Total Drek

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Fundamentalist Attribution Error

Did you see the news this week on fundamentalist movement leader Rev. Ted Haggard? The one who has weekly meetings with President Bush. He’s quite clearly somehow been leading the fundamentalist Christian political movement and spearheading the effort to limit the rights of gay people, while maintaining both a meth habit and a relationship with a male prostitute at the same time. Everybody’s real surprised -- nobody knew. Of course he’s the only hypocrite in the right wing bunch (except Mark Foley, and Ralph Reed, and Tom Delay, ….). He’s the exception to the rule. They kicked him out, he said he’s sinned, and now everything’s hunky dory. It’s the era of personal responsibility, after all. That’s the right-wing, conservative mantra.

I hear this a lot. In the course I teach, I typically ask students to write several papers, arguing one or the other side of an issue on policy questions, such as the death penalty or the legalization of prostitution. Each of these issues has a stock liberal and conservative angle, and either is acceptable for the course, so long as their claims are backed up by real data and solid logic. But this requirement typically doesn’t stop them from doing a lot of parroting of political slogans about personal responsibility, and they typically are quite content to dole out unlimited punishments to those who've caused harm or disobeyed the law as a matter of course. The one that bugs me the most arises when we discuss the issue of gun control. Inevitably several students tell me in their papers that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This year, I warned them all not to use this phrase before hand, and I explained why, yet I’ve still read this silly slogan of the NRA twice so far. Why is this? Well, it sounds reasonable.

But it’s not, really. The second part of the sentence -- “people kill people” -- well, that’s hard to argue. Of course, that’s true in many situations (and I suppose in all murders). But the first part of the sentence “guns don’t kill people” is categorically false. Guns kill people all the time. Guns kill people 30,000 times a year in the U.S. alone, although only about 9,000 of these are typically thought of as as murders (more are suicides).
So, in the abstract, at least, both guns AND people kill in some situations.

The quip goes further than this, though, implying that for a given death, we have to choose between two mutually exclusive causes: either a gun or a person. It belies the fact that there can be multiple causes of a death. Logically, two factors can combine to cause something, where neither of them by itself would likely do it (drinking and driving, for example). Or several causes can each have an independent effect that accumulates (like an individual cigarette in the life of a chain smoker). Thus “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an unfair dichotomy. Both a gun and a person can be causes of a death.

To be fair, maybe, part of the issue is a definitional one. What do we mean when we talk about causes of death?

In one sense, X is a cause of Y whenever Y would not have occurred but for X. So, what caused, the death of Abe Lincoln? There’s a selection of answers, all logically causes: Lincoln was killed because of the Civil War and southern anger, because of lax security, because his wife loved the theater, and because of the existence of guns in general and handguns in particular, as well as because of John Wilkes Booth. They are all actual causes of his death: if any of these factors were otherwise, the death would have (arguably) been averted. Do you suspect that Booth would have succeeded with a knife? Or even a musket?

If ever the absence of a gun would have resulted in a less deadly scenario, the increased danger is the impact of the gun. That’s causation. And it’s not just nomenclature: it’s an extremely important designation. It implies that some number of deaths can be averted by controlling guns. And that’s the point, right?

Well, not necessarily.

If you listened to the Right, you’d have to conclude that the real issue is personal moral or legal blame. When blame is the topic, we naturally look to blame people: after all, it is impractical to indict hubris or repudiate an iceberg in the sinking of the Titanic. Moral and legal responsibility (blame) is located in a specific person and results from some state of mind, such as criminal intent or negligence or depravity. Thus, acts that are done for unimpeachable reasons (e.g., going to the theater) are not considered the true causes of their unforeseen results. Further, we make a collective determination that some actions are legally or morally justifiable, regardless of their expected consequences (e.g., declaring a righteous war, running a company that incrementally pollutes, or risking the daily rush hour traffic). None of these things will be “blamed” for a death, even if they naturally lead to one.

And here is where the argument ends up, time and time again. We choose not to blame institutions, organizations, or habits that we are comfortable with or we value. Is cancer the result of cigarette company’s fraud or of a personal choice to smoke? Is being an unwed mother or contracting AIDS the result of a lack of birth control availability and education or the personal immorality of the little sluts and homos? Is illegal immigration the result of a million individual criminals who flout the law and should be punished, or is it the result of an intractable force of economics and immigration policy?

The Right seeks to place blame, and so seeks to find a person to give it to. Policies won’t do. Inanimate objects won’t do. Cultural demands and values won’t do. Corporations and governments won’t do. It’s got to be an individual. I’m not sure why this is historically or religiously. Maybe somebody else out there does.

I do know it’s an example of what we in sociology call the fundamental attribution error. The failure to see multiple or alternate causes for events beyond those in and of the actor. People do this all the time, but it seems to me it’s the intimate province of the religious and political Right.

Now, just to be clear --I’m not suggesting the end of personal responsibility. I am not offering up excuses for bad behavior in an effort to avoid repercussions. Liberals are often accused of wanting to create an environment where there be no consequences for improper behavior, especially for the downtrodden or underclass. I do not have that view. I find socially mandated legal responsibility for one’s acts a vital tool in social control, no matter what a person’s individual circumstances. The prospect of personal punishment or failure does indeed discourage potential wrongdoers from doing wrongs, all else being equal. Certainly, the fact that a gun exists does not absolve the shooter of the responsibility and the blame for the death, nor should it emeliorate his/her punishment.

On the other hand, such deterrence-inspired policy has limited effectiveness, and once that point is reached -- once the severity of the punishment has no further power to diminish the behavior -- it is just cruelty.

And since there can be multiple causes of for anything, we cannot stop at personal blame, as we typically do. If we are only interested in placing blame, we forgo infinite potential ways to actually make the world better for those of us living in it -- to actually decrease future harms. Whatever else it is, the Right’s fetish with personal responsibility is counterproductive in the extreme. That is, personal blame never solves any of the problems in the long run -- it avoids all the real issues. How many Congressmen have to resign in disgrace before someone says “maybe it’s the congressional system that’s the problem”. How many corporate mavens have to be caught with a total callous disregard for their human brethren before we question the corporate system? How many fundamentalist religious leaders have to be defrocked before somebody says maybe fundamentalist dogma has fundamental problems? If it’s just another depraved, guilty, screwed up individual, we can shake our head and move on. Thank goodness the rest of them are all upright, competent, moral, and wise. Except the next one to fall.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warbler, where's the rest of your post? I wanted to see where you were going with this... -D's SF

Monday, November 06, 2006 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Warbler said...

Whoops. I have no idea what happened to the post - it got cut off - must be a conspiracy. I've fixed it though. Thanks for caring, D's SF.

Warbler

Monday, November 06, 2006 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Nice work, Warbler. I suspect you and Richard Dawkins would get on swimmingly.

Monday, November 06, 2006 1:15:00 PM  
Blogger DEANBERRY said...

Anytime you see a government pass laws against "terrorism" you can be sure that government is in the process of doing things for which "terrorism" is the only recourse: http://deanberryministries.net

Monday, April 30, 2007 3:40:00 AM  

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