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The blame – and fate – culture

The Sun and Daily Mail are reporting that the organiser of a fireworks display under investigation following the major accident on the M5 earlier this month has “been forced out of his home after a hate campaign. Geoff Counsell, from Firestorm Pyrotechnics was targeted after the bonfire night celebration became the centre of a police investigation into the pile up that killed seven people and injured 51 others.” (Mail) The police are looking into claims that thick smoke from the display, which was at Taunton Rugby Club, limited drivers’ vision and contributed to the crash.

Whilst staying at my mum’s shortly after the accident, I listened to part of Nick Conrad’s phone-in programme on Radio Norfolk. He talked about the police investigation and bemoaned the ‘blame culture’ that often seeks to point the finger as a means of explaining away misfortune. He said “sometimes there is no-one to blame” – sometimes it is just “fate” taking its course.

It seemed to me that, until he started to mention fate, he was heading towards the essence of the Buddha’s teaching: mutual causality (to use American Buddhist activist Joanna Macy‘s term). This teaching tells us that everything – road traffic accidents, new governments, recessions and changes in world-view – arises in dependence on conditions, and that these conditions co-arise and are intimately inter-related. But with the word ‘fate’ he brought in something else which, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is just as pernicious as blame.

Joanna Macy says, in her excellent book The Dharma of Natural Systems (to use its snappier title!), that “presuppositions about cause and effect are as invisible and pervasive as the air we breath. They are implicit in every world view, at work in every enterprise.” The invisible and pervasive presupposition that has led to the M5 witch-hunt is based on what Joanna Macy calls ‘linear causality‘ – the simple-minded tracing of a single line of cause and effect back to someone or something seen as the ‘prime mover’ – in this case, Geoff Counsell.

The linear causality world view “owes its centrality in Western thought to the Greeks,” according to Joanna Macy. She traces its development through Plato and Aquinas into Christianity, and through Descartes and Newton into scientific rationalism.

Now, this might all sound a bit abstract and academic, but these viewpoints are really what drive our actions and our politics, and unless we are clear about them then they will continue to drive our society without us realising.

So what is so wrong with linear causality and with blaming? Nothing – so long as it is used appropriately and in the right context. Skillfully isolating less significant conditions so as to view more clearly the circumstances leading to an event are what underpin science and justice alike, both of which have led to unprecedented human progress and prosperity. But, as with so many views, they have spilled over into areas that are not their domain, causing suffering and summary justice of the worst kind. And the alternative is not fate, or ‘acts of god’, as the legal system still refers to them – a fatalistic world-view, if it could be fully lived out (which it can’t) would deny all responsibility and the possiblity of change – a bleak view indeed. Instead of blaming or being fatalistic, then, let’s take responsibility for ourselves in the knowledge that each of our actions and non-actions has its effect on ourselves and on the world. This is by far the most productive world-view that I have come across.

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