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Blaming Outsiders

I recently read a study by Greg Winter and Jeremy Fried, which asked some northern Michigan homeowners about their perceptions of wildfire. One interesting finding was that the respondents generally blamed temporary residents and tourists from downstate for starting the fires, through a combination of carelessness and lack of knowledge about the local environment. Discussing this with one of my professors, he said that he noted a similar phenomenon in his study area of southern California -- people there generally blamed illegal immigrants for starting fires. In both cases, the blame seems misplaced. Winter and Fried said that according to state records, the main source of fires was residents' backyards. In the case of illegal immigrants, it seems logical that they would have a strong incentive not to let their fires get anywhere near uncontrollable proportions -- both for their own safety and to avoid attracting the attention of the Border Patrol with even a large-but-under-control fire.

Why would there be this pattern of blame? It could be as simple as the desire to pass the buck to someone else, preferrably someone who won't hear about what you said and give you a hard time about it. That suggests that social connection is an important factor. Outsiders can be slagged because they are not closely tied in with the local social network. But at the same time, the outsiders may be presumed to realize the same thing. They can be careless with fire because the local community means little to them.

Outsiders are dangerous entities because they are not tied into the social network and do not share the local stock of tacit knowledge (the local lifeworld, if you will). Thus their actions are less controllable and less predictable. These are characteristics shared by wildfire in the minds of the Michiganders. Despite their claim to local knowledge, they see wildfire as unpredictable and uncontrollable. It's a disruptive influence on local life, much as the activities of tourists and seasonal residents can be. So perhaps it's no wonder that the two are linked.

Moreover, making the outsiders-fire link helps to moralize fire. There's a strong tendency to blame fire on the arsonists who ignited the particular blaze when possible. As much of a wild card as a person outside the social structure -- whether due to foreignness or deviance -- may be, they're still human. They can be controlled in a way that flame cannot, and they can have moral obligations demanded of them. It's the flip side of the idea that the victims of a catastrophe deserved it (as divine retribution for their immorality, for example). If misfortune is not deserved, it can at least be said to be an injustice, rather than happenstance.

All this is not to say, of course, that placing blame (provided it's properly allocated) for a catastrophe is unwarranted. Certainly there are often numerous human choices that, if made differently, could have mitigated the damage, and which are thus -- barring extenuating circumstances -- blameworthy. I'm just engaging in a bit of speculation about the process by which seeminly natural events are drawn into our moral universe.


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