Beyond Blame, or Outcomes Without Agents

Conservatives in my FB feed lately have been relentlessly pounding the drum about paedophiles. The line of thought seems to go that the Covid-19 pandemic is an orchestrated cover up for an increase in child abduction and child sex trafficking. The media is supposedly ignoring this story to focus on the pandemic and race riots. While these claims seem at least related to QAnon’s theory about child sex trafficking rings secretly running the world, I am seeing these ideas gain traction even amongst conservatives with no connection to QAnon.

I think the ease with which conservatives accept the story that “the media is trying to distract you from the child molesters” reveals something something about them beyond their widespread mistrust of news outlets. The figures and the staging of the story about secret paedophile rings appeals to a logic ingrained deeply in conservative thinking and discourse.

Consider the logic demonstrated in the meme below:

The above meme’s simplicity caused a lightbulb to go off for me.

The Right begins societal analysis by positing an essentially mysterious line of evil cutting through the body politic. There can be no explanation for this evil’s activities and effects beyond the fundamentally mysterious act of will in which the evil person chooses to do evil. This evil can only be regarded as an ‘x’ factor haunting society, thus requiring the constant vigilance of the forces of good to wage war on it.

Ask yourself this question: is there any systematic way to identify the predators, cronies, or rent seekers so labeled in the meme above? What set of criteria divides these groups from the earners, entrepreneurs, and protectors? Why did they appear here but not over there? In most cases, the division comes down to a personal judgment about another agent’s “character” and motivations, perhaps drawing on a story from their youth or their personal choices somewhere along the way. In conservative logic, the appearance of predators, cronies, rent seekers within a system must always be portrayed as purely incidental to that system.

We can see this line of thinking exemplified in the “few bad apples” analogy conservatives lean on when talking about police violence. Consider the core premises of the “few bad apples” logic:

(1) The fundamental good-enough-ness of the current system

(2) Good/neutral agents generally out number bad agents

(3) Bad outcomes are the result of evil people making evil choices

(4) The system as a whole cannot be blamed for the outcomes produced by the choices of the few evil people.

If a system is composed of multiple individuals, and only individuals can be held responsible for states of affairs, a system can never be an object of blame for a state of affairs. Social analysis within a conservative framework can only proceed by way of identifying perpetrators, determining moral status, and meting out punishment.

At its heart, the conservative model is driven by the need to assign blame for an outcome.

Structural analysis endeavors to reveal how a system composed almost entirely of “good” people can still produce negative outcomes. But, conservative thinking requires social analysis to identify blameworthy agents as causes for social effects, and thus struggles to see how systems can produce outcomes without agents. Structural analysis does not require an agent to be a cause, but rather attempts to describe, analyze, (and, we hope, change!) the coordinates which give shape to the agent’s framework of desire and action. We want to begin to understand the activity and effects of the non-human forces at play in human life. These purely structural mechanisms such as language, symbols, and myth can only be recognized as causes by moving beyond the drive to assign blame to an entity possessing a will.

In returning to our original example, we can see more clearly why conservatives groups tend to be especially susceptible to distractions like the paedophile ring story. Their instincts to assign blame fits more easily with a story involving identifiable actors perpetrating specifically morally reprehensible acts. Not only is child sex trafficking abominable in a fairly cut and dry manner, it also involves identifiable perpetrators, victims, and choices. It’s evil, but uncomplicated, and certainly not systemic. It doesn’t mean anything beyond itself.

Structural analysis on the other hand does not produce clean cut stories with particular agents making choices which straightforwardly lead to negative outcomes. Structural analysis focuses on the efficacy of symbolic structures to frame the decisions and meaning of particular agent’s choices, irrespective of that agent’s conscious intentions. The meaning of our actions are always over-determined by our symbolic and structural context.

When The Left describes how a particular moment dramatizes (re-stages_ the structure of a system as a whole, the Right responds by dissecting the individual case into oblivion. Because every real story is imperfect, every particular instance can be explained away with enough effort. But by isolating every event as a sui generis occurrence, conservative thinking loses the power to notice patterns, develop hypotheses about why certain outcomes keep recurring, and propose alternative structural arrangements.

The death of George Floyd is instructive here. Whereas structural analysis uses the particular event as a jumping off point to ask larger questions about cultural symbols, racial language, and policing practices, analysis on the Right digs into the details to show why the event can’t mean what The Left says it means. They do so by using factually true statements, such as “George Floyd had drugs in his system,” “the coroner declared him dead of a heart attack,” and “he was under arrest for using counterfeit currency,” in an effort to isolate the situation by making it about particular moral choices made by particular individuals. Then both parties become bogged down debating whether George Floyd was a morally upright man or not.

But this shifting of the playing field is precisely a distraction. George Floyd’s moral status, or even Derek Chauvin’s moral status, are not the primary object of scrutiny here. These figures stand in for more than just themselves. They are larger than life, dramatizing race relations in this country, right down to the Hmong cop passively keeping watch over the scene. The larger point is that millions of Americans saw that scene and instantly recognized themselves in it. “Ah, I’ve seen this before.”

This piece isn’t really about George Floyd though. It’s about how we would rather have a clearly defined good guy or bad guy as opposed to a complex and nebulous set of interacting systems. Humans prefer a wrong answer to no answer at all. Ultimately, people need a story and a figure they can grasp on to, and this story produces the feeling of an explanation for the numerous dysfunctions they are experiencing from traversing the many systems and communities which compose our modern lives.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Blame, or Outcomes Without Agents”

  1. This is a nice description about the uncritical rights interpretation of things. I do, however, think that it’s a strawman of some the rights positions. Taking a terribly pessimistic approach, we might say that the right has a somewhat more complicated view about how people in power should be the ones making decisions, and the views that truth for the masses should be whatever is needed so that those in power can stay in power; from this perspective, it may be that the good versus evil understanding is an aesthetic veil used to cover the actual ideology (I say this without needing to appeal to some kind of absurd conspiracy theory, we can just imagine that there are people on the right with this particular view point; indeed). I think there are other ways that can bolster the rights philosophical framework that makes it so that they do have the ability to generalize and do have the ability to be critical.

    The dual picture of your argument is, I think, the uncritical left interpretation. It is the idea that a particular analysis of social structures reveal the entirety of the complexity of the society; say, that the rich are necessarily evil and the poor are necessarily good, or that we can completely understand society by understanding it through the lens of feminism, racism, and class (not to say that these things aren’t deeply important, but they are just particular ways of analyzing society, and they will certainly embellish certain properties and completely miss other properties).

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    1. Thanks for the engagement, John! Regarding your second paragraph, when I was writing this post I wrote a few paragraphs about what I take to be the Left’s own distorted version of the structural analysis which I describe here, but I chose to use that content in another as-yet-unfinished essay instead of including it in this one. You’re absolutely correct that the Left can operate along these tribal lines while still drawing on the language of structural analysis, thus effectively maintaining a veneer of intellectual sophistication.

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