Introducing ‘It’s Your Fault,’ a Series on Blame

Is Dylann Roof solely to blame for the murder of 9 people in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston? How about our nation’s inadequate gun laws or pervasive racism? Or are we all to blame?

Pick just about any issue and you’re likely to find questions of blame at its heart. Is climate change the fault of greedy individuals or a tragedy of the commons? And who’s to blame for the Boston bombing? For rising inequality? For the killing of Jon Snow?

As the editors of The Cubit, RD’s science-and-religion portal, blame has been on our minds, for ours is a Golden Age of Finger Pointing.

Over the next two weeks, The Cubit will feature a series of articles that explore how fault gets distributed in contemporary society. How does blame take form in the public square? How do scientific findings provide fodder for blame, or call blame into question? How are disenfranchised minorities made into scapegoats, despite the so-called democratization of media?

Our series emerges from a few observations.

The ways we situate blame vary widely—and can indicate a lot about the blamer’s view of the world. After a crime, do you blame perpetrators, or the society that shaped them? Does social harm come from powerful, conscious agents (gods, demons, the corporate elite) or from unconscious forces like bad luck or random chance?

Science and technology have proliferated new routes for both explaining and enacting blame. Nutrition science diagnoses all sorts of modern ills; sociological and economic analysis can map those deep forces of which riots are merely a symptom; alongside its famed “genius” grants, the MacArthur Foundation backs efforts to reform criminal justice using neuroscience; and digital technology makes it possible for blame to snowball, turning stray (and often vile) comments into moments of mass social media outrage.

Yet despite this expanded toolkit, the process of blaming hasn’t become substantially more accurate or objective. We continue to allow the privileged to evade fault. Echoing our religious history of scapegoating, we transfer their sins onto the weak and then exile them: to prisons, to low-income neighborhoods, to subordinate status in the eyes of the law. Blame’s ingredient list does start with guilt, but blame takes shape as it interacts with cultural norms, cognitive biases, and socio-economic power.

Blame is never just about finding a perpetrator. How we blame reflects how we view justice, cause-and-effect, and our social milieu. As a result, we will approach blame in this series from a number of angles. Stay tuned for investigations of terrorist motivation, public housing policy, public shaming, and more.

  • Jim Reed

    Don’t blame me.

  • Sam

    I look forward to seeing what you present.
    There is unfortunately far too much projecting that goes on. Hopefully efforts like this will help us come to grips with how things are rather than expecting them to fit a formula that we create or reinforce from all that we have inherited.
    (Who was I blaming there. 🙂 )

  • NWaff

    Two people can be born into the same environments and come out very different. It was the individual who made the choices and made the differences.

  • gilhcan

    Aghapour and Schulman are so right. No individual is solely to blame for any of the ills of society, not even our own, if that is how we end up behaving. We are all products of the society in which we live, in which we are raised. Those influences vary, to be sure, some good, some bad.

    To a degree, those influences are not recognized as social and many attempt to blame them solely on individuals. But if we understand sociology and psychology, we know that is far from the total reality. We can all be victimized. We are so fortunate, downright lucky, when we are young and impressionable, to exist in an atmosphere that has positive influences on us about making honest, objective choices in all we do, always considering their effect on everyone else.

    “There are these four, basic virtues: trust, hope, care, and honesty. And the greatest of these is honesty.”

    I take the liberty to revise a quotation attributed to a famous, good person. I do not think he would object.