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On Blaming a Shark

Clear Consciences & Criminality

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

I'd never heard of the Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szmborska until recently. I came across an excerpt of her poem "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself" and had to read it in its entirety. The poem is profound, and if it's representative of her ouvre then she is definitely a poet to read. She deals in a deep, intuitive, and truthful way with the deepest questions of existence, meaning, and morality.

I found the poem in an article by Joyce Marcel, which is also worth reading. However, I take issue with an assertion of hers: "No matter how much we may dislike the Bush Administration and their policies, they aren't criminals. They're doing what they believe is best for their country, wrong-minded as they may be." I vehemently disagree with this. They are indeed criminals in any sense of the word. To give a simple example, one of their first activites in International Relations was to blackmail allies to exonerate Americans from the jurisdiction of the ICC(International Criminal Court) by threatening to end military assistance to countries that fail to sign illegal exemption treaties. A law was even passed to invade Holland — referred to as the "Hague Invasion Act" — should a Murkan be held by the court. They also had plans to invade Iraq before the 2000 election even took place. Since 1+1 = 2, just add their desire to invade Iraq with their blackmailing allies to sign treaties protecting Murkans from the ICC's jurisdiction, and you get a crystal clear sign that the Iraq attack was a pre-meditated war crime.

Nor do they in any way believe what they are doing is best for the country. Their loyalty is strictly to the handful of religious kooks, monopolist cronies, anti-intellectual brown-shirts, and wealthy parasites who put them into power. They do what is best for themselves and their cronies, fuck anyone else. All they care about is lining the pockets of oil and war profiteers (ie, their own pockets), no matter how many lies they have to tell nor how many innocents they have to kill.

But I digress. The important question the article brings up is the relationship between blameworthiness and conscious intent. To put it more simply, as Szmborska's remarkable poem illustrates, can one blame something merely for being itself?

The poem ends by equating a clear conscience with beastliness. That is a fascinating and volatile comparison! Perhaps that's one of the reasons we fear nature so much — nature does not have a conscience. Nature is amoral. Nature cannot make ethical assessments, does not have conscious intents, has no notion of criminality. Something amoral is always more frightening than something immoral because there is no conscience to appeal to: mercy is precluded. (This explains our fear of intelligent machines, a la The Terminator. Hence the necessity to instill in them a sense of morality (cf Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics)).

Part of the power of natural ferocity — whether by beast or natural destructive force — is that it is primal. There is no underlying psychic presence — it's all just a purity of cause and effect that we can attempt to understand, but cannot sway. And that's part of the sublimity and awe and fear we feel in its presence. And it makes the development of religion understandable as we seek some kind of mediation in its effects on our daily lives.

Animals function by biological imperative — they do not have a sense of right and wrong. Right and wrong is reserved for us creatures who possess ratiocination — the ability to think and reason through something. Hence a person almost by definition cannot be amoral for there is always some kind of self-awareness in a person's actions against some kind of cultural measure. But someone who lacks an ability to sympathize or empathize, someone who seeks only their own aggrandizement regardless of the methods and consequences is sociopathic.

So how does blame fit into this? I can "blame" an earthquake for destroying my home, but what purpose does that serve? I can't hold the earthquake accountable. I can mourn it, but any kind of retribution I want to exact — for ultimately this is what blame desires — is not only futile, it's absurd.

So where does the human fit into this? Criminality is based upon factors pertaining to conscious intent and ethical assessments. (Perhaps this is what Marcel is thinking when she asserts that we can't consider BushCo criminals — for surely their consciences seem all too clear as they commit one atrocity after another. (Their psychopathic inability to apologize, or admit mistakes, except as politically expedient to do so, clearly indicates this.)) Criminality is dialectically connected with some sort of morality — no morality, no criminality. Thus, when evaluating the seemingly sociopathic amorality of BushCo can one hold them to any kind of blameworthiness? Can we blame them for doing what are ultimately manifestations of their inherent nature? Perhaps this is what Marcel is implying in her article by means of quoting Szmborsk's poem.

But BushCo does have a morality. It is the morality of the strong, of might makes right, of the id claiming its rapacious right to take whatever it wants. It is the morality of Mr. Hyde. We may not agree with it or like it, in fact we should rightly abhor it, but it is a defensible ethical stance.

