The need to blame

The Scape Goat

Scape goat 2016-07-11 16.27.50

From Wikipedia:  scapegoat is a person or animal which takes on the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems. The concept comes originally from Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert with the sins of the community. Other ancient societies had similar practices. In psychology and sociology, the practice of selecting someone as a scapegoat has led to the concept of scapegoating.

The photograph is of a statue in Lacock Abbey, England.  The goat has a cube of sugar on his snout, as the attendant said – “to soften the burden”.

The expression of the need to blame is easy to see (to this day) in the behaviour of mobs seeking vengeance in tribal societies.  We don’t use mobs for this purpose anymore, but the need is still in us and regularly expressed to the press by family members of victims of whatever disaster/accident happens to be in the news.  They can’t find “closure” (perhaps also revenge) until someone is found to blame.   With all the benefit of hindsight, the legal system seeks to determine negligence.  Blame and negligence are both social constructs that express this primitive reaction.

One may expect people to do their best when faced with the unfolding of unexpected Outcomes.  However, if they know someone will subsequently subject their actions to scrutiny from the safety of their desk, it is not too surprising that they will modify their account of events to protect themselves. Knowing that blame is to be sought, it is a very human response by those involved in a significant accident to seek to deflect the blame to someone else, because blame leads to punishment.  Where a blame culture exists, people involved duck for cover and truth is the second victim of the accident.

Surely, the way around this for a civilised society is to investigate without attempting to apportion blame, but to seek to learn the lessons of how better to prevent such things in the future.  Truth survives in this environment.  Tragic victims are honoured by it.  Those ordinary and essentially decent men and women who have the misfortune to be present in the unfolding of the adverse Outcomes of an Event can be honoured for their well-intentioned efforts.   Society is better because we have behaved decently afterwards and because we learn more and better lessons. An inquiry, in such a culture, would be essentially non-adversarial in nature.  The law, however, is essentially adversarial in nature, so an inquiry should not ideally be conducted by people who would find it hard to see beyond such a culture or who know their findings may be used for legal purposes.

This article contains examples of blame or non-blame cultures.

Air India technician sucked into jet engine

An Air India technician, Ravi Subramanium, was sucked into the jet engine of an Air India aircraft when it was pushing back at Mumbai airport.

The BBC report quoted an Air India official as saying that “only an enquiry can establish whose negligence it was and whether the engine should have been switched on at that time.”

The assumption that negligence will be found suggests the official has a deep-seated view that coincides with Heinrich that 80% or more of all accidents are caused by unsafe acts, as well as equating these acts with negligence. This can be contrasted with a very different comment made by a senior manager reported in my blog under the Amtrak train derailment heading.

Not all ‘unsafe acts’ are negligent.  A careful understanding of what constitutes negligence is needed to be able to pass this opinion and this, being a legal construct, must be based on an understanding of the application of law in the relevant jurisdiction.

Source:  BBC news 17/12/2015

The Easter Star sinking – June 2015

The Chinese cruise ship Eastern Star sank in poor weather on the Yangtze River with the loss of nearly 450 lives.  At the time the authorities acted with typical alacrity in arresting the Captain of the vessel.

The BBC reports that an inquiry into the sinking has “concluded that it (the sinking) happened because of highly unusual weather” in the form of “freak strong winds”.  The BBC reports that the ship was hit by a sudden squall at night and the strong winds overturned the vessel in “just a minute or so”.

The inquiry also recommended the Captain be investigated for possible charges and further recommended that 43 junior officials who were partially responsible for the sinking should be sacked or disciplined.

The BBC reports a relative of victims told their reporter that she could not accept the report as it “treated the captain too leniently and did not offer and apology”.  She said also: “… the authorities should at least give us the truth and an apology, my parents died in vain.”

It is a regular feature of reported accidents that the relatives of victims feel the strong need to have someone held responsible and for the lack of this they feel unable to experience “closure” and feel that in some way the death of their loved ones is being treated lightly.

Source:  BBC News 30/12/2015.

Mecca Crane collapse – September 2015

A construction crane working on the mosques at Mecca collapsed during a storm and fell into a square known as the Kaaba, where it killed some 100 people.

According to, “an engineer on the construction site around the mosque described this as an act of God. “It was not a technical issue at all,” he told Agence France Presse. “I can only say that what happened was beyond the power of humans. It was an act of God and, to my knowledge, there was no human fault in it at all.””



    The Hillsborough stadium disaster on 15th April 1989 is a classic example of the need to blame. An interesting book by Phil Scraton entitled Hillsborough – The Truth provides an alternative account to the media and police versions of the event.

    Almost 30 years later criminal negligence prosecutions are being considered after a recent independent panel returned a verdict of unlawful killing in April 2016.

    However, the risk associated with crowd disasters at major events was not unknown and previous incidents during recent years occurred at Burnden Park in Bolton (1946) and Ibrox Park in Glasgow (1971)and the warnings went unheeded.

    Since Hillsborough, major stadiums have been re-designed and are now all seated.


    It is almost fifty years since the Aberfan disaster in South Wales which resulted in the deaths of 144 people, mostly school children.
    The need to blame was evident during the subsequent tribunal. The disaster led to the introduction of Robens style legislation and codification of common law duty of care, yet a similar event occurs with the collapse of the Samarco tailings dam in Brazil in 2015.


    It is worth reading transcripts from the Aberfan disaster in 1966 and reflecting on cause and effect thinking and the need to blame:


    The final sentence in Hillsborough – The Truth by Phil Scraton pretty much summarises our current approach……:What the bereaved and survivors have discovered, to their financial and personal cost is that the theatre of law has little to do with the discovery of truth and the realisation of justice”

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