On Blame

Blame. It’s an interesting concept for me. I think it’s worth thinking about. Even if it’s just on a little seen blog for a silly band…

Our society says blame exists. We blame people for things. If we blame people for something deemed serious enough we put them into prison. The purpose of prison is either punishment or rehabilitation (or both), depending on who you ask, on what you may think. In any case it is society’s way of saying “we blame you for this”.

In fact, studies, referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, have shown that people would rather have other people punished for their misdemanours, even ones that didn’t effect them personally, than have personal gain. In fact people would choose to become worse off themselves to ensure other people punished for their crimes.

Blame is important to people.

And so, it would seem, is justice.

But can we ever really truly blame people?

It can be argued that we human beings are a product of two things; nature and nurture. How important each of these things are, I can’t say. But you can’t one without the other.

Imagine nature without nurture. You lock Albert Einstein or Usain Bolt into a dark room as a baby and only clean and feed them. By the time 25 years have passed you do not end up with a 100m world record or a theory of general relativity.

Usain Bolt celebrates the completion o f his Theory of General Relativity

On the other hand, give a child the finest education, all the opportunities, the space it needs, love and support but the child was born with no higher brain function. A general relativity  or world record you do not get.

In fact the scenario of the boy raised in a dark room is a favourite with writers – Paul Auster exploring it in “City of Glass” (eternally damaged man-child), Werner Herzog in “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”(idiot-savante) and the possibly aprocryphal tlae of the king who locked his child in a tower never hearing a word, assuming he would learn the language of God (dumb child). )
So, say a child is born with a violent nature. They grow up and eventually get into an argument, things escalate and the adult kills someone. They are charged with manslaughter. Can we truly blame this person? It’s in their nature after all. Can we blame someone for their nature, for their genes?Ah, but then they should have learnt to control these impulses.
This is where nurture comes into it. Can we truly blame this person for not being nurtured to quash their impulses, by either their parents, their peers, or society in general? Surely we can’t blame someone for not having been “brought up better”? Or, after not having been “brought up well”, to then not choose better (moral) surroundings, which would have allowed them to learn to quash their impulses, for themselves as an adult?
How often we have heard the phrase “I blame the parents”, even if it’s just in jest? For example, it’s often reported that people who become paedophiles were abused themselves as children. Two recent high profile cases being Pete Townshend of The Who and Chris Langham of The Thick Of It, not that these people ever abused anyone (or are technically paedophiles). what of these people’s victims, who we pity so much as children, when they go on to abuse others themselves, they suddenly become monsters to blame?

So if we blame people’s parents (/their surroundings/their peers) for their misdemeanors, fine. But wait, surely their parents’ parents are to blame for their parents behaviour? And wait, surely their parents’ parents’ parents are to blame for their parents’ parents behaviour? and surely…. and on and on.

I, myself, can see two glaring counter arguments to my argument, water tight and well spelt out as it is.

My argument - visualised

Firstly, we might argue that we can judge and blame someone on their actions, on the quality of their character. That they have to follow society’s norms and moral judgements or else, we can, legitimately, blame them. Case closed. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. Take two rather extreme examples; Nazi Germany and Inquisition era Spain. Follow the expected moral codes there and here and now you would be branded a monster.

That’s the problem, there is no such thing as moral absolutism, a right way to live your life. It becomes up to the individual to decide. Which brings us to the second counter argument, free will.

This is a tricky one. What I’ve written so far could assume people to be mere automatons, following preprogrammed scripts, with their nature as hardware and their nurture being the software. No one is an active-agent in their own lives, seems like bullshit doesn’t it?

It’s a tricky one. I would argue that on the micro level, sure we all make our own decisions, we’re masters of own destiny. I myself have made the decision to write this article, for good or for ill. No one forced me to. I can be blamed for it. But I got to the point of writing this article because of

a) my nature: I’m introspective – I consider these things too much; I’m extroverted -I need people to hear my thoughtsand

b) my nurture: my background up to this point has lead me to be able to, and want to, have quasi-cod-philosphical thoughts about the nature of blame.

