On Blame

There’s something gone wrong—why, he’s clearly insane;
There’s a chemical problem that’s hurting his brain,
Some organic dysfunction that helps to explain
Why he hasn’t been acting quite right
It’s clearly these deep neurological flaws
That are making him act in defiance of laws;
It has to be something! It can’t be because
He is young, and he’s male, and he’s white.

We’ll break it all down in the usual way
Is he poor? Is he black? Is he godless, or gay?
There must be a reason he’s drifted astray
Any label at all is fair game.
There has to be something (the experts discuss,
And for experts to notice and make such a fuss
There’s a reason) that means “he is not one of us!”
Cos we don’t want to share in the blame!

The misogynist message he posted online?
The authorities saw it, and called it benign!
Why, it’s only in hindsight we call it a sign—
We see worse things than that every day!
Why, if all of society ground to a halt
When some internet loner claimed plans of assault
We’d be doomed—with the innocent loners at fault
When it’s only a game that they play!

See, freedom of speech is a blessing and curse
You can say what you want—you can bully, or worse—
(And they can’t even force you to say it in verse)
Save specific and credible threat
But legitimate threats don’t stand out from the noise
And the language a dangerous asshole employs
Since it can’t be distinguished from “one of the boys”
Are the claims #YesAllWomen will get

It is a common claim: if you blame society, you are letting the perpetrator off the hook! But remember the flip side–when you blame the perp, you are letting society off the hook.

I am not a fan of “justice”; it’s a concept that, near as I can tell, was invented to let us blame individual criminals after the fact, instead of doing the hard work of changing the environment to actually prevent crimes before they occur, in cases where there are known variables we can control.

We have heard, and will continue to hear, reasons why a particular individual should shoulder all the blame. We will be told that we are weak on crime if we even entertain the notion that anything other than that individual is to blame.


I would much rather prevent a crime than punish a criminal after a crime has been committed. And yes, I know that paints me as someone opposed to freedom–the freedom to swing my fist up to the point where someone else’s nose begins. If it is right to intervene after a crime is committed, it is right to intervene. If moral responsibility exists, then knowing that an element of our culture contributes to crime, and doing nothing about that element, makes us as culpable for our inaction as we wish others to be for their action.

The difference is whether we wait for people to be hurt before recognizing our ability to make a difference.


  1. says

    You get the same arguments about the (non)existence of free will. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook. But we like to play this game where all the blame gets placed on one individual and then we throw that individual away. (Goats are escaping!) Meanwhile, we do nothing to change any of the things that cause the problems that put people in a position and frame of mind to do bad things. Usually, huge swaths of people are on the hook, and they don’t want to recognize their responsibility. And in this case, “not all men” and claims that there isn’t misogyny, or that misogyny didn’t lead to these murders, are right up there with “let them eat cake”.

  2. Pen says

    It’s a good poem. If it’s got anything to do with Eliott Rodger (!), it’s too bad ‘right’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘Eurasian’, his own self-description. Especially when his exact position in some stupid racial pecking order had so much to do with his insecurities.

  3. cassmorrison says

    Interesting idea about justice as a social construct. I think in a blame society (which we live in) justice does let us blame criminals but the one we should be aiming for is where justice recognizes the persons actions and uses it to identify point of change. One can still advocate for discipline *if* one has been very consistent about societal rules.

    As many feminists have pointed out, Rodger was following US cultural rules. His reaction on not getting his reward was as fitting as it was a violent response. He was going to get recognition from those he wanted to be peers with and he has.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    One advocates for discipline for, broadly speaking, two reasons: control, and moral responsibility. Our society has largely focused on the latter (in part because we have been so successful in the former that its importance has faded); we would rather punish a criminal than rehabilitate one (much less prevent one).

    But moral responsibility is a fiction, if our behavior is environmentally determined. Our defense of “free will” is fueled in part by our desire to pin responsibility on someone else. Control, in order to reduce the effect of natural punishers, is why we have instituted our artificial punishers (it’s easier to survive a traffic citation than an accident). And if our motivation is control, we can exercise control before the fact (creating safer environments, educating, etc.) as well as after (through punishing unwanted behavior and through rewarding wanted behavior), so long as we recognize that manipulations of our environment are causally related to our behavior.

    If our behavior is determined, we are not morally responsible… but neither is moral responsibility a requirement, if control is our aim, rather than retribution.

  5. CatMat says

    If some crazy dude
      kills others “while male”
    No reason to change what made him a crook
    Society’s good
      some people just fail
    Just state that a flaw is all that it took.

        Surely nobody can claim
        Majority should take the blame

    Most of as are now in jail,
    but I’m once again off the hook.

  6. Joan says

    Our Latest Massacre

    The homophobes prognosticate. It must be ‘cause he’s gay.
    Misogyny, the fems decide. It’s that which paved his way.
    The anti-gun proponents blame firearms for taking life.
    Have yet to hear from all the folks who may be anti-knife.
    And on it goes, it’s Utube’s fault. They should have banned his rant
    Or maybe called the cops who would do nothing, cause they can’t.
    Those violent vids and bloody shows, and movies, hedonistic,
    These had to be the source of why this boy went all ballistic.
    The parents’ fault. But wait! They called police soon as they knew.
    Alas, no one arrived in time before his boiler blew.
    Blame mental health care system cause this guy slipped through the crack.
    Not a harm to self or others? Give him meds and send him back.
    Could someone have prevented this? Have seen where he would go?
    Alas, the way the system’s set, I have to just say no.

