Oslo and "Blameless Responsibility"

July 23rd, 2011 

The slaughter in Oslo, in which a person set off a huge bomb in downtown Oslo, killing seven people, then went to a summer political retreat for young people and killed at least another 85 young people, leaves all of us in shock and disgust. Already, the blame game is beginning; people are seizing on this event to advance their political agendas. On the left, we have seen some people – not many, to be sure – emphasizing that the killer was right-wing and Christian. On the right, we have seen some people already defending themselves against the anticipated onslaught from the left. 

This mirrors the aftermath of the shootings in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in which the shooter was again a right wing extremist. Some people suggested that the violent rhetoric of some right wing politicians played a role in inciting the crime. And there have been a number of other cases of murderous right wing extremists, the most notorious of which is the Oklahoma City bombing.

My point here is quite subtle, so I want to present it carefully – and I expect you, dear reader, to take the time to read it carefully, too, as I expect some idiots to skim through this, misconstrue what I’m saying, and accuse me of simplistic thinking.

First, I want to bracket one end of my evaluation with the flat statement that the gunman bears all the blame for his crime. He, and he alone, deserves our disgust and denigration. Nobody else in the world deserves one iota of blame for his crime.

The “catch” is that I make a careful distinction between blame and what I call “blameless responsibility”. Here’s an example of the difference: suppose that you’re driving down the street and a child comes rocketing out into your path from behind a parked car. You instantly smash on the brakes, but there’s no time and you strike and kill the child. You are utterly blameless in this situation; nobody would place an atom of blame upon your shoulders. Yet at the same time, you will never shake the feeling of some kind of responsibility for the tragedy. “What if I had been driving slower?” you will always ask yourself. “What if I had been more vigilant?” 

The difference between blame and blameless responsibility is that blameless responsibility does not carry with it any baggage of shame or guilt. Asserting blameless responsibility is rather like asserting that you were moving at the speed limit. In moral terms, the only response is “So what?”

BUT in practical terms, there is a consequence associated with blameless responsibility: a connotation of desirability (NOT necessity) of altering one’s behavior. After the tragic accident above, any decent person would resolve to be more careful, to drive more slowly, and to be more vigilant. If somebody refused to contemplate such changes, we would rightly wonder about their moral fiber. 

I think that it is appropriate to assign blameless responsibility to those members of the right who have been spewing vicious and hate-filled rhetoric. There is nothing intrinsically vicious or violent about right wing politics. Indeed, in the 1970s it was the radical left that perpetrated murders, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Symbionese Liberation Army in the USA, or the Red Brigades in Italy. Now it is the far right perpetrating the violence. What’s going on?

The common element in both cases is an overblown sense of crisis. In the 1970s, the left perceived the world to be spiraling downwards towards a cataclysm of militarism, environmental degradation, and capitalistic excess. Leftists felt desperation that the whole world was going to hell, and the specter of nuclear war only added to the sense that “the future of civilization is at stake”. I do not believe this, I am only reporting the weltangschaung that underlay the leftist violence. More important, I think, was the response of left-wing leaders, who did little to contradict the ravings of the far left. They perceived a political advantage in presenting themselves as the reasonable alternative to the far left. In this, they were horribly wrong – instead of scaring the political middle into the arms of the center-left, the left wing extremists tainted the entire left wing. Liberalism went into eclipse for a generation, and has only recently begun to assert itself as “progressivism”.

Now the same thing is happening on the right wing. Right wing leaders (I’ll mention Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachmann in particular) engage in vicious rhetoric that sometimes tiptoes along the edge of the line. Sarah Palin mentions her gun and winks. Michelle Bachmann talks in apocalyptic terms about the doom that America faces. And right wing commentators from Michelle Malkin to Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh beat the drum of anger, victimization, and personal antipathy towards all who disagree.

It’s the sense of desperate victimization that is so dangerous. The Republicans passed the “Defense of Marriage Act” because they felt that they must defend the institution of marriage. There is, of course, absolutely nothing to defend here; the threat to marriage comes from divorce, not gay couples. Yet the right feels that the fate of civilization is at stake, that there are forces at work seeking to destroy their world, and that they must take strong measures to defend it.

This sense of crisis is what impels the extremists to acts of violence. Those on the right who give voice to the sense of crisis, who add to the chorus of voices screaming doom, are blamelessly responsible for the actions of right wing extremists. While they deserve no blame whatsoever for the actions of the extremists, it is incumbent upon them to consider the consequences of their actions. I believe that they have a responsibility to tone down the viciousness of the rhetoric, to abandon the pretense that the fate of civilization is at stake. Such frantic rhetoric may arouse the masses but it also feeds the extremists. 

I’m sure that some right wing readers will object that the left wing engages in vicious and violent rhetoric as well. Should they not be able to return tit for tat? This is a common contributor to misunderstanding. Many on the right read the ravings of the far left and think that they represent the entire left. Similarly, many on the left read the ravings of the far right and overestimate just how widely those ravings are shared. The ravings of one side do not justify ravings on the other side. Each of us is a participant in and contributor to the national dialog on politics. Each of us bears responsibility for the effects of our actions. If some left wing nitwit screams that we should lynch a right wing politician, that does not justify screaming that we should lynch a left wing politician. 

I therefore urge readers of both left and right to carefully consider their words in discussing politics. Sure, it feels good to unload your anger about the political nonsense of those with whom you disagree. But every time you resort to angry, vicious phrasing, you put a single molecule of viciousness into the blogosphere, and that molecule will drift who knows where, and could ultimately be the butterfly’s wingflap that triggers a storm of killing in some distant time and place.