Critical Section

On Blame

Sunday,  04/06/03  11:58 AM

Blame.  What a strange concept, right?

n.  The state of being responsible for [something].  Censure, condemnation.
v.  To hold responsible.  To find fault with, to censure.

ReginaldThis morning my kids left a yarn kit sitting on the floor of my office, and my cat turned it into the biggest mess you can imagine.  They blamed Reggie (pic at right).  Of course, I blamed them.  And if we hadn't cleaned up the mess, my wife would have blamed me (she's out of town).  But if we had friends over, they would probably have blamed her.  And so it goes...

A distinguishing feature of present-day Western society is the need to blame.  For every bad thing that happens someone must be blamed.  Just as with the yarn in my office, there is a hierarchy, a pachinko machine of responsibility.  If the responsibility isn't captured at one level, it falls to the next, then to the next, and so on - but it can't fall completely out the bottom, someone must be responsible for everything.

If you're reading this, you're most likely American, or European, and so you probably don't give this a second thought.  But if you're Indian, or Chinese, or Malaysian, or Japanese, this may strike you as a wacky feature of Westernism.  The Chinese have a great all-purpose word for the randomness of being, joss, which loosely translated means luck or fate.  To a Chinese person the bottom of the pachinko machine of life is joss; it is not necessary to blame someone for every bad thing that happens.  So the kids left the yarn out, and the cat played with it, and we have a mess.  Too bad.  So what.  Joss.

Religions have many purposes - codification of mores, explanation of mysteries, manipulation of congregations, etc.  They are successful memes which replicate freely in humans.  One of their benefits is to provide a bottom to the pachinko machine, a final source of responsibility - either God bounces the blame back (Christians can always blame "original sin") or God takes the blame (Muslims can always blame "the will of Allah"), or God says there is no blame (Zen Buddhists can always say "blame is irrelevant").

Blame involves causality.  One thing happens, which causes another, and the first thing is blamed for the effect of the second.  Reductionists feel each thing is the result of a small number of previous things, in a deterministic way.  Holists feel each thing is a result of all previous things, in a deterministic way.  Either way each thing has a cause.  Of course, stopping the chain at any point is arbitrary.  Could I blame Reggie for playing with yarn?  After all, he is a cat, and cats play with yarn.  Could I blame the kids for leaving the yarn out?  After all, they are kids, and kids leave stuff out.  Could my wife blame me?  Can anyone be blamed for being who they are?

I am especially struck by the Western need for blame in reading news reports about the war in Iraq.  With each minor setback, each negative things that happens, the media relentlessly search for someone to blame.  A civilian is killed by colateral damage?  A plane is brought down by "friendly fire"?  Who is to blame?  Do we blame the soldiers?  The military leadership?  The defense department?  The U.S. government (or the British)?  Or do we blame Western society?  Maybe we go back to root causes, like Baathism, or "Arabism"?  Or do we personalize it, and blame Donald Rumsfeld, or George Bush, (or Tony Blair)?  Or [again to root causes] Saddam Hussein?  They are all men, do we blame Y chromosomes?  They are all people, do we blame human nature?  Violence is a feature of all animal societies, so is the animal kingdom to blame?  What about nature itself, is war an inevitable part of nature?

To find the point of blame in this chain, we have to assign responsibility.  Which brings us to free will.  If everything is completely deterministic, then it is what it is, and nobody could have done anything to change things.  But if people have free will, they can make decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions.  Each decision is a potential point of blame.  The soldier who decided to pull the trigger.  The general who decided to order the soldier into battle.  The president who decided to attack Iraq.  The dictator who decided to defy the United Nations.

And we can blame the cat who decided to play with the yarn.  And the kids who left the yarn out.  And the dad who raised the kids.

I decided to take my kids to the beach.  Blame me :)

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Correlation vs. Causality
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On Blame
Try, or Try Not
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