Charlottesville and the responsibilities of political actors: A resistance model of responsibility

Written as an ally.

The Charlottesville white supremacy rally

trump comment charlottesville.jpg

In response to the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville yesterday, Donald Trump stated that he condemned the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” – which is just the kind of tepid and dithering statement that we’ve come to expect from the President. This is the same man who received the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke during his campaign, and, rather than reject the endorsement outright, prevaricated and pretended ignorance, stating that he “would have to look at the group… I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about.” Duke participated in the Charlottesville rally, and publicly reaffirmed his support for Trump.

Later, Trump rebuked the white supremacists in a press conference, but it was 48 hours after the event, in an apparently prepared statement, written by someone else. Not 24 hours later, he re-affirmed his original claim that there was wrongdoing “on both sides.”



In contrast, the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer, immediately rebuked the white supremacists to the press, and held Trump partly responsible, saying, “I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in America today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the President.” Later, Signer said that Trump has emboldened white supremacists to rally and commit violence in his town, pointing to “the campaign he ran” as evidence of culpability.

Signer is not the only one to assert that Trump is responsible for inflaming racism and emboldening racists to commit violent acts, increasing the level of overt racism in America. In fact, this claim seems relatively uncontroversial. (This is not to say that there is quantitatively more racism than before, but that racism is becoming more explicit and, hence, more violent). This claim has interesting implications for theories of responsibility that treat blame and praise as responsibility attributions, expressive acts, or ‘reactive attitudes’ (Strawson 1963).

In this entry, I’ll explore the ability of competing theories of responsibility to make sense of Signer’s claim that Trump is responsible for the rally in Chalottesville. I’ll suggest that a resistance model of responsibility, akin to the resistance model of epistemology, better captures how activists hold political actors and public figures responsible for wrongdoing. Blame and praise, on this model, function to promote relations of equality, which in turn allow us to hold one another responsible in a fair and proportional manner.

The alternative theories that I will consider are (what I will call) control theory, character theory, agency-enhancement theory, group agency theory, and finally, my preferred theory of resistance.

Four theories & a proposal

Very early in this blog, I distinguished between two classic theories of responsibility: one that ties responsibility attributions to control, and another that ties responsibility attributions to character. On the control view, people are only responsible for choices that are under their control, or traceable to past instances of voluntary choice, while on the character view, people are responsible for actions that express their deep-seated character traits, regardless of whether or not they have control over those traits. Many philosophers hold views that approximate to one or the other of these descriptions, which resemble the ‘accountability view’ and ‘attributability view’ as described by Watson (1996).

There is also a third prominent view, on which responsibility attributions function to enhance the target agent’s reasons-responsiveness, and are justified insofar as they serve this purpose. This view is consequentialist, whereas the previous two are typically construed as desert-based.

In contrast to these direct, face-to-face models of responsibility, in which praise and blame are addressed directly to the target agent (at least, in the paradigm case), there are group theories of responsibility, which hold individuals responsible for the collective actions of the group. One prominent example is List and Pettit’s theory of corporate agency.

I will argue that none of these theories succeeds in underwriting the claim that Trump bears responsibility, in a substantive sense, for the rally in Charlottesville. More broadly, these theories are not capable of underwriting our shared practices of holding public figures (publicly) responsible for their normatively significant choices – shared practices that we engage in regularly, and that make substantive democracy possible. I urge that we move to a resistance model of responsibility, on which praise and blame serve to foster a shared sensitivity to moral facts and, correspondingly, a shared democratic sensibility.


The control view holds agents responsible if they are capable of exercising control over their choices, past and present, and capable of foreseeing the consequences of those choices.

At the present moment, Trump cannot, by his own choices, restore the country to the lower decibel of overt racist resentment that existed prior to his inauguration, simply because racist factions have taken on a life of their own, and cannot now be reined in by any single actor. (This speaks to the general inadequacy of ‘atomistic views,’ so-called by Vargas [2013], to which I will return shortly). So, Trump can’t control the effects of his actions.

It is also unlikely that Trump could have foreseen these effects, even in coarse-grained detail, since he could not even have foreseen his election win based on prior poll results, much less the multitude of consequences that followed, down to the (very specific) rally in Charlottesville. There is also a substantive question as to his reflective capabilities, which many commentators have remarked on, and this casts doubt on his ability to project realistic future scenarios and make viable plans. If he cannot do these things, then he cannot be responsible for subjectively unpredictable eventualities like racist rallies. But even a more reflectively capable person could not have foreseen an event as specific as the Charlottesville rally, nor the incident of  domestic terrorism that took place there.

