Avoiding “Us” and apportioning blame

Posted by on Apr 22, 2007 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments


Been prompted to think a bit more about the subject of the previous post, following a walk, a strange debate with a cyclist on the canal towpath and a few comments on here.

Everywhere I look on- and offline, I find more examples of language and opinion being used to shift the blame. Cho himself claimed in his now notorious message that “you caused me to do it”.

The WSJ (as linked before) or similar across the water try to push the blame back onto Cho and/or lax gun laws and/or poor mental health care provision and/or lack of neighbourliness and or lack of armed guards in every class room (or even, as the guy who sold him the guns suggested, the low level of self-defence gun ownership on campus!!!) ; over here Sarah Baxter of the Sunday times follows others in using fancy abstract nouns (“Society” “Masculinity” “Feminisation”) to objectify the causes out there and push them away from the community in which he lived.

She cites the great Camille Paglia, Who believes Cho is emblematic of the crisis of masculinity in America. “Women have difficulty understanding the mix of male sexual aggression with egotism and the ecstasy of self-immolation,” she says. Or to quote Martin Amis on that other killer, Fred West: he became “addicted to the moment where impotence becomes prepotence”.

Even this apparently insightful and sympathetic line is ultimately an attempt to push the blame out there. None of us will feel in anyway responsible if we can agree that Cho Seung-hu was mad, sick, evil or was subject to irresistable forces like “feminisation” or some combination of all of the above.

Lack of responsibility for each other’s actions is of course is one of the upsides that our cult of individualism; it helps us blame them and disassociate our selves. And it works in a nice virtuous circle to help mental illness flourish, too by encouraging us to follow our own concerns and reduce the human-human interaction essential for our happiness and also for curbing our worst excesses (or at least spotting them).

Guenther Grass, the Nobel Prize winning novelist, warned his fellow Germans that they were all – whatever they felt – tied up in the Holocaust. Many understandably disliked this.

Africa has long seen our resistance to interdependence and mutual responsibility as part and parcel of our wierd cult of “I”: “The white man regards individuals (as) tiny organisms with private lives that lead to private deaths: personal power, success and fame are the absolute measures of values, the things to live for. This outlook on life divides the universe into a host of individual little entities that cannot help being in constant conflict” (Policy statement, 1944, of the Youth League of the African National Congress).

Deep down we’ve taken a wrong turn. We’ve misunderstood (quite fundamentally) what it is to be human and the more we pursue our “I” ideology, the more it drives us to flee each other and make things even worse. Desmond Tutu suggests that our interdependence means that just as if you are diminished by something, so am I (as are we all).

When are we going to learn that it’s not the laws or the guns or the lack of opportunity to express one’s masculinity that’s the problem?

It’s us. And our insistence on our separation, one from another.


  1. Mark
    April 23, 2007

    Another aspect that the editorials only gloss over is that this was someone who was bullied because they did not fit into the group or herd. Cho may have been silent to being with, but when he emigrated to the US his ostracization and bullying pushed him (or so it seems) to new depths.

  2. mark Earls
    April 23, 2007

    I think that’s spot on, Mark.
    Interesting to see how the bullying thing swings in and out of the coverage. First it’s a key causal factor then it disappears because we’ve all decided Cho was evil or mad…
    It’s all either/or: black and white.
    In classical chinese logic there was apparently no such convention as the “law of the excluded middle” (which says something can be A and NotA at the same time)> By contrast, our thinking seems to be the more monochromatic because of this convention…
    Clearly not the only factor, I know

  3. ian
    April 23, 2007

    That’s interesting but I must say I’m a bit uncomfortable with the way this incident has been used for a thousand articles and blog posts, each offering their own angle and explanation for an event that we know next to nothing about, and that I suspect simply can’t be explained by recourse to abstractions (it’s the gun laws/it’s feminisation/it’s western individualism/the law of the excluded middle!).
    A mentally ill man has killed thirty blameless people with a gun. That is a fucking tragedy. Anything else we say at this point is superfluous.

  4. Jamie
    April 23, 2007

    Gunter Grass was only half right that all Germans shared in the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg’s Shindnler’s List succeeded in creating an awareness that we humans together have responsibility for what we do. For what we all do. The battle is between two “wolves” inside us all, the Cherokee story goes.
    One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
    The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
    “Which wolf wins?”
    The simple answer is “The one you feed.”
    It is not merely ideology that has caused the separation of which you write. Urbanization, technological innovation, all have served to remove uncertainty from our lives. We are no longer farmers but buy our food. We are removed from nature as well as from our fellow man. A state patroled community won’t solve this breach. We do have to look inward, though, don’t we? By giving it a name (as you suggest) we are trying to externalize this evil when in fact it resides within us.

  5. mark Earls
    April 23, 2007

    I tend to agree, Ian, but in this case my first post was based on the fact that this horrific example echoes one that has been used by Nisbett (and his readers, like me) to explain how differently two groups of people conceptualise human nature/behaviour and its drivers.
    And I do believe that – however unpleasant – our responses to such events tell us such an awful lot about how we behave and how we think about that.
    Jamie – I think I agree with your comment. But let me clarify, by “ideology” I don’t mean anything political, merely the assumption that we carry around (without realising it) that human behaviour is essentially determined and thus best observed at the level of granulation of the individual subject.
    I call this a ‘cultural ideology’ after Durckheim: he talked about those ideas which shape how we see things, ideas whose power comes from becoming unquestioned and invisible; such ideas shape how we see the world. Indeed, Durckheim (and others) suggest that such ‘ideologies’ lead us to believe that the world just IS this way; that the idea is just part of the fabric of the world and how things are.

  6. ian
    April 23, 2007

    interesting counterpoint to your musings here. I’m afraid I agree with Prof Kramer…