I Blame You!

18 Feb, 2013

On the day of the infamous flood that turned McGill into an island in a matter of minutes, a friend of mine got soaked trying to make his way home. This friend, who has repeatedly voiced his negative opinions about the Parti Quebecois, texted me saying, “The PQ are a bunch of incompetent idiots. I blame them for my wet shoes.” Aware of his longstanding hatred for the PQ, I rolled my eyes, shrugging off his comment. I would expect such a reaction from him; he has always blamed unfortunate occurrences in Quebec on the PQ, no matter how directly they may or may not be responsible. However, he is not the only one who does so; scapegoating is an omnipresent and counter-productive part of all our lives.

After speaking with my Torontonian mother, I discovered that many Ontarians had made similar brash accusations. Apparently, she had spoken with a friend who also claimed that the flood was somehow the PQ’s fault, stating it was “poor planning on their part”. Another popular argument was that the drastic change in temperature over the course of just a few days had been too much for the old pipes to handle, and that such strange climate conditions had been unprecedented since the pipes were built. A potentially more compelling argument is that climate change is to blame for the flood.

Scapegoating – the habit of singling out a particular person or party for unmerited blame and negative treatment – has always been an inherent aspect of human nature.  Charlie Campbell, author of Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, states in his book, “The blame game is one of mankind’s oldest rituals. After disaster, we invariably look for someone whom we can hold responsible.” Desire for retribution, and the very strong negative emotions it elicits, often cause individuals’ judgement to become distorted and biased. Once people have established an entity toward which they feel significant negativity, those individuals become accustomed to blaming that entity for all unfortunate events or circumstances. This tendency can grow proportionally to the resentment felt toward that entity.

Why did McTavish flood? Easy, the PQ! I already dislike them and this happened on their watch, so I might as well blame this on them. I can say the same for climate change. Everyone knows it’s bad; it probably caused this, right? Wrong…According to a construction worker on site, a valve which was supposed to be closed was left open that afternoon, causing overwhelming pressure on the water equipment to which the valve led. Thus, the true cause of the flood was simple human error. Not a political party and not a global climate phenomenon.

Another well-known instance of scapegoating occurred during and following the spread of HIV/AIDS in North America in the 1980s. When a modern disease breaks out, the scientific community seeks to identify the first confirmed case of the disease. After the outbreak of HIV in North America, the term Patient Zero was coined to describe the person who received this first diagnosis. Gaëtan Dugas, a Canadian air steward, was identified as HIV’s Patient Zero. He was accused of knowingly spreading the disease to countless partners, and much of the blame for the spread of the disease itself was laid on him. While there is no denying that Dugas had been diagnosed with HIV, it is unrealistic and unfair to blame the spread of a complex disease on any one person, particularly when that disease is one which neither we nor Dugas fully understand.

Scapegoating is a lazy practice. It provides for a quick escape from delving into a full analysis of problems and their causes. As a result, individuals who blame problems on pre-established scapegoats fail to accurately assess the full picture, thus preventing them from establishing a logical and, more importantly, effective solution. The more we turn to scapegoats for answers, the more we distance ourselves from finding real solutions to our problems. In this information age, it is more important than ever to maintain an objective and unbiased stance when analyzing a problem and its possible causes and solutions. After all, as Campbell bluntly concludes in his book, “Scapegoating doesn’t work”.

The erroneous accusations made on January 28th were the result of a longstanding human tendency to jump to conclusions based on pre-existing negative feelings toward particular scapegoats. Human nature dictates that we crave justice and retribution; unfortunately, this desire can often be so strong that we fail to analyze situations objectively and rationally, allowing negative emotions to cloud our judgement. The PQ was not at fault for the January flood. However, many individuals impulsively blamed them, out of habit of holding the PQ responsible for problems in Quebec of all sorts in the past. Brash allegations against scapegoats like the PQ are unjustified and unproductive. It’s time we forget about of our go-to culprits and start looking at our problems from a rational, objective viewpoint. Then, maybe some solutions will take shape.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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