Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough: who is to blame?

Grenfell Tower burning28 years on, six people are to be prosecuted for the Hillsborough tragedy. What, just six? Is that justice? Is nobody else to blame? What about the more widespread culture of mutual support and avoiding blame, among the police just as in many occupations? After all, whistleblowers are unpopular – and the louder the whistle, the more unpopular the blower.

Blame for the Grenfell Tower fire is even harder to pin down. The contractors who installed the inflammable cladding? Kensington and Chelsea Council? The other contractors and councils, elsewhere, who used the same cladding in buildings which by lucky chance didn’t burst into flames? After cuts upon cuts to local government expenditure, should we blame the Government for squeezing the whole system to the point where this happens? But then, if the Government is to blame, aren’t the voters to blame for electing them?

What is justice anyway? No prosecutor will bring the dead back to life, so why do we want prosecutions? Is justice just revenge? Or scapegoating? What is it supposed to achieve?

What concerns me here is that the process of attributing responsibility easily becomes destructive. We can instead do it constructively.

Blame and punishment

Long ago, when we humans first evolved, we had instincts. Some were selfish, some caring. Retaliation, for example, was useful for self-defence.

Later we developed consciousness, free will and the ability to decide what to do. We still had our instincts, but we could practice the art of suppressing them. (Those who don’t believe in free will can deny this, but if we don’t have it nobody is to blame for anything anyway.)

We can use free will well or badly. We can use it to invent justifications for the instinctive actions we felt like doing anyway. The idea of retribution, still promoted by the tabloids, turns retaliation into a theory: that punishment restores the moral balance after a crime. On this theory, justice is done when the guilty are punished.

René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred shows how societies demand punishment even if it means punishing the innocent. By heaping all our denunciations onto a limited number of people, we treat the punished as though they alone were to blame. In this way we exonerate everybody else.

The presupposition is: if only the evil act had not been performed, everything would have been fine. It is a conservative response. It wants to put things back the way they were, as though everything was perfect before.

Of course it wasn’t. Before Hillsborough, before Grenfell Tower, there was no moral balance. A lot was wrong. Those tragedies were not the result of a few rotten apples in an otherwise good barrel. Seeking out a few individuals to punish does not address the real causes.

Future hopes

At other times, when we are not looking for someone to punish, we know perfectly well that society isn’t the way it should be. There is no original moral balance to be preserved against decline. On the contrary, we debate endlessly what is wrong and how to put it right. Characteristically we are less conservative, more progressive.

So an alternative use of our freedom is to dream of a better society, and plan to bring it about. Seeking to move forward rather than back, a positive, progressive response does not pile all the blame onto a few individuals and leave the majority unchanged. It expects to change society as a whole.

This is more realistic. Grenfell Tower is a good example. Responsibility spreads across a spectrum. At one extreme, immoral decisions were made. It was not just that some people made mistakes. In addition some chose to benefit themselves – their jobs, their reputations, their profits – at a cost to others. The cost was in safety, and a lot of lives.

At the other extreme, ‘health and safety gone mad’ produces 8,100,000 Google hits, ‘health and safety red tape’ another 6,800,000. These are popular memes. All those millions of people grumbling about ‘health and safety gone mad’ are not personally responsible for the fire. It would be crazy to prosecute them all. Still, they played their little part in developing the culture that produced it.

Morality, often mistakenly treated as a purely individual matter, is more of a cultural process. We influence each other. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

How to respond constructively?

  • There is no ‘moral balance’ to be restored. A morally desirable society lies in the future, not in the past.
  • Society is not a healthy barrel that just needs to single out a few rotten apples. We are all shades of grey. Different shades, perhaps, but all able to contribute to society’s moral values, either well or badly.
  • When prosecutions establish moral guilt, we can use the information to ask how society can minimise the likelihood of responsible officers resorting to such tragic actions.
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7 Responses to Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough: who is to blame?

