Blame Society First

This exchange with Reason magazine begins with an editorial "Blame Society First," which takes issue with sociological explanations of the recent school yard massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas, then continues with my letter in response, and ends with a further editorial comment. 

Blame Society First    by Brian Doherty                                REASON,   June 1998

Individual responsibility is the truly unthinkable.

An individual, or small group of individuals, commits a heinous act. The first reaction on the part of our nation's political and intellectual classes: Blame everyone else.

The Jonesboro tragedy is a case in point. A couple of kids commit an act of shocking villainy: summoning a group of their helpless schoolmates outside and shooting at them--aiming mostly, it appears, at girls. Five people are dead, 11 wounded.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee steps forward to publicly re-establish the modern moral order. He doesn't declare these kids an aberration, outside the pale of our society, deserving punishment. Instead, he declares them in essence representative of modern American society. "It makes me angry not so much at individual children that have done it as much as angry at a world in which such a thing can happen," Huckabee said the day of the shooting.

Maybe it's something in the feed at the executive mansion in Arkansas. Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, now president, pulled a similar moral switcheroo during his recent Africa tour of apologies. It was one thing to apologize for slavery, for which the U.S. government he represents bears active responsibility.

But Clinton went a step further: It isn't only the things we do for which we must bear blame, but the things others do. The massacres in Rwanda, seemingly the direct result of mad, bloodthirsty tribal warfare between the Hutus and Tutsis, were, Clinton declared, something for which "the international community" must "bear its share of the responsibility." Evil, then, is not the responsibility of those who practice it; rather, it is the shame of everyone who does not somehow prevent it.

There's something untoward about a mind that will do anything to avoid casting blame on those who have committed atrocities but feels free to profligately spread the blame around on social forces, or "all of us," or the international community, or inanimate objects, or the media. But that mind is everywhere; Huckabee was no aberration. A USA Today headline states it baldly: "Who's to blame for school shooting? We all are."

Even if the blame-everyone-else-first impulse makes no discernible moral sense, it makes a great deal of political sense. After all, if only the perpetrators of crimes are to blame for them, then there's nothing much for government to do but nab those perpetrators, hold a trial, and, if a guilty verdict is brought down, impose a punishment.

But if social forces, or guns, or violent TV shows and movies are to blame, then cops and judges aren't enough. We need programs, crusades, and concerted government action to try to change the very nature of our culture and society. We need V-chips, gun control, a revived economy, and new forms of educational indoctrination. And for those things, we need the brave leadership of people like Huckabee and Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times headline on reaction to the shooting said it all: "Violent culture, media share blame, experts say." Indeed, who else would say it? The culture of experts demands complicated answers, even if they don't make much sense.

Alternately, evil could be traced to its root cause, the one thing that makes it possible no matter what outside forces are brought to bear: individual choice. But to the experts, it is too simple to say someone has done wrong and must be punished. The tangled web of "social forces" is always there to be pored over, analyzed, charted, and regressed.

Whatever social forces of gun worship, misogyny, and violent entertainment allegedly stewed the brains of the Jonesboro shooters, hundreds of thousands of other young men are exposed to the same influences. Yet only these two boys took guns in hand and started firing at their schoolmates. Depicting social forces as a dominant cause for individual atrocities explains too much, grossly overpredicting the actual amount of perfidy in our world.

The advantage the state takes from blaming social forces for individual mistakes or crimes goes beyond the sort of colorful violence that makes the newspapers. All sorts of social problems for which politicians scramble to find solutions, from single-parent households to drug abuse to long-term welfare dependence, result from the cumulative effects of bad decisions made by individuals--decisions that are never made by everyone in the same social milieu. Avoiding pregnancy, educating oneself, and becoming self-sufficient are within the power of most individuals, no matter the social forces surrounding them. Anger at the world shifts attention from where real change is both needed and possible--in the choices individuals make--and leads instead to further airy plans for state action--even though many of the "negative social forces" in America, from terrible public schools to drug-war-torn streets, are of the state's own making.

Never mind Governor Huckabee and his inchoate anger at the world. Be angry at the kids who did it.

Here's my reply to Doherty, which Reason titled:

Social Responsibility

June 19, 1998

According Brian Doherty, social forces play little, if any, role in shaping human behavior, and to declare so is merely an excuse for activist government ("Blame Society First," June issue). If this is true, however, then we are driven to the absurd conclusion that the explanation for the recent school massacres (Doherty’s example) lies solely within the individuals who commit such acts.

Teenagers who kill do not create themselves ex nihilo. They are entirely the product of their genetic endowment, their family upbringing, and the local community and larger society which surrounds them. To think otherwise is to imagine that there is some independent, self-constructing force within each individual, for which there is simply no scientific evidence, commonsense appeals to "free will" notwithstanding.

It is Doherty who is driven by the libertarian ideology of personal autonomy into denying the obvious: that teen shootings are made more likely by a host of factors, including the availability of guns, increasingly violent media images, and declining support for counseling services in schools. The reason that only a few teens end up actually killing isn’t explained by appeal to some self-generated fault, but by analyzing the rare but deadly interaction of inherited dispositions, family dynamics, peer influences, and cultural messages.

Some, like Doherty, worry that such explanations undercut moral accountability. But knowing exactly why people behave the way they do doesn’t obviate judgments of good and bad, nor does it undercut justifications for sanctions against individuals who transgress. After all, we still must protect society, incapacitate offenders, rehabilitate them when possible, and deter those with criminal intent. As sociologist James Q. Wilson remarks in his book Moral Judgment, "Nor is the reason we assign responsibility for…actions that the law rests, of necessity, on a convenient fiction, that of free will, and could not operate if it did not embrace that myth. A legal system and the society it sustains could not long endure if they depended, at their root, on mere fiction."[1]

Doherty says that "real change is both needed and possible – in the choices individuals make," but such choices will change for the better only if the conditions which produce them change first.

Thomas W. Clark

The author is a research associate at Health and Addictions Research, Inc. in Boston.

[1]. Moral Judgment, James Q. Wilson, Basic Books, 1997, p. 40

Finally, Brian Doherty replied in the same issue:

If Mr. Clark can actually, through the magic of "analyzing the rare but deadly interaction of inherited dispositions, family dynamics, peer influences, and cultural messages," come up with a rigorous science that can explain and predict human behavior that has no room for the most basic reality that human beings can choose what to do at any given moment, he will have done something that no sociologist has ever done, or, I maintain, ever do, Isaac Asimov's Harry Seldon aside.

Mr. Clark of "Health and Addictions Research, Inc.," is one of the "experts" I discussed in my editorial, who refuse to acknowledge choice's role in human affairs because it lessens the value of the complicated "weighing of factors" they indulge in while ignoring the factor that makes the ultimate difference in what behavior an individual human actually engages in.  I do not deny that certain human choices are made more likely by a variety of environmental factors; I do deny that those factors, in and of themselves, with no recourse to human choice, can come to a final and predictable explanation of what behaviors humans will and won't commit.