Notably, the influential control theorist J.M. Fischer (2012) has debated M. Vargas (2005) on the degree of foresight needed to be responsible for an action outcome. The two philosophers question whether a hypothetical jerk named Jeff could have foreseen his gradual descent into jerkdom, evolving from a relatively benign teenager into a hostile middle manager. Vargas argues that even medium-grained foreseeability is too much to expect of human beings, who have extremely limited epistemic capacities – which is not to mention that we are highly susceptible to cognitive biases that undermine our forecasting abilities, such as affective ignorance (see Haybron 2008), planning fallacy, and self-serving bias. These biases can lead us to misjudge how things will go for us and how we’ll adapt to different situations. Another confounding factor in predictive reasoning is the possibility of transformative experiences, which L.A. Paul describes as character-changing but difficult to anticipate and impossible to forecast in full (2015). A transformative experience could turn someone from a saint into a jerk and vice versa quite expectedly.

At the end of the day, we can’t know for sure whether someone like Jeff the jerk was capable of foreseeing his jerky future self, since we can’t see into his mind; but I think that Vargas’ argument wasn’t meant to solve this problem, so much as to call into question the utility of a metric that requires this high a degree of second-person access to another’s subjective states. We blame and praise people every day without knowing much about them – especially public figures, whose lives are a mystery besides their curated online profile.

Trump seems to be a lot like Jeff, except that he became president. Could Trump have foreseen that he would become, not only POTUS, but a POTUS who fuels explicit racism and violence against historically disenfranchised groups, eventuating in a white supremacy rally and an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville? It would be difficult for anyone to predict this outcome, since it depends on the sympathetic cooperation of many other people, some of whom typically operate under a low profile. Surely it doesn’t require a comprehensive sociological analysis to determine whether a public figure is responsible for collective harms, perpetuated by his supporters and committed in his name. Trump in particular seems incapable of this degree of analytical rigour, but this has not prevented people from blaming him for his negative influence on the political climate.

Trump is an interesting case study because, as president, he has such a wide sphere of influence. The paradigm case of responsibility attribution – particularly in Strawsonian accounts, but also more generally – is a dyadic interpersonal exchange between two people: A harms B and B blames A if A has the requisite capacities or traits. In the Jeff scenario, Jeff directly harms his employees, who are in a position to hold him directly accountable. (They might hold him accountable through an intermediary such as the HR department, but this is still just one remove from a direct dyadic relation). If Signer is right that Trump has emboldened white supremacists to commit harassment and violence, then he has provoked a set of negative effects indirectly, through the sympathetic choices of many intermediary agents, and he has harmed entire social groups, also indirectly via intermediaries. This marks a significant departure from the paradigm dyadic scenario. When someone’s sphere of influence is this wide, it becomes much harder to envision the likely consequences of the person’s choices in any grain of detail, since the effects of the person’s choices depend on the uptake or sympathetic response from the community, and it is difficult to anticipate this scale of collective activity.

These complications make it difficult to assess a political actor’s responsibility in terms of control.


Character theory holds an agent responsible for his* character traits or moral personality.  On this view, it doesn’t matter if Trump could have foreseen the consequences of his actions – he’s responsible for his ingrained virtues and vices.

This view might support the contention that Trump is partly to blame for the rally in Charlottesville, but only if we trace those events to Trump’s character flaws. A similar problem arises here, since Trump did not directly cause or expressly endorse the Charlottesville rally, he merely incited sympathetic actors to express bigotry according to their own values and means. But if Trump in fact emboldened them to act more overtly than they otherwise would have, there is at least a relation of counterfactual dependence  between his choices as president and the choices of sympathetic white supremacists. This counterfactual relation could, theoretically, ground a blaming response that links Trump’s character to the Charlottesville rally.

There are salient weaknesses to this analysis, however. Perhaps the main one is the indirectness of the relation between Trump and the actions of the white supremacists. Since Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the rally, he doesn’t seem to have the (robust) character traits required to be deemed responsible in characterological terms, except in the most indirect and diluted sense. Once again, it’s hard to say for sure, since most philosophical examples deal with direct causal chains between character traits and consequences, such as helping your friend out of fellow-feeling (Arpaly 2014) or forgetting your pet in the backseat of a hot car due to lack of appropriate consideration (Sher 2010). In these well-trodden examples, the agent’s character is embodied and expressed in her own physical form. It is not clear that we can hold someone attributability-responsible for character traits expressed and enacted, not through the primary agent’s embodied actions, but through a chain of actors acting in sympathy with him, or in a spirit of cooperation and rapport with him. In the multi-actor case, the causal link is extended and ramified indefinitely in social space, and can take unpredictable twists and turns, depending on the composition of the chain. It is not clear how to evaluate these cases of sympathetic action on the basis of either the choices, or the character traits, of the principal actor – the one who sets in motion the chain of action.


