28 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.
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.