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Do we really need to apportion blame, asks Richard Dawson.
The issue of finding fault has become a major pivot point for our society as more and more discourse resorts to this approach. We are exposed more now than ever to arguments, claims and accusations of fault. More, even, than the issue at hand is the question of who’s at fault. No-one is immune.
No matter what the extenuating circumstances may have been; no matter how irresponsible the complainant may have been; no matter how little real proof has been offered — the race to apportion fault is almost universal.
In the most tawdry of social media posts, in the only slightly less tawdry tabloids and the weeklies, in television and certainly in radio, the newspapers and even well-regarded industry magazines it seems that apportioning fault is key. It appears that so long as we can identify someone who is at fault then justice is seen to be done, and so the matter will be addressed.
Fault can be attached to individuals, classes of individuals, nations, races, genders, clubs, companies and families. So long as someone is to blame, we seem to feel better about it. I notice two outcomes of this assumption in general society.
Firstly, the "public square" has become even more empty than it was before. Simply no-one, even corporates, wants to put their heads above the parapet in order to comment on something even remotely controversial. The viciousness of the fault-finders is just too intimidating for the public to use the public square. As G. K. Chesterton once said “We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.”
Secondly, the quality of public debate has diminished markedly. Short of pointing the finger at the next sorry victim who must shoulder the blame, we seldom see a debate rise to the level of a gracious exchange of views, where different perspectives are given the dignity of having equal merit. Debate has gone. What we engage in is a shouting match from the outset.
Frankly, we are better than this and unless we move to change the nature of our public discourse, we will find ourselves not just less able to conduct ourselves intelligently but also far more open to believing the very worst view simply because it has been repeated most and with the greatest tone of complaint. Hate speech laws will, I believe, only make this worse because they will provide a greater target for complaint against anyone whose views are not widely accepted in society. This is very dangerous ground.
Jesus had a number of things to say about our speech which bring light to this issue. The first is that by our words we build our world. This is the basic principle behind the parable of the house built on sand. Of course, Jesus is talking about His words here, but the parable extends easily to all words. We build our world with our words and those we apply to others will soon be applied to us. We cannot expect that the complaint we lay at the feet of others will not soon be laid upon us. The finger we accuse others with is generally accompanied by four other fingers which point back at ourselves.
The second, which comes not from Jesus but from Paul, indicates that people only truly listen to those who listen to them, so that while aggression and accusation may achieve the desired results for a while, everyone knows when they’ve been bullied into a position it is eventually resented. Paul says, "Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone" (Col 4:6). In this we are encouraged to make our speech something that doesn’t demand a certain response, but which gives space for others to really make their own mind up — this is the meaning here of grace. Grace makes space for the other just as God has made space for us — both to accept and to reject Him.
This culture of fault-finding is simply a means of controlling public discourse by turning every matter into a "trial by outrage". We need to see through this and seek a more measured approach, raising up the value of listening, compromise and consideration rather than resorting to accusation, anger and complaint.
- Richard Dawson is the Presbyterian minister at Leith Valley Church in the north end of Dunedin. He has been Moderator of the Presbyterian Church and at present leads the Combined Dunedin Churches Pastor’s Community.