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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blame Game

The tragic shootings in Arizona are a good place to look at issues of how people think about causality and its agentive correlate, blame. Why do things happen? Physics says that ever damn thing in the trailing light-cone of a given event contributes to its happening. But that's completely useless to everyday cognition. Some things seem more causal than others, and some things seem blameworthy -- that is, they are both causal and according to our moral feelings, they should not have occurred, they only occurred because some agent did something wrong, whatever that means.

Usually someone who shoots and kills someone else is to blame, because we think they caused this regrettable action. But if the person is insane, whatever that means, we assume that they do not actually have the same kind of non-caused causation that a normal, free-willed person has. They are machines at the mercy of chemistry and brain anatomy -- unlike us. They are not to blame. Even Jon Stewart last night was talking about "the complex ecosystem of causality", which is pretty heady stuff coming from a fake news show.

If we can't blame the individual, can we blame the various factors that caused or enabled his action? These include:
- the ready availability of guns (and in particular automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines)
- the atmosphere of violence in current politics

Krugman makes the case as well as any, referencing the concept of "eliminationism" which I believe was originated or at least promoted by Dave Neiwart. The rightwing response is to dredge up some instances of violent rhetoric and imagery on the left, which of course exist. But is there anything really comparable to the gun-toting rallies of the right? Doesn't seem that way to me, or anybody else I respect, but maybe I'm biased.

The wingnutosphere is in full counterattack mode. Here is wingnut hack writer Andrew Klavan:
"To be sure, there is a lot of heated rhetoric in American politics, as ever. For instance, last spring, three Democratic congressmen cruelly slandered Tea Party members by accusing them of spitting on them and calling them racial slurs"
And here is shrieking harpy AtlasShrugs deciding that Palin and the tea parties can't be to blame because Loughner had "targeted" Gifford back in 2007. Of course the source she cites does not actually say what she says it does.

It is interesting to see these kind of moves being made -- it's an attempt to break a causal chain by showing that it has origins elsewhere, because if Loughner was "targeting" people in 2007 thent he tea parties aren't to blame because they didn't exist. Technically this is called "explaining away". In this case, it's a weak move because (a) the report doesn't say anythign about "targeting" in 2007, and while the tea parties and Sarah Palin may not have been factors in 2007, the eliminationist rhetoric of the right was certainly in the air, and had been for many years.

Glenn Beck trying to equate an armed militia with an elderly university professor.

Here's a pretty good roundup of wingnut spinning.

There is an interesting two-stage socio-cognitive process going on: first, telling causal stories to make sense of events, in which we try to build causal chains out of the seamless web of the physical world. Second, the moralizing and politicizing of these chains, in which we try to assign not just causation, but moral value and blame. Krugman was quick to blame the right, maybe too quick, and the right was quick to try to counterattack to break this linkage.

My point is that this is a somewhat fictional process. We're battling over what stories are most real, and concomitantly, who are the good guys and bad guys. Like religion, it is a form of ritual collective cognition. We even have institutions for official, ultimate, socially-sanctioned blaming -- courts of law. The quasi-religious atmosphere that still adheres to courtrooms reflects the sacramental aspects of this process, the hushed acknowledgement that they are places where we have the awful and mysterious power to make fictions and reality coincide.

Perhaps the ultimately real story is that we are all pretty much like an insane person, our actions not under the control of some mysterious acausal freedom but instead subject to the generalized causal workings of the universe, as much as a falling rock or the lion hunting the deer. But it's vital to pretend we aren't.

[[update: here's another nice instance from Rush Limbaugh:

"What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He's sitting there in jail; he knows what's going on. He knows that ... the Democrat [sic] Party -- is attempting to find anybody but him to blame...He knows if he plays his cards right that he's just a 'victim.' He's the latest in a never ending parade of victims brought about by the 'unfairness of America.' The 'bigotry, racism, homophobia' of America. The 'mean-spiritedness of America.'

The poster at Washington Monthly seems to think that this is gibberish, but it makes perfect sense in the analytical framework I've sketched out. The Democrats want to blame the Republicans, and so the Republicans, as a defensive move, want to blame Loughner alone, and thus attack any connection between "mean-spiritedness" and his actions. And Limbaugh just takes the battle one step further and asserts that Democrats are "supporting" Loughner because they want to remove some of the blame from him and put it on the Republicans. This is of course nuts, but it's the product of Limbaugh's honed instincts as a propagandist and wholly political animal.]]


fsascott said...

An interesting account of Loughner from Mother Jones, hardly an organ of right-wing spin:

TGGP said...

Pedantic note: automatic weapons are hardly widely available. Semi-automatic ones are. And in most cases, non-semi-automatic alternatives (revolver, pump-action shotgun, bolt-action rifle) are about as deadly.

exuberance said...

People appear to have zero tolerance for the unexplained event. Once bound to an explanation the problem is resolved. Rebinding it hard. And people do have standard bindings to which they fall back. In the individual this is analogous to truth maintenance.

We must never forget! John Montoya's "Why The Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics"

One pattern unfolding here: I must be sure that my followers are provided a binding that fits well into my politics.