Amazing, the human brain, consciousness layered over instinct, habits of thought, the ways we feel, rationalize, justify, seek for why. In the wake of tragedies, we tend to react with fear and blaming; it is as if we could only discern who or what to blame, perhaps we could learn how to prevent it. So we “reason.”
But all too often, what we are doing is not using reason. Instead, people tend to blame whoever or whatever best suits their own, already-decided view of the world and use “reason” to justify their feelings, a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” on which Daniel Kahneman has much to say. Cognitive biases inherently interfere with objective analysis, which is sometimes a lovely and rich part of the human experience but which also leads to terrible misuse of analysis. We usually act based on biases rather than on logic (see this page for a long list of biases). So many ways to justify our often-mistaken and uninformed beliefs or responses.
Anthropologist and philosopher René Girard offers insights into the desire to blame–a sociocultural desire, deeply rooted in the way humans behave when in groups and, he believes, one of the foundations for the development of religious rituals, among other things. As we endeavor to “make sense of” impossible events, to “discover why” they occur, we seem naturally to turn to blaming. Apparently, designating a scapegoat consoles us somehow, allows us to believe we might have some control over what is terrible, not unlike sacrificing a calf to propitiate an angry god.
I lived just outside of Newtown, CT for a few years in the 1980s. I still have friends there and I know the area well. It was a safe town, and it is still a safe town; only now, it is a safe town in which a terrible and statistically-rare occurrence happened. That sounds rather dry and heartless: “a statistically-rare occurrence.” Yet from the logic standpoint–if we are being reasonable–it is simple to discover that by any measure, U.S. schools are the safest place a school-age child can be. Fewer than 2% of deaths and injuries among children ages 5-18 occur on school grounds. I got these numbers from the US Center for Disease Control. Keeping an armed policeman at every U.S. school (as recently proposed by the president of the NRA) might possibly make an incrementally small difference in that tiny number. Might. Possibly. Rationally, would it not make more sense for us to address the 98% and decrease that number? Though I am all in favor of hiring more people to safeguard our cities, the only real value of such a move would be to reduce a mistaken sense of public fear.
Because we are afraid, and fear is keeping us from rational and compassionate behavior. Fear can be useful–it probably helped us survive in the wild, and it continues to serve good purpose occasionally; but human beings ought to recognize the value of fear is limited in a civilized, community-based, theoretically-rational society. Rational, compassionate behavior on the part of our nation would be to remove the lens of public scrutiny from the people of Newtown and allow them to deal with grieving in the privacy of their families and community. We cannot come to terms with private loss, nor ever understand it truly, through network news, tweets, photographs on our internet feeds, or obsessive updates on ongoing police investigations.
Fear also keeps us from finding resources of our own. It blocks us from our inner strengths. The families and friends of the victims and the killer need that inner strength more than they will ever require public notice, no matter how well-intentioned the outpourings are.
Blame. Whose fault is it? Children and teachers and a confused and angry young man and his mother have died violently, and I’ve been listening to the outcry all week–even though I have tried to limit my exposure to “media sources.” Here are the scapegoats I have identified so far: the mental health system; semi-automatic weapons; violent computer games; the 2nd Amendment; the media; autism; school security; the killer’s father and mother (herself a victim); anti-psychotic drugs and the pharmaceutical industry; divorce; god; U.S. legislation concerning weapons and education and mental health; bullies in schools; the NRA; the victims themselves, for participating in a godless society; poor parenting; narcissism; the Supreme Court; President Obama; the CIA. I’m sure I have missed a few. (Andrew Solomon’s recent piece in the New York Times also touches on our default blame mode; his list coincides pretty closely with mine; see this article.)
Scapegoats serve several purposes. They allow us to say we, ourselves, no matter how guilty we feel, are not at fault. They give us an excuse for disaster, something to punish or something to attempt to change through controls we can think through and develop (“logically”). And in fact some good may eventually come of the changes and the control we exert, but such change is likely to be small and long in arriving. Mostly what scapegoating achieves turns out to be bad for us, however, because what it does well is give us something to fear.
Fear motivates us to read obsessively every so-called update on the killer’s presumed (and, ultimately, unknowable) motives, to argue over the best way to address the complex and intertwined issues that each of us perceives to be the root cause of any particular tragic event. Our fears make us consumers of media, and our information sources respond to our need to know why and our desire to blame. Our fears drive us to purchase guns to protect ourselves even though statistics continually prove that more U.S. citizens are killed accidentally or intentionally by someone they know intimately (including themselves, especially in the case of suicides–which Solomon also addresses in the essay I’ve cited) than by strangers or during acts of robbery, terrorism or massacres. “News,” as we have come to know it, is predicated on reporting things that are dramatic and therefore statistically unlikely. Suppose our information sources kept an accurate hourly update on weapons-related or motor vehicle-related deaths…would we become immune to the numbers? Would we say “That’s not news”? Would we be less avid consumers of such “news sources”? Would it comfort us to know we are more likely to be struck by lightning twice than to die in a terrorist act on U.S. soil or be killed by a deranged gunman in a mall or school?
Can we delve into our inner resources of rationality in order to fight our fears?
I think not. Fear is not easily swayed by facts. Instinct trumps reason psychologically and cognitively in this case. Fear is so emotional that it requires a deeply spiritual, soul-searching response perhaps–instead of a reasoned one. Perhaps that is why so many of the “great religions” include stories of human encounters with a god, godhead, or cosmic intelligence which humans “fear” (though the term is used to signify awe and recognition of human insignificance rather than the fear of, say, a lunging tiger). In these stories–the Bhagavad Gita and Book of Job among them–a human confronted with the godhead recognizes such fear/awe that he can never afterwards fear anything this world has to offer. In the face of what is beyond all human understanding, there is no reasoning, and no human “feelings” that psychology can explain.
Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Words well worth recalling in times like these.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
Namaste, Shalom, Peace, Al-Salam. May your find the strength within yourself to make your way compassionately through this world.