Blaming victims, individuals or social structures?
When the Swedish politician Erik Hellsborn of the rather xenophobic Sweden Democrats party blogged that the massacre in Norway was really due to mass immigration and islamization that had driven the killer to extremes (link in Swedish), he of course set himself up for a harsh reprimand from the party chairman Jimmie Åkesson: “I do not share this analysis at all. One cannot blame individual human actions on social structures like this.”
While it is certainly politically rational for the party to try to distance themselves as far as they can from the mass-murderer Breivik (who mentioned them positively by name in his manifesto) this is of course a rather clear deviation from many previous comments from the party that do indeed seem to blame bad actions by people, such as terrorism, as due to Islam or other (foreign) social structures.
It is of course always enjoyable to see political movements you disagree with struggle with their internal contradictions. But this is an area where most of us do have problems: how much of the responsibility of an action do we assign to the individual doing it, and how much do we assign to the group the person belongs to?
We treat in-group (the group we see ourselves as part of) members differently from out-group members: we tend to be biased in favor of our own group and against the other groups. This happens even if people are randomly assigned to groups and there is no real reason to favour one over the other. We can improve our self-esteem by boosting our group or denigrating other groups. Perhaps this tendency is simply a carryover from our evolutionary past where it was often genetically advantageous to favor whatever coalition one was in. But today, when societies are far larger than in the Pleistocene and we belong to a huge number of nested groups, the in-group-out-group biases can be very problematic as sources of stereotyping, prejudice and outright xenophobia.
In particular, there is the out-group homogeneity bias: “they are alike; we are diverse”. We tend to view members of out-groups as being similar to each other and motivated by shared ideology and culture, while members of our own in-group are individuals, motivated by their own personalities and the current situation. By implication, we are responsible for our individual actions, they are driven by other factors.
Breivik is very much in-group to most West Europeans – male, white, protestant background, connected to mainstream western culture. Had the attacks been done by an out-group terrorist, condemnation would largely have accrued on the terrorist’s group, culture and ideology. Now we will likely see that the acts of Breivik will largely be seen as due to him having psychopathology or being individually ‘evil’, rather than being an example of Norwegian, Christian or right-wing extremism.
There is of course a certain irony in that a person who took out-group thinking to an extreme (being socially isolated made him view practically any group he did not self-identity with as a homogenous and malign out-group that was an acceptable target) now is partially put into our in-group. While he is seen as a monster, he is much more “our” monster than Osama Bin Laden – a man more often described as ideologically driven rather than suffering from some undiagnosed personality disorder.
This is actually where understanding Breivik’s mindset and background naively might blind us to the ideological underpinnings and wider cultural support of his views. Balancing recognition of the individual and collective reasons for actions is hard, but necessary for ethical action. Recognizing our biases is also necessary for doing it well.
It is worth considering that the number of victims of terrorism and individual hate-crime over the past century (perhaps of the order of hundreds of thousands) is minuscule compared to the number of victims of institutionalized democide and war (of the order of hundreds of millions victims). While terrorism is horrific and personal, it is when mistrust or hatred of out-groups become institutionalized they become truly dangerous. In this regard any political ideology or institution that does not try to reduce its out-group bias ought to be viewed as far more potentially dangerous than any individual, no matter how hate-filled or destructive.