Blame, Understanding & Punishment

This issue of blameworthiness is one I've long struggled with. And apparently I'm not the only one, as this issue brings up fundamental legal issues of criminal culpability. For instance, the entire insanity defense is based upon the notion that one cannot be blamed for criminal acts if they are not cognizant of their criminal actions while committing them. Should a person be punished for such a thing? The implication is that if one understands that the crime was not done with conscious intent — that it was the result of "insane" thinking that shut-off "normal" thought processes in properly assessing right from wrong — then surely, so the reasoning goes, the person would not have committed the crime. Thus it comes down to a question of conscious intent. And to make such a determination requires that one understand the cause(s) behind the effect(s). There is a strange calculus between blame, understanding, and punishment.

The metaphor I use to illustrate the problem is simple: can one blame a shark for biting off one's leg? Yes and no. Yes — obviously and literally — because the shark bit it off. No — not so obviously — because the shark is just doing what comes naturally to it without either malicious intent or ethical awareness. Blaming the shark for wanting to eat tasty meat would be like blaming rain for being wet: while technically accurate, what's the point? Retribution — as blame implies — yields nothing except a purely human, if loathsome, desire for revenge. Yet being angry at the shark for simply being itself is only natural in such a circumstance. But it feels strange to blame a shark for doing what is instinctual to it because blame, rightly or wrongly, suggests intent.

But what about a more ambiguous, everyday situation. Parenting doesn't come naturally to most people, even though most people have the urge, for whatever reason, to be parents. Yet because the vast majority of people have never learned to think for themselves — it's far easier to accept one's cultural assumptions than to challenge them (and can people be blamed for that?), especially when the tools for learning how to think critically are often either not culturally available (in less developed cultures), or suppressed for reasons of social control (in more industrially advanced ones) — most parents are mediocre at best and have little inkling on how to raise children to be authentic, open-minded and filled with positive self-esteem. (Of course by saying this I'm exhibiting my bias that these are positive character traits.) Parents mostly raise children to be as emotionally and mentally stunted as themselves, as many studies have shown. (For an excellent introduction to this — especially as child rearing pertains to political authoritarianism — check out The Politics of Denial by Michael A Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad.) The question is: can one blame one's parents for fucking up one's life, even though the parents did the best they could?

For certainly parents do the best they can when raising their children. And yet, as the poet Philip Larkin says in his famous poem (here in its entirety)

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

So can one blame one's parents for fucking them up? Is there even a point to blaming something? Isn't that the easy way out — to blame others for one's own problems?

The Cell

Which brings to mind the movie The Cell. Whoda thunk that a Hollywood horror movie reveals some profound moral and psychological truths? And yet it does.

The plot: via some high-tech ingenuity a person is able to enter another person's psyche. We have a psycho-killer, a psychiatrist, and a cop. The killer is found but in a coma. The killer's next victim needs to be found before she's automatically killed via some plot device. The psychiatrist enters the killer's mind and comes to understand how he came to be a psycho-killer. The cop has no desire to understand how the killer came to be one, and merely blames the killer and wants to punish him.

Amidst all the ingenious eye-candy art direction is a profound metaphorical exploration of the calculus between understanding, blame, and punishment. The psychiatrist comes to understand the killer and, because she's able to empathize so well with him, comes to be his accomplice. It's a remarkably astute metaphor for the fear people have of trying to understand the reasons behind something abhorrent: that understanding invites the possibility of sympathy, then empathy, then justification, and, ultimately, condoning, if not colluding with, the abhorrent. It reveals just how dangerous the ramifications of understanding the abhorrent could be, and really gave me some insight into the phenomenon.

Yet, on the other hand, the cop, who only wants to punish the killer, increases the resistance of the killer and thus sets up battle lines that only strengthen each in their resolve to triumph. Blame builds only defensive walls that prevent communication, protects egos, and nurtures a cycle of retribution that feeds intolerance and hatred; it guarantees that not only will things not improve, they will deteriorate. In seeking retribution without understanding the cop forestalls progress in finding the killer's next victim.

Ultimately the psychiatrist realizes that understanding requires some sort of ethical mooring: after all, what the killer did may be understandable (given what we learn of his upbringing), but it cannot be excused because it is so wrong. The killer must be held accountable.

