Blaming, shaming & toxic belonging
Text & images © Paul Ransom
NB: The original version of this piece – ‘The Blame/Shame Game’ – appeared in the book, The Pointless Revolution, (Everytime Press, 2019). The version below is slightly amended.
One of the signs of true freedom is the acceptance of responsibility. Likewise, I would argue that our tendency to think in terms of dehumanising abstractions – like race, or even ‘the system’ – allows us to more readily essentialise and demonise others and, in turn, to blame them for many (if not all) of the ills we believe beset us.
As I write1, the vogue du jour in mainstream cultural and political discourse in the West is solidifying around the narratives of what we currently call identity politics, populism and entitlement. Not only does this point to an uptick in broadly ideological thinking, (and the generalisations and name-calling this tends to imply), but this often virulent trio underscore and attempt to legitimise our commonplace habit of blame shifting.
Working in tandem with the ‘mono-causal fallacy’ – a popular mode of thinking which suggests that Outcome X is wholly caused by Antecedent Y – our blame/shame reflex also creates fertile ground for the righteous self-flagellations of middle class guilt. Cue the overfed alt-pose of the shame-faced oppressor who wishes they were cool enough to be poor, disenfranchised and statistically likely to die twenty years sooner. (If only they could put down their iThing for a second and go without food for a month they might just crack it.)
Some of the more high profile examples of you’re totally to blame and oh my awful shame include:
- It’s the migrants’ fault we all lost our jobs.
- The patriarchy is entirely to blame for me failing to get whatever I want – and wants to rape me.
- The feminazis are entirely to blame for me being hopelessly single – and want to castrate me.
- As an affluent, straight white guy I feel the need to apologise for every injustice that ever befell anyone (except guys like me).
- You are poor and voiceless because leftist elites hate you.
- White men are systematically defrauding, denying and disenfranchising you.
- Us white guys get blamed for everything – and dammit I’ve had enough and I’m gonna say so.
- The Islamisation of the West will mean the end of fun – and the genital mutilation of your daughters.
- PC queers want to destroy the family unit and steal everything you’ve worked for – and force your children to cross dress.
Of course, there are countless variations on this theme, and not all are as hysterical as the examples listed – and indeed it is true that injustice, prejudice and nastiness continue to exist. However, my intention here is not to tick or cross particular iterations of blame/shame but to draw attention to the underlying similarities that these kinds of narratives share.
Looking at them from the outside, we see that these constructions all rely on the use of labels and, more particularly, on the delineations of groups within society and the subsequent ascribing to those groups of characteristics, intentions and actions.
Whilst there are those who would seek to entirely demonise our proclivity for labelling, it should be noted that our pattern loving brains have been driving us to slice and dice our perceptions and categorise our experiences since well before any military industrial complex ever got started. It certainly didn’t take a gang of rich banking magnates to invent in group/out group distinctions. Neither did it require a sexist paradigm for us to recognise gendered behaviour differences, nor mainstream media for us to understand that some children are born with physical and learning difficulties that greatly increase the burden of care.
Therefore, to suggest that our tendency to name stuff (to label, categorise and delineate), is inherently oppressive is yet another ideological over-read. That said, like any tool, our sifting and sorting capacities can be used unwisely and unfairly.
In the case of the current fashion for ‘identity’ it is being used as a crude mechanism of us/them division; and we see this trend reflected in the sound-bite polemic of modern politics and in the ‘blame & shame’ populism of social media feeds.
Here again we encounter the usual suspects:
- Dehumanisation and demonisation.
- Mono-causation and narrative reduction.
- Historical amnesia and the refusal to consider evolution and animal fact.
The febrile tone of so-called gender politics in the twenty-first century West offers us perhaps the most clarion example of this one dimensional blame/shame dynamic. Both sides routinely fling insults – rapist objectifier, guilt tripping castrator – and both steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that both men and women hold sexist views and act in sexist ways. Neither seems ready to allow that the other is also affected by restrictive gender stereotypes.
Meanwhile, feminists (including its many male proponents) tout the all-round superiority and sanctity of women as a plainly evident truth and, as if in response, those in the men’s rights camp (including women) wail about PC censorship, male disposability and systematic emasculation.
In my view, both are engaged in an unedifying yelling match, where the prism of gender is used to propagate all manner of narrative excess. Even though both camps shine a light on the unfortunate and often cruel results of standard gender and sexual memes, the current tone of gender identity politics borders on extremist idiocy.
And all this despite the fact that since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) Western feminism has contributed significantly, even heroically, to the recognition and subsequent unleashing of the capacities and contributions of half the population to the cultural and economic life of our societies.
- Elsewhere on this site I have posted personal reflections on the gender war. Hit the link if you want to drill deeper.
But of course the core attraction of this crudest of dichotomies is that all the participants get to shift blame, externalise responsibility, play the victim card, and remain in a childlike state nearing slavery, where vile overwhelming forces mitigate against them leading the life they want and force them into servitude and/or shame. (Moreover, if one is being really honest, much of the gender diatribe is doubtless informed by conclusions drawn from painful personal encounters. Broken hearts and bruised egos. Yes, we’ve all been there.)
Let’s be straight – in the well fed, comfortably housed, historically liberal-minded West intellectually sustainable excuses for blame and shame have worn very thin indeed. This is not to say that there aren’t good fights left to fight, nor excellent fighters left to do the fighting, but rather that the easy linear attractions of infantile storybook encapsulation more often win the day, and that, (with the microphone of social media ever ready), the loudest cultural noises are the braying sounds of locked horns and the tabloid tantrums of grown up children.
- For more on this, see Whatever Happened To Adult Conversation elsewhere on this site.
When we really drill into the sandpit dramas around identity and entitlement what we witness is a kind of ring-fencing. Territory being demarcated. Teams being picked.
This harks back to the notion of the clan – which distinguishes itself from others, defines its membership and stakes out its ground; better to defend itself against external threats.
Perhaps if we weren’t living in such mammoth denial, we would be better able to clearly recognise these basic social animal traits in our abstracted and supposedly civilised behaviour. Then, maybe, just maybe, we might find mechanisms of belonging that weren’t so rooted in fear and exclusion, nor indeed so slavishly reliant on the use of the command and control narratives.
Then again, maybe that’s just me being fanciful.
PS: As mentioned, this piece is an excerpt from my 2019 book The Pointless Revolution: The Economics of Doing Whatever You Want – a copy of which you can order or download from my publisher’s site here.
1: The original version was composed in stages between 2016-19. I am not sure much has changed, tonally, since the Trump/#metoo days, pandemic notwithstanding. Indeed, even in my personal circles, I still hear multiple versions of blame/shame. Although my cohorts constitute a tiny sample of the population at large, and could well be significantly unrepresentative, my sense is that their tendencies are still broadly reflected elsewhere. Point being, this is a human trait, not a merely political or ideological moment – and not something invented or entirely confected by nefarious others. To conclude, I reiterate what I argued throughout The Pointless Revolution: that we need to truly take ownership of these behaviours in order to reduce their harmful impacts on self and others.