Manuel Vargas provides a third perspective (2013). He says that responsibility attributions are appropriate insofar as they enhance the recipient’s agency through the exercise of his rational faculties. (One cannot simply cajole or coerce the person – these manoeuvres are not constitutive of responsibility-holding per se). On this model, we should hold Trump responsible only if doing so is likely to positively influence his behaviour. Since Trump seems fairly non-responsive to criticism in general, blame is generally inappropriate. Moreover, since normal people don’t have a direct relationship with the President, we can’t influence him directly; we can only publish, tweet, blog, etc., favourable or unfavourable comments about him, which he probably won’t read and wouldn’t take seriously anyways. But then, what are doing when we express these attitudes? We might be engaging in editorializing practices or political resistance, but this doesn’t count as ‘holding responsible’ in Vargas’ sense: it is external to the ‘responsibility system’ within which we address each other as rational peers.

Strawson holds a similar view on which the reactive attitudes must be addressed directly to the primary actor – otherwise these acts are external to the ‘participatory stance’ in which we address one other as rational agents. Indirect criticisms may serve the purpose of excluding, treating, or managing the object of censure, but not of holding that person responsible. These indirect expressive practices putatively help to consolidate the moral community and banish outsiders, so they serve an important regulatory function, but it is not a function that ‘responsiblizes’ ingroup members – rather, it keeps out bad apples.

In ore specific terms, Strawson says that we should take ‘the objective attitude’ toward a non-responsive person, as a way of excluding the person from our social sphere. One can see how the is attitude would serve an effective regulatory function in intimate social circles, since ingroup members would be encouraged to cooperate and respect one other, while excluded individuals would be outcast and ‘quarantined,’ so to speak. I can expel someone from my social group and never see her again. But the objective attitude doesn’t work this way when addressed to public figures whose choices affect everyone’s lives through expansive institutional channels, whether we like it or not. The objective attitude, by definition, excludes blaming attitudes, which are reserved for peers. But excluding and isolating political actors is useless, since there is no direct interpersonal relationship linking the offended individual or social group to the offensive political actor.

This raises the question: what pragmatic function can silence and ostracism serve in a society in which political actors are untouchable, and silence has enabled generations of racial oppression and white privilege? At a vigil for the Charlottesville victims last night, a participant held up a sign saying, “white silence = violence.” Many participants also denounced Trump’s tepid response and inaction. In other words, vigil-holders blamed Trump and his cabinet, even though they were not present. Activists rejected silence as a form of complicity in racial injustice. The rationality of taking the objective stance is called into question when social exclusion is impossible, and withholding judgment amounts to complicity.

It is worth mentioning that this critique also speaks against responsibility nihilism, the view that we should do away with praise and blame altogether. Activists demand that we ‘speak justice to power’ rather than remaining silent and allowing the status quo to roll forward.

Group Agency

It might be useful to look at Trump, and other political actors, through the lens of group agency.

List and Pettit influentially describe a group agent as a collection of intentional agents who (1) intend to collectively perform a given goal, (2) intend to do their part to achieve that goal, (3) believe that others share the same group intention, and (3) each believe that the first three conditions are met. In a very loose sense, a nation state could satisfy these conditions, inasmuch as citizens are (ideally) working together toward democratic goals held in common and intend to foster those goals. Like corporations (paradigmatic group agents), nations are hierarchically structured and stratified; but in nations, this is a serious problem, since established hierarchies are colonialist and patriarchal, not desert-based, rational, or conducive to democratic ideals. As a result, nations barely quality as group agents (if at all), since socially privileged groups are actively undermining the common good and subverting the rational grounds for cooperation. This was evidenced in Charlottesville, where white supremacists rallied to preserve the unearned historical privileges to which they were never entitled – privileges that fundamentally undermine the functioning of democratic institutions and the cultivation of a shared democratic sensibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. officially (on paper) aspires to be a group agent in which all citizens are equal and committed to justice, even if the reality is a far cry from the ideal.

Trump’s cabinet might be a better candidate for group agency, since it is more coherent, coordinated, and interdependent. The pertinent question concerns how responsibility should be allocated to Trump and other members of his cabinet, seen as a group agent.

