Assign Blame where Blame is Due, and Treat People as Independent Moral Agents

The past couple of days have seen two unfortunate events, and two very curious reactions.

The events:

  1. The Vancouver Canucks hockey team lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the final.
  2. Some members of the crowd of people gathered in downtown Vancouver to watch the game engaged in violence and destruction of property afterwards.

The curious reactions (there were obviously many different reactions, but these are the ones that I find curious):

  1. One person whose internet output I read uttered a vicious and vulgar condemnation of one particular member of the Canucks team. Another person said that the referees of the game allowed the Bruins’ style of skirting the edges of the permissible level of violence1 in the sport to disrupt the Canucks’ “artistic” style of play and thus cost the team the final game.
  2. The latter person also opined that the riots were the fault of the city government, who failed to provide enough police officers to quell the violence.

Both of these people are ministers of the Christian Church, one quite prominent on the national level.

I think the common element that I find deplorable about these reactions is that they utterly dehumanize the actors in question by depriving them of their status as independent moral agents with their own free will.

The first reaction is typical blameshifting to anyone other than one’s favourite, in a situation of cognitive dissonance where somone (in this case a sports team) whom you believe is the best at what they do is demonstrated to fail in this regard. The fault cannot be in the team as a whole, but must be either that of one renegade element, or else malevolent external forces.

The proof that this reaction in the case of the Canucks’ game is invalid is simple: the Canucks won three games of the series in the face of all the internal and external forces that were present in the 7th game, thus showing that it was entirely possible for them to win the series. The fact that they didn’t is simply a reflection of the fact that they failed to adapt their tactics or maintain their collective motivation: they didn’t play well enough to win. Last time I checked, a hockey game is not scored on “artistic merit”, but by putting pucks in the net. If you are so wedded to your style of play that you cannot change it when it obviously doesn’t work, then you don’t deserve to win.

To assign blame elsewhere actually does the Canucks a disservice. How does anyone become better at a given task? By first being worse. By honestly analyzing one’s failures and adapting one’s tactics appropriately. Claiming that the Canucks played as well as possible in this series is to deny them the chance to improve in the future.

The second reaction is, I think, similarly born of cognitive dissonance. Canucks fans/citizens of Vancouver obviously cannot be the type of people who would trash a downtown over a sporting event, so the fault must evidently lie in the government and the police.

This is far more serious than shifting the blame from your hockey team. It serves to completely deprive the rioters of their status as moral agents, and deprives them of both the opportunity and the responsibility to improve themselves. It’s analogous to saying a woman’s rape was inevitable because she didn’t wear the right clothes.

The blame for the riots rests entirely with those persons who chose of their own free will to commit violence, and no one else.

Saying “we need more police” is the answer of tyrants and oppressors. If you truly believe that state-sponsored violence is the best solution to private violence, then why not just go the whole way and use automatic weapons on the crowd instead of tear gas? I guarantee that this would quell the riot in a very short time, and act as a considerable deterrent to future rioters.

I think that the final and largest reaction to the riots is the correct one. Don’t deprive the rioters of their chance to improve themselves by ignoring their moral responsibility in favour of blaming the police. Don’t call on the government to “crack down” on public celebrations in the city. Rather, do as thousands of Vancouverites did yesterday. Show that you can get in the news by doing good and not evil. Go out and provide a praiseworthy counter-example by getting your own hands dirty cleaning up the streets, repairing the damage, and showing the world how to lose graciously, take personal responsibility, and show your support for your gallant defeated by acting nobly and building up, rather than tearing down, your community and society.

  1. I’ll blog about my opinion about violence in sports some other time. It’s probably not what you think.