Terrorism, Murka & BushCo

Which brings us to Murka. One of the problems that America has with even asking the question "Why do they hate us?" (or, more accurately,"Why did they crash airplanes into those buildings?") is that Murkans fear understanding per se because of its implications: that it will lead to sympathy, possibly even empathy. That perhaps, most dreadful of all, the terrorists may even have been justified in their hatred towards Murka. For if one understands something heinous doesn't that mean one becomes, by some sort of definition, sympathetic towards it? If I understand why a man beats his kids, doesn't that somehow mean that I am finding him less blameworthy?

However, the point of understanding is not to exonerate culpable behavior. It is to discover and evaluate causes so that we can determine ways to prevent, or lessen, negative effects. Without understanding one is doomed to do the wrong thing because once one imposes their own will on a situation they are demanding reality bend to their will by edict — and reality does not obey projections of ego, no matter how much force and illusion (in the sense of self-deception) is brought to the task. In a situation where no attempt is made to understand a foe, for example, it is a guarantee of defeat because a willful refusal to understand an opponent’s motivations can seriously undervalue the opponents resolve and tactics. (Can anyone say "Iraq" or “Vietnam”?) Lack of understanding is a guarantee of continued conflict. Lack of even a desire to understand is a guarantee of disaster.

It's a lot easier to blame than to understand. Blame is a simple knee-jerk reaction that demands retribution. Understanding requires an active attempt to exercise our mental and emotional faculties to help us come to terms with something that may be completely alien and hurtful to us.

Murka is a retributive society. It would far rather punish than prevent. Simple example: the drug war, which has ruined countless lives with draconian punishments for harmless recreational drug use. Another example: the incessant and heated attempts by philistines to deny sex education to adolescents (and stupidly advocating abstinence until marriage as a valid substitute), to prevent adolescents from having access to birth-control, then forbidding abortion when some girl finds herself unwittingly pregnant, then stigmatizing her for birthing an unwanted child and being an unwed mother. This entire scenario is intended to channel people into the social institution of heterosexual monogamy — otherwise known as marriage — by severely punishing deviations from this path. After all, for some reason in Murkan society it’s far easier to blame and stigmatize a girl for getting pregnant than it is to understand and accept that children have enormous natural sexual drives. Yet, ironically enough, it's far easier, and far less of a burden on society, to help a child understand her sexual drives, and how to practice sex safely and responsibly, than it is to pay the great social and personal costs that result when blame, ignorance and stigmatization ruin her life by keeping her in the dark about her own biological drives as a means of social control.

So one can simply blame 17 people for flying airplanes into national landmarks and seek some kind of retribution. Or one can try to come to an understanding of how this came to pass and seek ways to prevent it from happening again. But to even preclude the possibility of understanding with such stupid homilies as "they hate our freedoms" or "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" is a guarantee that a retributive cycle is in the works.

So what about BushCo? Are they blameworthy? Their actions certainly indicate a moral sense, if only because their words are diametrically opposed to their actions. They always know just what to say to soothe the public after some hideous public betrayal. They know when they do wrong because they are masters at lying and dissembling to hide their actions. Why lie and dissemble if you have a clear conscience? Because at some level there is a moral sense — they are all too aware of what they are doing. It's just that their moral sense is very unlike the common moral sense of the great majority of our civilization. (Or, perhaps, it is only too like it — could they be the Mr. Hyde behind capitalism's Dr. Jekyll? the realization of capitalism’s true essence unleashed?) Yes, they are certainly culpable.

Working in Concert

Blame and understanding are not opposites — they need to work in concert if there's to be hope of progress. Understanding without blame makes us passively complicit in misbehavior by not taking a stand against it. And blame without understanding is a guarantee that a problem will not be ameliorated — that it will, indeed, probably become exacerbated by entering a cycle of retribution. (Think Israel and Palestine, IRA & England, Hutu & Tutsi, Russia & Chechnya, Hatfields & McCoys, etc etc etc.)

So yes, one can blame a shark for biting off one's leg. But understanding why it did so is a good way to prevent it from happening again, and helps us to come to terms with it so we can move on with our life.

One final note: if one understands something, and one can blame something, but punishment is impossible or impracticable because this something cannot be held accountable, and one cannot prevent this bad thing from happening again, or cannot even protect oneself from it, then one has a few options: one can resolve oneself to it and accept things as they are; one can fight it, knowing that they will lose while refusing to submit; or one can remove oneself from it by changing their context. I have chosen the last option, and have left Murka. There will be much to say about this last option in this blog.