 On List and Pettit’s view, group agents can be held responsible for their actions, and members of those groups can bear different kinds of responsibility depending on their role in the group. ‘Designers’ are responsible for laying down the group’s operating procedures, ‘members’ are responsible for performing their designated role within the group, and ‘enactors’ are responsible for what they do in the group’s name. Even if particular members have no control over the actions of the group as a whole (e.g., actions taken by the administration), they bear responsibility for those actions by sheer affiliation (List & Pettit 2011, p. 164). One of the reasons for loosening the constraint of individual-level control for members of a group agent (compared to individuals) is that attributions of corporate responsibility, according to List and Pettit, serve a partly ‘responsiblizing’ function: even if “it may not be strictly appropriate to hold [the group responsible, since some of the conditions necessary for fitness for responsibility are missing… holding it responsible may actually prompt the grouping to incorporate and organize against the condemned behaviour” (p. 169). That is, we do not restrict blame to principal members of group agents (like administrators, managers, and boards of directors), since holding the entire collective responsible, even when individual-level control is lacking, incites members to enforce codes of conduct within the organization. The posited ‘responsibilizing’ function of corporate responsibility is similar to the agency-enhancing rationale of Vargas’ model, except that corporate responsibility can influence principal agents via ancillary group members, whereas responsibility in Vargas’ sense must target the principal agent directly.

If the U.S. is seen as a (barely cohesive) group agent, then every citizen is responsible for the current state of racial injustice and specific incidents like the Charlottesville rally. But this analysis doesn’t make much sense, since many citizens are engaging in active resistance, including the counter-protestors in Charlottesville. Blame should be restricted to racist groups and their sympathizers instead of blanketing the population indiscriminately.

Instead, Trump’s cabinet might be held responsible, as a group agent, for failing to intervene adequately to combat racial oppression, inciting racist demonstrations. In his role as president, Trump may be especially blameworthy for the collective choices of his cabinet, while each cabinet members is responsible for his or her contribution. These layers of responsibility (leader versus member) do not dilute or cancel our one another, but are, according to List and Pettit, compatible and non-interfering. This is justified by the responsibilizing function of corporate responsibility.

This analysis expands the scope of Trump’s responsibility, since he can be held responsible for the actions of his cabinet (including, for example, Steven Bannon, his appointed White House Chief Strategist and former Executive Chair of Breitbart News). But it does not seem to license us to hold him responsible for the Charlottesville rallies, any more so than the dyadic paradigm. The limit of Trump’s responsibility is demarcated by the limits of the coordinated groups to which he belongs on group agency theory. Even if Trump’s choices incite full-fledged group agents (like white supremacist organizations) to express and enact overt racism, he is not an inclusive member of those groups, so he cannot be held responsible for their actions in corporate-responsibilty terms. This is not to say that holding him responsible would not have a ‘responsibilizing’ effect on him as an individual, but this is outside of the scope of List and Pettit’s model, which confines the responsibilizing function of corporate responsibility attributions to group agents.

It might be worth looking at responsibility from a political perspective, taking as a starting point the role of the individual as political agent embedded in structures of oppression.

The resistance view


Epistemic responsibility plays an important role in theories of epistemic justice, which take social injustice as the starting point for theorizing about the production of knowledge. Social epistemologists also write about moral responsibility, typically as a metric different from, but connected with, epistemic responsibility. Moral reasons-responsiveness requires, but outstrips, sensitivity to epistemic factors (i.e., epidemic responsibility). In particular, epistemic responsibility requires sensitivity to a person’s epistemic qualities, and awareness of stereotypes that interfere with this sensitivity, while moral responsibility requires sensitivity to a person’s moral qualities (goodness, badness), and awareness of factors that confound moral sensitivity. But these capacities are interrelated. If we distrust someone of the basis of her demographic attributes, we are likely to perceive the person as less innocent, and to respond irrationally to her moral testimony. This undermines Strawson’s ideal of a moral community in which moral agents treat each other as rational peers, as well as the possibility of relational equality.

More straightforwardly, if we are insensitive to a person’s epistemic status due to implicit racial bias, we are, by the same token, racist, and racism is a moral failing, not just an epistemic failing. Deficits in epistemic responsibility are therefore deficits in moral responsibility. Deficits in both capacities undermine the possibility of substantive equality.

