Pitchfork Time: Externalizing Blame when a System Fails

When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart. William Gibson, Zero History

Its that dude’s fault, get him and everyone like him!

One the biggest problems of modern society, as I see it, is our obsession with laying blame (and avoiding blame). I frequently encounter situations in life and work, where people are so focused on blame that they ignore the actual problem, often letting it get worse. A reasonable approach to a problem is to solve or contain it first and only then move on to analysis, which should concentrate on responsibility (blame), but also prevention.

This propensity towards blame becomes truly disturbing (and fascinating) when systems, ideologies, and institutions fail.  A failing ideology rarely accepts responsibility for its own failure, and instead often externalizes blame, looking to direct the anger of the people towards a convenient scapegoat. Blame is assigned to minorities, social classes, foreigners, homosexuals, or people who have different political or religious beliefs. We’ve seen just how ugly this can become, time and time again. Despite the ugliness, or perhaps because of it, this kind of conflict makes for an interesting Fantasy Story.

In previous musings, I have examined the potential systems and ideologies as villains in modern fantasy. The basic idea is that systems become corrupt and ideologies are never as perfect as they seem. When skewed badly enough they can become truly monstrous. The NSA surveillance scandal/Patriot act is an excellent example. I can almost feel The Eye of Sauron Homeland Security peering over my shoulder right now, just mentioning it. I am minded of William Gibson’s Spook Country, where the characters discuss how behaviors changed after 9/11, how we always consider the possibility of people listening to our calls now. Surprise! its true. This is an excellent example of a system starting to go awry, it is very easy to imagine how it could get worse and reach truly villainous levels. The power of an institution like the NSA makes for a truly epic villain, while remaining eminently believable since everyone who lives in modern society has felt the heavy hand of one of our institutions at one time or another. The human agents of the system provide the interactive component for a nice tale, normal men and women serving the dysfunctional and broken, almost victims themselves.

Here are a few generic examples of how this could play out in a Fantasy World:

1) The Bright Kingdom loses a war. The King is actually a terrible field commander, but no one is willing to tell him that. The Kingdom is humiliated by the loss and needs to pay a rather hefty tribute to the victor. Additional taxation makes the already irritated people angrier, with major unrest beginning. Before things get out of hand the King decides that he can deflect blame off himself by blaming the rich Dwarven tradesmen. The Dwarves are easy to blame because they are a relatively new people to the Bright Kingdom, and racial prejudice is always depressingly easy to to stir up. Plus the Dwarves have money, which helps pay off the war debt and line the king’s coffer. The King has his agents stir the pot with rumours, and then “discovers” that the Dwarves have been acting as spies for the enemy! The protagonists would a Dwarven Family trying to survive and a noble who sees through the king’s scheme.

2) Long ago after a terrible conflict with Demon worshiping cultists the people of the Midlands created a series of mystic Guardians to watch over their cities. These Guardians are the souls of the Greatest heroes lost in the conflict encased in powerful magical armour. Over time the Guardians have become synonymous with justice, righting many wrongs in their constant vigilance against the Demon cultists. An entire Order has grown around the Guardians, assisting them and growing strong. Problem is that the Guardians have started to go loopy and kill people who are not cultists. The Order fears that if people find out that Guardians are breaking that they will lose influence and possibly look weak to their enemies. So they blame the erratic behavior of  the Guardians on magic and crackdown on “illegal magic, rounding up all mages.” The protagonist would be a mage who saw a Guardian go crazy.

3) The Scarlet Emperor is advised by the Guild of Celestial Mathematics. The Celestial Mathematics’ Calculations have just failed in a key prediction and adherents of the idea are frustrated. The Emperor is displeased and the Guild risks falling out of favour, In truth the problem lies with the idea of Celestial Mathematics, but instead of blaming the system the Guild decides to blame the scribes who performed calculations. They scribes declared unclean and their families are exiled. The protagonists would be one of the family members, and a mercenary bodyguard.

When a powerful entity lays blame on others to preserve itself, all kinds of chaos and brutality can ensue. Many of the great genocides, wars, and injustices of modern history begin with this sort of action. Fantasy is a great genre to examine this tendency. The writer can delve deeply into race, religion, and creed without involving real world groups, or even invent a distinction to act as a focus for prejudice, like the ability to wield magic. This step back from reality lets us examine the idea of prejudice and its relationship to externalizing blame in a pure environment. The reaction to this sort of  blame makes an entertaining backdrop for any fantasy tale, especially those of a more modern bent. Failing systems and prejudice itself are the sort of villains that we intuitively understand in the modern day, and still seem strong to us. You don’t really need to look very far these days to run across examples of massive over-reach from our largest institutions.

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One comment on “Pitchfork Time: Externalizing Blame when a System Fails

  1. […] That said I cannot resist writing about the current US shut down. It is a near perfect illustration of one of my earlier blog post: how nearly everyone in a position of power seems obsessed with avoiding blame. […]

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