Eliza Manningham -Buller, a former chief of MI5, delivered a measured but deadly analysis yesterday of what she called the “blame culture” in UK society. She was giving an essay on Radio 4 in which she interviewed witnesses from the security service, social work, nursing, football management and private enterprise to make the simple point that the allocation of blame for problems or disasters had become more important than the establishment of facts. It interesting that she aired these views within a few days of the enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster exonerating the Liverpool fans whom Police and the Sun newspaper had been swift to blame without any evidence at all. Perhaps she would have found the immediate media response of blaming the disaster itself solely on the Police another proof of her argument.
She questioned whether any human enterprise, and especially those that have to make quick decisions on partial evidence, can ever be free of mistakes. Although many citizens, consumers, users of services and even football fans are convinced that what is provided for them ought to be perfect, all the evidence suggests that this cannot be the case, any more than in any sphere of human action. We are not always at our best, and even when we are, the world may be resistant. I remembered, listening to her, how she had given evidence to the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war, that Tony Blair, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to go to war on evidence which she had warned was inadequate.
She noted that there were occasions where evidence would reveal that someone had failed to prevent or even had contributed to a disaster, in a blameworthy manner. She was not suggesting that there should never be blame but rather that an unexamined belief in perfectability was justifying a culture of blame from which only lawyers and insurance companies benfitted.
She was more concerned to define this disabling culture than to ask why it has arisen. Without doubt, the need of news providers to sell their wares in a society where the morning´s news is dead by the evening, means that the arousal of public hysteria by providing scapegoats, is a successful strategy for making money. The notion of the scapegoat however, suggests that readiness to blame may have deeper social roots than Eliza Manningham-Buller mentioned.
The French philosopher/theologian Rene Girard, has argued that the religious and secular rulers of societies have always used the menchanism of scapegoating, that is, the shifting of blame for societal disasters on to a useful victim, through whose punishment/ death the social order might be preserved. Although in some societies this mechanism has been ascribed to God or Gods and honoured with appropriate ritual, Girard sees it as a means of maintaining power.
In the Gospels, the story of Jesus can be interpreted in a Giradian way as a challenge to a culture of scapegoating. Power was legitimated in Jesus’ society by scapegoating the sick, the poor, the Torah breakers and the foreigners.The fragile rule of Pharisees, High Priests and the House of Herod was held together by categorising others as “sinners” and using holy violence against Jesus for siding with them. Jesus announces the rule of a God who desires no victims and allows no violence; nevertheless he ends up as the scapegoated victim of his society’s rulers.
Jesus, then, can be seen as a challenger to a “culture of blame” by his teaching and healing, and ultimately as a victim who forgave, and thereby overcame, the victimisers. The teacher who wrote in the dust as holy men blamed an adultress, advising that the man with no sin should throw the first stone, would understand Eliza Manningham-Buller’s essay and encourage her concern.