Forum Left, 3/6/12

Blame, Blame, Blame, Blame …

By Ben Tomkins

We are wired to search for reasons behind unthinkable things, and when satisfactory reasons don’t present themselves, we are wired to manufacture reasons from the best available information.

In many ways blame is nothing more than a crude tool for absolving ourselves from the difficulties of dealing with the unknowable and the unthinkable.  When we symbolically pile our sins upon a goat and drive it out of town with a stick it grants us a sort of grotesquely dismissive empowerment over the great struggle of our ego and our conscience.

A seemingly normal high school boy in Chardon has randomly shot and killed his classmates for no rational, logical reason, short of his own warped psyche.  These are terrible events and the greater the terror, the more extreme the need to answer the question: “Why?”

It’s only been seven days, but let’s blame government-run schools.  We don’t like the government anyway, and it would be easy to construct a hypothetical series of relationships that supports the admittedly shaky foundations of our misguided worldview and say “I told you so.”  It allows us to experience the feeling of being right, and to distinguish ourselves and our choices from those of the thing we blame.  It indulges our grandiose belief that we are intellectually superior and have inside knowledge of what’s really going on in the world.

It is well established by psychological and physiological studies that our brains are wired to release dopamine when we hear things we already agree with, and become repelled by thoughts that create dissonance with our understanding of our world.  As evidence, I point no further than the glee with which members of the Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention (thankfully unfulfilled) to protest the funerals of the Chardon victims as confirmation that God is angry with America for not agreeing with their religious beliefs.

Now I can choose to agree with your assessment that the government is at fault, or I can disagree.  Either way, the simple act of agreeing or disagreeing has not moved us any closer to the truth of the matter.  We’ve just decided to believe something because it feels good and cuts off our responsibility to deal with the greater difficulty that is the “why” question.

Without understanding the “why,” you are in no position to ascribe blame.  It’s been seven days …

If we pursue the “why” question, we find that it goes on and on.  We must be prepared for the reality that there may not be a satisfactory answer, or no answer at all, save the speculation into the mind of a crazed individual.  Consider the Columbine shootings from 1999.  Every possible reason we can think of has proved to be unsatisfactory for answering the ultimate “why.”  Video games, bullying, antidepressants, goth culture — even taken as a whole it fails to fully or even significantly explain what would cause two otherwise normal teenagers to bring guns and pipe bombs into their school and kill a bunch of their classmates.  The “why” is locked deep inside.

All we can know for sure is that at some point during the depression, angst, stress, pressure and pain of being a teenager with an underdeveloped rational thinking center in their brain, they were able to answer their own “why” question by blaming the institution of Columbine and the students and faculty therein.  In the absence of serious intervention from parents and friends and the privacy of the internet, their rooms, their journals, their circle of friends and their own minds, they bought a goat, piled their sins upon it, and drove it out of the city with automatic weapons before sending themselves to the place where the final “why” is answered.

The answers simply aren’t going to come because we give ourselves license to ascribe blame.  We will have to dig deeply, and think long and hard about the circumstances of the individual, the group, and the world to find any lasting satisfaction as to why the Chardon shooting occurred.  Columbine happened almost 13 years ago.  Chardon was seven days ago.  To begin ascribing blame would be the ultimate failing of personal pride and willful ignorance.  Worse, it relegates the shootings to the realm of the unknowable, and we will remain blind to the inevitable warning signs and circumstances that allow these things to take place.

To close this out, I work with a lot of families, and although I don’t have any kids myself I have become acutely aware of the tremendous pressures and difficulties facing every single parent, regardless of economic means or social status.  None of them is worried they’re going to actively mess up their kids.  They’re worried they’re going to mess up their kids through their own ignorance and flaws.  They are frightened they will ruin their kids, and not know “why” until it’s too late.

I know great parents whose kids are alcoholics, autistic, depressed, relationship disasters, criminals and every single one of their parents lies awake at night, staring into the blackness and wondering if they shouldn’t have immunized their child, or sent them to boarding school, or drank less, or whatever.  It’s awful.  Most of them will only be able to partially answer these questions over a lifetime of thinking, and it’s barely enough to allow them to continue on.  What I do know is that the answer is almost never to blame themselves for things they didn’t or couldn’t know.  There is no truth in it, and no peace.

— God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference   

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at BenTompkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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