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How to end the culture wars: Stop looking for people to blame

‘Because structural injustices are beyond our control, it is wrong to blame ordinary people for them,’ political philosopher Maeve McKeown argues

Overwhelmed by the world’s problems? You’re not alone. There is so much structural injustice – inequality, exploitation and prejudice – it’s hard to know where to start.

And if you do take a stand on anything these days it means making yourself a target for resentment, if not hate.

A cynical response to this dilemma is to say that because I am not personally responsible for an injustice I’ve no stake in the matter. I didn’t benefit from slavery, for example, so the legacy of historical racism is no concern of mine.

Such thinking, though, is a path to political apathy. Moreover, it is based on what political philosopher Maeve McKeown argues is a mistaken conflation of responsibility and blame.

In a new book, the Belfast-born academic has produced a clear-sighted analysis of the scope of individual liability for other people’s woes.

Structural injustice is different to other types of injustice, she points out, as it cannot be linked to individual wrongdoing. It relates to large-scale processes that create systematic disadvantages, like gender and racial hierarchies.

While these topics have led to angry debates and much finger-pointing in recent years, McKeown writes in With Power Comes Responsibility: The Politics of Structural Injustice, “the lack of intent and the lack of direct causal connection [to structural injustice] means that holding each other blameworthy for [it] is inappropriate; individuals’ contributions to structural injustice are inadvertent or the product of social duress and therefore excused”.

McKeown, who is based at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, knows about such injustice first hand, having experienced ill-health and job insecurity. “I have applied for over 300 jobs and had 16 job interviews in the course of writing this book,” she says. “Really, the conditions in academia right now are awful. It is structurally unjust.”

But her main focus is on righting errors in our thinking, inspired by the work of American human rights theorist and feminist Iris Marion Young.

That McKeown has a cat called “Magnus Wolfe Tone” gives an indication of her philosophy, which leans towards unity rather than division. Asked whether she was trying to carve out a middle ground in the culture wars, she replies: “I think that’s a fair characterisation, but it’s where the philosophy led me, rather than being a response to the culture wars or other political debates.

“People feel defensive or powerless when they are blamed for things like sweatshops, global poverty or climate change, and there are good reasons for this. Many philosophers try to connect our individual actions to these structural injustices in a way that makes it possible to blame people for them. But I would argue that because these structural injustices are beyond our control, it is wrong to blame ordinary people for them,” she says.

How did blame and responsibility become so conflated in our moral thinking? Did western philosophy take a wrong turn somewhere?

“I’m actually not sure why this happened. But it’s a mistake,” she says. “It is possible to be responsible for something, meaning it is up to you to take care of something over time or try to remedy it going forward, without being blameworthy if you don’t do those things.

“Blame is one type of response to someone not taking up their responsibility, it’s not the only one. It’s possible to criticise people or steer them in the right direction without making a judgment on their character or claiming that they have violated a moral norm. Sometimes blame is too strong and fails to take into account the reasons why someone might not be acting on their responsibility.”

McKeown puts particular emphasis on solidarity as a “political virtue” that citizens should try to cultivate. “Pity is patronising”, whereas “solidarity depends upon respect”.

So what is the responsibility of the average citizen? “There has to be room for people to decide on that for themselves,” McKeown replies.

However, she identifies what she calls “parameters of reasoning” for grappling with the issue.

“You could act on the structural injustice you are benefiting the most from. Say, for instance, you love clothes. Then joining a campaign group that focuses on sweatshop labour, like Labour Behind the Label or the Clean Clothes Campaign, could be a way to act on your political responsibility…

“Another parameter is ‘collective ability’, meaning that if you are a member of an already-organised group, you could work within that group to tackle a structural injustice… Being a member of a trade union, a church, a business association, a cultural institution, a private club; working within any of these groups to tackle a structural injustice can be effective.”

Other factors worth considering are proximity to an injustice, or personal interest.

“Finally, it’s worth pointing out that people have different amounts of time, ability and resources to get involved in political activism. Removing blame from the equation recognises that activism is something that will wax and wane over the course of someone’s life, and that’s okay. Maybe you can’t take up your political responsibility now… but might again in the future.”

In short, cutting back on blame could be the very way to empower us to make the world a better place.

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