  1. Andrew (Andy) Crow says:

    “But then, if the Government is to blame, aren’t the voters to blame for electing them?”

    I was thinking along these lines in relation to the situation in the Middle East a little while ago.

    The conclusion I came to at the time, and I think I’m still reasonably comfortable with it, is that there are no innocents in a democracy. There are innocents dying in Iraq and Syria because they have no functional democracy and WE are killing them. All of us do the killing because our government acts at our behest. It then begs the question are the victims of ‘terrorist’ bombings here in Britain, carried out in retaliation, innocents? Media driven groupthink says yes; logic says no.

    Re the Grenfell fire my first reaction was to regard this as ‘one of Margaret Thatcher’s chickens coming home to roost’. And I think that’s right, but as you point out we have all gone along with the shift in the …. social morality which Thatcherism promoted and that ethos has not changed through successive governments.

    Those of us who have opposed this change in our society are still culpable because we have not opposed with sufficient vigour. We have accepted TINA. We have cravenly accepted that there is no alternative.

    Yanis Varoufakis, who talks and writes with a lot of what I regard as good sense and insight suggests we should divorce TINA and form a new marriage with TATIANA: That Actually There Is AN Alternative.

    The original idea of the ‘scapegoat’ avoided the scapegoating of individuals by placing the sins of the people on the goat and driving it from their midst. That was insightful and an insight we have lost. ( I think there’s some symbolism we have lost aswell about ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ which means the scapegoat metaphor doesn’t translate well through to the present.)

    The Christian belief that Jesus died bearing the sins of the World is connected to this isn’t it? But the logic breaks down, or at least becomes confusing and that is perhaps because of the paradigm shift from Old Testament to New Testament thinking. Jesus was the lamb of God not His goat.

    • A very thoughtful response, many thanks.
      I see two problems with holding voters responsible for government decisions in a democracy, although I didn’t mention them in this post. One is that no one person can know about everything. The other is that voters depend on the information available to them. In this sense, my feeling is that the information provided by television and newspapers is increasingly skewed to the interests of a small number of very powerful people. You might say we’re democratic more in form than in substance. But I don’t want to exaggerate this. Everyone can imagine what it’s like to be a Syrian whose village is bombed.
      I like the idea of TATIANA. I’m a fan of Varoufakis.
      Was Jesus a sheep or a goat? The first Christians used, as you say, symbolism and metaphor to describe the death of Jesus. Jesus is expelled from the community of the living, taking our sins with him. Jesus is our food for the journey from slavery to freedom. Both work as metaphors. But not as precise definitions.

  2. Jonathan, I’m sorry, but this piece worries me. You seem to be suggesting that blame should not be attributed in this (or any other?) case, because ‘René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred shows how societies demand punishment even if it means punishing the innocent. By heaping all our denunciations onto a limited number of people, we treat the punished as though they alone were to blame. In this way we exonerate everybody else.’

    So what then? Do we simply shrug off the fact that an inflammable cladding was put where it should not have been, and many people died horribly as a result? As is typical of him, Girard does a smartypants bit of concluding that simply will not bear the scrutiny of logic. His basic error is to hold that we attribute blame because we want to punish. That proscribes blame-attribution as essentially immoral. One product of his obtuse reasoning was the ‘I don’t do blame’ escape-route so beloved of people in positions of responsibility (on whose responsible performance lives depend!) who have not discharged their obligations. (Remember the tragic Baby P case, and the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster?) If we blame no-one when a disaster has a clear man-made cause, then the occupiers of the pertinent positions of responsibility learn that they need not bother to discharge the duties of their positions, for there will be no consequences if they do not. Is this a practical, let alone moral, social behaviour?

