Late last month, Anders Behring Breivik bombed government offices in Oslo, killing eight people. He then went on to kill another 69 people at a youth labour summer camp. In the wake of these killings, commentators from around the world have engaged in heated debate over who and what is to blame. Breivik alone, his father, the Right, the Left, immigration, multiculturalism and inherent evil have all been the focus of this determined desire to apportion blame or to defend against it. How do we understand this mad rush to point the finger? Why are we so drawn into polemical discussions in the wake of tragedy? What are the consequences of this kind of polarised debate?
Every time we lay blame we’re on our bikes peddling furiously away from what is real. From shame, hurt and from responsibility. Blame is always a frustrating process of trying to make sense of the past from an already changed future. It is this change first of all, however painful, that we need to acknowledge.
The problem with pointing the finger so soon after this tragedy is that as some have pointed out, it’s not the right time. The mourning has only just begun.
Reflection is a part of any process of recovery, but its place is down the track, after the pain of an event is felt and expressed. A real reckoning of the part we have played in any tragedy is necessary to avoid repeating it and for healing to happen. But premature finger pointing is detrimental to real learning. In the midst of pain and shock is not the time to ask questions why. Asking why questions or trying to answer them at this time is always an avoidance of pain. And by avoiding the pain, we’re missing some key information useful in understanding what happened, recovering and avoiding repetition.
And where can blame possibly stop? If Breivik’s father is to blame, then surely so is his father and his father before him in a kaleidoscope of so ons. If the rise of racism is to blame, then where are the legions of other killers? There is a kind of terribly lazy thinking around this issue that has a decided air of emotional suppression.
Think of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note if you can bear to — so many years down the track and I still find it heartbreaking. There is a terrible and careful skirting here of responsibility, for his loved ones and particularly for his daughter, and a quiet blaming of his assault as a young child for his decision to violently take his own life. Above all there is an attempt to make skewed meaning as a way to allow himself to continue with his destruction of his own and of others’ lives.
The note is a classic example of blame shifting, something we have seen so much of in the wake of the killings in Norway, and something so many of us do whether we are trying to make sense of the unthinkable or perpetrating it
Most of us want to remain ignorant not only of our own responsibility but also of the complexity of the truth. We want things to remain simple and disconnected. So we make simplistic claims about causality. This event happened because of this, or this needs to be done to fix things, or as Kurt did, my daughter will be better off without me.
Blame is so appallingly passive and fatalistic. We hang onto it tightly particularly when we don’t want to do anything. The question of why something happened is so often a substitute for facing up to what we can do.
Research psychologists who are interested in how we maintain one-sided or unsubstantiated opinions, refer to the concept of confirmation bias. This is simply the idea that we tend to favour information that confirms our own beliefs or hypotheses. Add to this our tendency to choose to come to conclusions that we already believe to be true, and you have a recipe for ignorance and the repetition of complex painful events.
So we may argue about what happened in Norway in what appears to be an open dialogue but we’re really only arguing, often with a huge dose of hyperbole, about who got the finger pointing wrong.
There are cognitive motivations for holding onto one-sided views, but there are also strong emotional motivators for shutting out new information and for laying blame. So often we fight tooth and nail for the privilege of telling our story as we see it, at the expense of all others. We want not only to avoid responsibility but also to avoid the pain of connection. Above all we want to avoid being changed by the experience of another. We want to control not only our own history but that of others as well.
So Breivik, not so unlike Kurt and not unlike many of us who are trying to justify our own terrible acts, constructs an enemy he is justified in destroying. And we in turn respond by pointing our own fingers in an attempt to avoid the pain of our connection to this event. And we shore up our blaming stance by avoiding any real and open dialogue that would let in the complexity of human behaviour.
How we make meaning out of tragedy says a lot about our own struggle with responsibility. When we blame, we reinforce our own illusion that we are powerless and we expose our desire to remain emotional children. This is bad faith, shirking both knowledge of our duty to ourselves and to each other.
On the other hand, holding ourselves and others accountable is an active stance that requires work and courage. When I hold you accountable, I acknowledge that we are interdependent and I’m more interested in truth and restitution than punishment. When you hold me accountable for my behaviour, then I have an opportunity to change and to really acknowledge what I’ve done to you.
Anders Breivik needs to be held accountable for his acts of terrorist violence. His family and the political climate in which his hatred grew are also in some way accountable. None of us does anything in a vacuum, good or bad. There is a complicated social web that holds and shapes each of our actions even while we hold the ultimate responsibility for them. If our purpose is to understand and to prevent future acts of terrorist violence, then we need to be fearless in the pursuit of accountability and undaunted by complexity. We need to engage with the painful reality of our freedom to act.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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