Theorists like Jose Medina (2015) are aware of these links between political, epistemic, and moral responsibility, and treat these aspects of agency as deeply interrelated and interdependent. On Medina’s view, political, epistemic, and moral agency are all implicated in the capacity for ‘democratic sensibility,’ which makes a functioning substantive (not merely procedural) democracy possible. The telos of this triad of capacities – or at least a central telos – is a shared democratize sensibility –  a suite of traits that enables people to achieve relational equality, in Elizabeth Anderson’s sense (2016). Relational equality is not just procedural democracy, but an ideal of democracy characterized by equality of standing, esteem, and authority. The triad of agential capacities overlap and intersect in democratic agents, creating the human potential for relational equality.

Epistemic and moral responsibility are capacities that enable agents to respond to epistemic and moral reasons, respectively, in a way that enhances democratic participation and relational equality. These sensitivities enable us to cooperatively pursue democratic ends.

Of course, moral responsibility serves more than these democratic ends, but democratic ends are central. It is hard to know how to act morally responsibly outside of a sphere of democratic relations in which citizens respect each other’s agency. Moreover, it is impossible to hold one another responsible in a fair and rational manner outside of relations of substantive equality. So relational equality and moral responsibility are interdependent. They interact in a positive feedback loop in which each value enhances the other.

On Medina’s view, fostering a shared democratic sensibility requires that we give people the credit they deserve – that is, that we respond sensitively to their epistemic characteristics, practising epistemic responsibility. Only this will allow us to participate in the communicative engagements that underwrite substantive democracy. But if moral responsibility is also required for substantive democracy, then we must also respond sensitively to people’s moral characteristics, cultivating moral responsibility. Medina does not address this capacity at length, but it’s not hard to see why moral responsibility is required for relational equality. In the U.S. (and elsewhere), Black children are seen as older and guiltier than white children. Personifying this bias, the President recently dismissed his son’s (possibly treasonous) meeting with Russian officials by referring to Trump Jr. as a “good kid” and a “good boy,” exemplifying the discrepancy between society’s treatment of white versus Black children. This discrepancy continues into adulthood, with African Americans being incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people, and at least ten times the rate in five states. These are just two examples; one could fill encyclopedias with statistics about racism in America. These examples show that our shared practice of holding one another responsible is undermined by racial injustice, which similarly undermines the potential for relations of equal standing, esteem, and authority. That is, racial bias corrupts our responsibility system and our democracy.

In this climate, no one is as morally responsible, or as democratically fit, as they should be.

Medina’s response to this problem is an “epistemology of resistance,” which aims to foster a shared democratic sensibility by focusing on dissensus rather than consensus. Historically, the principles of a just society were thought to derive from a rational process that fosters consensus –  a process epitomized in Rawls’ ‘original position.’ Medina rejects the consensus approach on grounds that it is homogenous, non-interactive, and static. This model fails to take into account the changing realities of real people, and fails to make use of the diversity of epistemic positions available in the polis, instead forcing diverse perspectives into a homogenizing formula – a kind of ‘binding arbitration’ that favours the majority and marginalizes dissenting voices. Medina prefers a ‘resistance model’ that seeks out conflict and prioritizes marginalized perspectives, treating them as untapped sources of epistemic insight. Within this model, we do not treat all knowledge claims as equal – we give more space and attention to marginalized testimony.

In developing this approach, Medina shifts the focus of epistemic theorizing from Descartes’ atomistic model (‘armchair philosophy’), to the sphere of real-life interactions, in which knowledge is the result of concrete interpersonal interactions which can be knowledge-preserving or knowledge-undermining depending on whether epidemic currency is fairly distributed. Strawson similarly situates responsibility attributions in a shared social environment – a ‘moral community’ – but he says nothing about inequalities within this sphere. What would it mean to theorize moral responsibility against a backdrop of social injusitce? What would a ‘moral responsibility of resistance’ look like?

I’m going to try to imagine that theory here.

To begin, it would take social injustice as a focal point, and would concentrate on the unequal distribution of moral currency in our society – a distribution that gives white people presumptive higher moral standing, esteem, and authority than people of color, thwarting the prospect of relational equality. Moral responsibility would be conceived, at least in part, as a sensitivity to people’s moral qualities, as well as the systemic factors that undermine our sensitivity to these qualities, such as racial injustice, sexism, homophobia, etc. Within this system, blame and praise would function to resist oppression and restore substantive equality. That is, the reactive attitudes would serve to alert people to their unchecked white privilege, insensitivity to racial injustice, and role in systems and processes that oppress disenfranchised groups. These attitudes would target those who incite racism and embolden racists to act unjustly and oppressively on their behalf.