    • Thanks Sophie. You always make me think.
      I am trying to distinguish between two responses. One denounces the centrally responsible people, and distances everyone else from them. So once we’ve established a limited number of people to blame, we exonerate everyone else. This is the scapegoating that Girard describes.
      The other is more concerned about what went wrong, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s more practical.
      Both require an analysis of who did what, and both require a distinction between mistakes and immoral actions. So there’s a proper place for prosecutions in either case.
      I quite take the point that bureaucracies play the ‘I don’t do blame’ game in order to defend themselves against criticism at times when they have failed in their duties. I wasn’t trying to exonerate anyone in particular. My concern is the reverse – that moral responsibility is much wider. Maybe you know more about Girard’s ideas than I do, but what I took from him was that the desire to punish – and exclude – has its roots in ideas of purifying the community by getting rid of the bad bits. This then leaves everyone else feeling they are fine as they are.
      Your mention of Baby P reminds me that I spent a year as a social worker. After I left, cases like Baby P, leading to prosecutions of social workers, always left me feeling it could have been me. I wasn’t good enough to imagine I would have done better.

  3. I’m afraid I disagree vehemently once again, Jonathan. This is a moral idiot’s position, as Girard’s so often is: ‘So once we’ve established a limited number of people to blame, we exonerate everyone else. This is the scapegoating that Girard describes.’ It is perfectly and intuitively obvious that the ‘limited number of people’ who are blameworthy in any circumstance are identified according to the remit (or the hierarchical standing) of each for which each is remunerated. Clearly then, in any organisation, the top executives are to blame for bad outcomes in that organisation. The ‘trying to work out what went wrong’ position that displaces holding to account crudely exonerates them. Worse, it is the position that tolerates, e.g., rogue bankers’ taking enormous bonuses and retirement payouts after bringing down their banks to the point where only an onerous taxpayer bailout can divert a systemic crash and its dire consequences. And the Baby P case: The head of the public service department responsible was an insolent hag who declined to accept responsibility, but took her huge pension and compensation(!) payout and got away with it. She was very noisy on the ‘I don’t do blame’ piece.

    By the way, were any social workers prosecuted in this case? As I remember, there were not. Nor should there have been, for strangely, no-one was ever designated as the on-the-ground person responsible for Baby P’s welfare. So a moral retard mother and her depraved criminal boyfriend were left free to torture the baby to death. The responsible person was the head of department: she should have had a structure in place where this would not have happened. But she was not held responsible. That was downright immoral.

    I’ll not write again, Jonathan. I’m sorry I’ve been so clamorous. But I think Girard seriously dangerous, for he licenses the unseemly behaviours of corporations (private and public). And he draws his fan club from those ranks, hence his big reputation despite his intellectual limitations.

  4. Steve D says:

    I think that a major issue is the hysterical desire of the tabloids to find a guilty face and plaster that all over their front pages.

    In situations like this there are at least 3 separate questions:
    1. Who goes to prison?
    2. Who pays compensation?
    3. How do we prevent this from ever happening again?

    The problem is that the candor and honesty required to answer question 3 satisfactorily potentially undermine any defence to questions 1 & 2. That is why some investigations are done on a no-blame basis, recognizing that normally it is a series of decisions and events that lead to a disaster, and prosecuting the person most directly to blame is probably unjust. However, if we do prioritize question 3, how do we ensure Public Accountability, that whatever you do, no matter how much time passes, you will be held accountable? Which is a major motivator to make sure things are done correctly to start with. Frankly, I think we need a new offense of Deceit in Public Office, to make clear that it is the cover-up we object to.

    The other problem is, of course, cash. Now, Jonathan, you are an environmentalist, and consider that we must not hand this land to our children in a worse state than we found it. That if we have to forgo some conveniences to achieve that goal, such as private ownership of the internal combustion engine, then so be it. Now the government is borrowing millions of pounds in new debt every day. Is this not polluting our children’s future with debt? Now there are people that say that governments are above mere petty domestic limitations of borrowing and spending, but I regard that as just wishful thinking. It is not malice to want to live within ones means.

    Another point is that, if it is found that someone in the council did decide to use cheaper cladding, that was not so they could just pocket the money. They probably were well meaning, and had other constructive things the council could spend the money on instead.

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