for One True Cause;
Multiple determination
Only leads us to frustration.
When something horrible is done
Our search for blame is all-or-none.

The comment threads of major news outlets (you know how much I love to read those!) are as predictable as they have ever been. One commenter calls for a ban on handguns; several others immediately point out that they are, themselves, law-abiding gun owners. Hate-filled rhetoric? Millions of listeners were able to listen to the stream of invective and were somehow not moved to express their outrage in the form of a spray of lead. Video games? Again, millions of players are a far greater danger to their couch than to any human being. Even the old standby, mental illness, is defended, and we are reminded (unexpectedly, says the cynic in me) that mental illness is in no way predictive of such actions.*

And then, conclusions are drawn. Not the right ones, but conclusions nonetheless. We could have recognized that determination of ultimate causality of human action is never, ever going to come down to one factor, and recognized that our task is not to snap our fingers and make "the cause" go away, but to see which of the many causal elements we can tweak to make the world incrementally a better place. And we could have recognized that, sometimes, big effects don't necessarily have big (and immediately identifiable) causes. Instead, we conclude that since there is always an exception, there is no rule, and that human behavior is not determined by environmental influences. That the rules that govern the rest of the observable universe somehow don't apply within the boundaries of our skin, or our skull. If we can't see one cause, our default fallback position is that there is none.

I do recognize the irony of making this observation, and [overly?] simplifying the behavior of tens or hundreds of thousands of commenters across scores of sites. All I can hope is that my readers will not see one or two examples that don't fit my observation, and conclude that there is no truth to it at all. We are complex creatures, granted, but some very complex and complicated effects can come out of a combination of very few, comparatively simple, inputs.

*I have seen, unsurprisingly, the very expected post-hoc diagnosis of mental illness. While in this case it may be very probable that he is suffering, I have yet to hear a single qualified commenter make such a pronouncement. I suspect that the use of the label reflects much more our need to distance ourselves from the shooter, and to make sure he is the other; to think that normal people commit horrible acts is, well, horrible. This self-serving tendency is part of what leads to the belief that persons with mental illnesses are dangerous.

1 comment:

Tor Bertin said...

It's interesting to me just how well one can predict the comments on various news stories. It's gotten to the point where reading it would be pointless, as almost every single comment made is easily predictable beforehand.