Going back to the “blame the parents to infinity”  scenario, we can take out “parentage” all the way back to before we human, before we were bacteria, before there was life, right back to the big bang. It could be argued that all of this was set in motion from that moment, like a supremely complex Rube Goldberg Machine (think Tom and Jerry’s  complicated follow-on mousetraps).

But then some people think Quantum Uncertainty means nothing can truly be predicted, thus free will does exist in the universe.

Either way, I say we’re a product of nature and nurture. Neither of which are our “fault”.

So to begin at the beginning again, there’s always a need to blame, people often feel wronged. Honestly, can you never think of  a sitaution where you’ve been wronged and you blame the perpetrator?  But those of an inquisitive bent will look for reasons as to why these injust things have  been done to them. Leading back to people’s natures, people’s nurtures.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t punish and we shouldn’t try to rehabilitate  but the notion of blame is a tricky one. Both on the macro (murder) or micro (shittiness in relationships) scale….

R.E.M. – Out Of Time

R.E.M. are dead. Some people said R.E.M. died when he joined the army… no wait that was Elvis … some people say R.E.M died when Bill Berry left. I disagree with those people. I like Up (the first post Berry album) as well…

R.E.M. when they joined the army

Anyways, I wanted to talk about “Out Of Time” rather than their recentish break up. As I am now reduced to listening to music through a discman, my music has been limited to the few CDs I have left. One of these is “Out Of Time” R.E.M’s 1991 album.

I hadn’t listened to it in about a decade. I have two main memories of it. The first when I was 8 and it’s songs were ubiquitous on the radio (strange to think now) – i liked them but claimed not to to annoy my sister –  and the next when I was 16 and decided to rediscover it’s music. I remember loving the album at 16 butwith some reservations. Listening again has been a mixture of nostalgia and reappraisal for me.

The first thing that struck me about the album as a whole was how, ummm, unconfident it sounded. The majority of the songs were gorgeous but they really struck me as the sound of a band trying to work out what it took to be a commercial success. It took me days to work out why this was, and it might be more down to me than them.

Reason a) This is the record that sounds most like Idlewild wanted to be circa “The Remote Part”. as an 18 year old I loved that album but always new it to be minor league aping. So maybe I’m associating Out Of Time with that.

Reason b) This literally is the album that was their big commercial breakthrough. Not that they were small before but this, via “Losing My Religion”, made them megastars.

Reason the c) I realised that I had literally taken the way R.E.M. wrote songs and internalised it. I kept on thinking “that’s the kind of melody/harmony I’d write! And the off key high bits! and the panned bongos!”. As I am an unconfident songwriter, I assume them to be.

Me and Idlewild - unconfident songwriters

Back in 2001 (when I listened to it the most) I always thought Out Of Time sounded a million miles away from what came before it in The R.E.M. catalogue. Now I can see a lot of Green, the previous R.E.M. album, in it. Green, funnily enough, does sound like a band trying really hard to be pop (including “Pop Song 89” as it does) but is a lot of fun so I never considered it to be tryin too hard. The song I see the most of Green in is, errrrrrgggg, “Radio Song”

Radio Song. It’s like they took all the worst bits of Green and made a song out of them. Erstatz funk guitar, crappy keyboards, incongrous middle 8… then they asked KRS-One to phone in the worst rap ever. I can imagine the scene:

Michael Stipe: “That take was ok, KRS but could you make it more ‘uncle at a wedding'”

KRS: “hmmm how about ‘baby, baby, baby'”

Michael Stipe: “Yes! Now add some ‘toddler who’s had too many e-number’s and we’re there!”

So I skip the first track. And the second. “Losing My Religion” is a brilliant song. A brilliant song that I’ve heard a million times.

So the rest of the album? I’ll just write a list of words then put up a link to “Near Wild Heaven” .

Whistful, gorgeous, hopeful, yearning, introspective…


I like Shiny Happy People.