Stepping Back from the Scaffold When All Hell Breaks Loose

Trust me.

I am as baffled as most of you are about the financial upheaval of the last few weeks. I don’t understand derivatives, cascading effects, and the intricacies of mortgage-backed securities.

But I have spent many years studying what sociologists call moral panic, sudden shocks to a social system in which it seems that the most basic assumptions about right and wrong, about the norms and values we take for granted, suddenly come undone.  The concept was developed by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen, whose work I admire greatly. I have been mostly interested in sudden violence, but any sudden, disorienting shock to a social system can rip away at the social fabric.

For all their seemingly unique horror, so much of what usually follows these events is predictable. Society rushes to the moral barricades. Portraits of evil are drawn so we all can share a collective image of who we are supposed to hate. Heroes are constructed who will save us. And scapegoats – those who brought this evil to our doorsteps — are sought and stigmatized and made to pay.

It’s the scapegoating that’s on my mind.

Social shocks are almost immediately followed by a hunt for the guilty. We need to know who to blame. We find it almost unbearable to live in a state of uncertainty in which a sudden, disturbing event cannot be blamed on a specific person or group. We need to see the face of evil. We need to hear its voice. We need to construct a narrative with a villain who knew what he or she was doing, yet still chose to act in a purposefully venal manner.

And then we need to join together and focus our collective loathing on the group or individual who tried to hurt us. Congressional hearings are wonderful settings in which the guilty are brought to the public scaffold and publicly humiliated. Right and wrong becomes clear during these rituals and we symbolically purge ourselves of those who would do us harm.

Yet this is precisely the point at which we often really screw things up.

Months after the panic has calmed, we almost always look back and see that, in our rush to the scaffold, we settled on the wrong culprit. Or we see how, without even realizing it, we lost the ability to see how an event might have resulted from the complex interaction of multiple culprits, or that even we ourselves might not have been blameless.

I was thinking of this as I watched former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testify Monday on Capitol Hill. Trust me. You could waterboard me and I still wouldn’t be able to explain the dynamics of this financial collapse or what role Richard Fuld did or did not play. My forever secret math SAT score stands as silent testimony to why no one in their right mind should ever look to me for any economic wisdom.  And I certainly don’t know what Richard Fuld knew and when he knew it.

What I do know, though, is that my panic alarm starts to ring anytime I see someone publicly demonized in the midst of traumatic events. It’s not that they might not turn out to be demons. Or worse. I just wish we were all more aware of just how bad we are at assigning blame at these moments when we are afraid, when we are angry.

To suggest that events and their causes are complex is not what we want to hear right now, especially when we feel like somebody – anybody — has to pay. The question is whether, with all this anger, we can hold fire and struggle to see events in all their complexity before we decide who we should blame.

Fairness is never more important than in those moments when we are most tempted to ignore it.

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