    Couldn’t some, if not all of the above factor in to this boy’s problems? Of course. We are a violence glorifying, gun loving, women objectifying society. The lure of ‘being famous’ and the instant gratification of social media exacerbate the problem. But now we again have a chance to talk of our miserable mental health care system, which has been broken since the 60’s, when patient civil rights trumped their sanity and well being in patient care.

    In Sandyhook, the mental health system was indicted, along with the mother for (maybe) not accessing it. It was intimated that the boy was either not diagnosed properly or his problems were not being cared for at all. This latest young man, it would appear, was being treated, (as an outpatient, of course) and cost was no object. I have heard, and sadly observed first hand, that patients even suffering deep psychosis can win an academy award for America’s most sane as soon as they enter a psychiatrist’s office. With the current guidelines in our state, a patient cannot be admitted for more than 3 days observation unless a psychiatrist feels he is a danger to himself or others, and there are so few beds in the relatively small units in each hospital, that the stays are sadly inadequate. Most are only a danger to themselves, many of whom go home to commit suicide. But every once in awhile…..

  7. grumpyoldfart says

    Intervention doesn’t help when the attitude is not “How can I keep out of trouble?” but “What crime will give me the biggest headline?”

  8. says

    If prevention is your aim
    And everyone’s to blame,
    Then tie up everyone today
    Lest one slip through and slay.

    A police state wall to wall,
    All watching one and all…
    If someone should even blink
    Throw ’em in the clink.

    Presume each person mad
    And every action bad,
    Control with gun and stick
    And we’ll have a plague of sick,

    Universal strife,
    A world unfit for life.
    Prevention? Such a cure
    Is fatal, I assure.

    Moral responsibility
    Needs moral stability.
    Our leaders are pathetic–
    They flout every ethic

    And leave morals hollow
    For others to follow.
    These leaders kill millions,
    Troops and civilians,

    And instead of rejection
    Win re-election.
    A madman kills twelve,
    Then executes himself,

    And the nation goes nuts.
    Do we have the guts
    To examine our schemes,
    Our cultural memes,

    What values to defend
    Lest our civilization end?
    Can we avoid the brink?
    What do you think?

  9. Cuttlefish says

    Memehunter, your comment reminds me of some of my students, having come to the conclusion that overpopulation is a problem, deciding that the logical solution is to introduce a plague and kill off half of humanity. They seem genuinely surprised when I ask them why they didn’t consider, oh, maybe… birth control.

    You jump to a police state; the actual tools of prevention and control are far more benign. Over the years, I have had literally tens of thousands of people willingly pay me to influence their behavior. We call it “teaching” and I am extremely proud of my students’ success at making the world a better place. Understanding how our environments control us allows us to make it easier to be good, as well as harder to be bad. You’d be surprised how *unlike* a police state successful control is.

  10. jesse says

    I think what worries people is that too often, psychology and prevention of pathology has been used against marginalized groups.

    And it isn’t like psychologists have exactly covered themselves in glory even more recently. When was it that homosexuality was removed from the DSM? Because everyone knew that gay people were messed up and violent.

    And sometimes I get the sense that many behaviors get turned into pathologies when in fact it’s just normal human behavior variation.

    Teaching is one thing. But I think it’s when you get to medicalizing this stuff that you are on more difficult and dangerous ground.

  11. Shatterface says

    Understanding how our environments control us allows us to make it easier to be good, as well as harder to be bad. You’d be surprised how *unlike* a police state successful control is.

    A succesful police state doesn’t require police.

    We don’t ‘understand’ how our environment ‘controls’ us; we make guesses based on our prejudices.

    Joan’s poem is more accurate: behaviour is underdetermined by the environment and tragic events are a Rorschach test onto which everyone projects their fears.

  12. CatMat says

    Although it’s now plain
    to see that this bloke
    was clearly insane
    and something then broke,
    It’s hard to explain
    why ’twasn’t a joke
    Like what every sane
    misogynist spoke.

  13. Cuttlefish says

    We don’t ‘understand’ how our environment ‘controls’ us; we make guesses based on our prejudices.

    That is what we, historically, have done, which is why our attempts at control have been A) based on philosophical assumptions about human nature, and B) poorly done. For instance, our prescientific insistence on free will and moral responsibility has left us using punishment as our go-to control method, despite the inherent limitations in using punishment effectively.

    There are a good many scientists who have made careers of studying exactly what you say we are only guessing at. For those with access, I can point to a recent example in American Psychologist (Biglan, et al, 2012–The critical role of nurturing environments for promoting human well-being), or to the journals Environment and Behavior, Behavior and Social Issues, and of course the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (well, some of it, anyway). Mind you, there is active opposition (the philosophical approach has been very profitable for some people) to the idea that the laws that describe the rest of the universe suddenly take a hike when it comes to stuff that happens inside our skin–that is, to the idea that we can apply science to human behavior. But, of course, we can, and we will, and we do, and those who deny this will be at a disadvantage.

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