This contextualized, historicized, and politicized notion of moral responsibility is particularly adept at holding political actors responsible for the indirect and mediating effects of their choices and actions. It allows us to blame unfit leaders for their role in tainting the public discourse with their toxic beliefs, attitudes, and values, and does not require us to diagnose their cognitive states in precise terms or undertake complex sociological prognoses. It redirects our attention from the individual’s embodied self to the person’s relation to to the group and role in fostering or poisoning relational equality and substantive democracy. It enjoins us to hold people responsible for advancing or undermining these democratic, moral, and epistemic ideals. Notably, his model of responsibility cuts across the competing model of responsibility, inasmuch as it doesn’t confine responsibility attributions to control or character or the limits of a corporate organization, though it may take these dimensions into account when formulation a specific expression of praise or blame (e.g., we might blame someone for not exercising due control). But resistance-based responsibility has a fundamentally ‘responsibilizing’ function, though it does not necessarily address the target agent directly; it can function to correct flaws in the public discourse or ‘social imaginary’ to promote relational equality.

On this view, it makes sense to hold Trump responsible for the events in Chalottesville, insofar as doing so plays a valuable remediating role in our social imaginary – specifically, it enhances relations of substantive equality, improving our prospects of becoming morally responsible as a group, and promoting substantive democracy.

Medina’s work is instructive in other ways. For one, he talks about the role of the social imaginary, or shared set of interpretive resources, in promoting or undermining shared knowledge. A flawed social imaginary, in which racism is promulgated and naturalized, undermines epistemic responsibility and the accumulation of knowledge. But what is the effect of a flawed social imaginary on moral responsibility? In brief, this state of affairs prevents us from exercising our capacity for moral responsibility in a responsible or adaptive way, i.e., a way that is sensitive to people’s moral and epistemic qualities. It prompts us to respond unfairly to people on the basis of their demographic attributes instead of their character. To foster moral responsibility, we need to correct imbalances in the responsibility system, meaning we need to combat systemic discrimination. This includes blame and praise people for their role in fostering or frustrating relations of equality.

Another interesting feature of Medina’s account is the notion of ‘chains of actors,’ which are not quite group agents, but are nonetheless ontologically and morally substantive entities (on my reading). Chains of actors are a precursor to group agents; they are often incipient or embryonic group agents, which are not yet cohesive and self-aware social collectives, but are on the path to coordinated activity. The civil rights movement, in the earliest stages, is a salient example. Chains of actors don’t satisfy the requirements of group agency, as they are not coordinate, interdependent, or aware of belonging to a coordinated group, but they are a critical developmental stage in the formation of a group agent. They are the process through which individuals mobilize into politically efficacious groups.

Notably, people can belong to chains of actors without having any substantive relationship or direct contact with one another. They only need epistemic and moral affinities. That is, to belong to a chain of actors, one only needs to share values and attitudes with a critical mass of others. These attitudes can be implicit or explicit, so long as they are expressed in overt behaviour. Hence, people who express racist values but deny being racist can still belong to a chain of actors. Because the inclusion criteria of chains is lower than that for group agents, it is easier to label ordinary citizens as members of chains. In fact, chains are a pervasive part of modern democracies, since they encompass the myriad subcultures and informal social groups in which we are immersed.

 Returning to the Charlottesville rally: while active participants in the rally may have qualified as group agents, a broader range of sympathetic actors who did not participate in the rally, but condoned it in spirit or shared sympathies with the participants, could be qualified as belonging to a chain of actors, including but not limited to the active participants. The limits of chains of actors are necessarily blurry, since it is hard to identify members of uncoordinated and dispersed collectives who may not even identify themselves as part of the chain – indeed, they may sincerely deny that there is any such chain, since many members of rape culture do (because they do not admit that rape is a pervasive problem).  However, enlightened third parties can sometimes identify members of chains on the basis of their isomorphic actions, which may expresses certain sympathies or affinities shared in common. As with group agents, members of chains bear responsibility not only for their own embodied actions, but also for the actions of the chain, since they are voluntary participants and constitutive elements of the collective. Their sympathy with the chain enables the chain to exist, thrive, and have an effect.

On this view, Trumps’ response to the rally, and general attitude toward racial injustice, situate him in a chain of actors that includes the rally participants. This makes Trump partly responsible for the rally even though he did not participate or explicitly endorse it.

Indirect blame and praise

On the view that I have proposed, reactive attitudes do not need to be addressed to the named agent, unlike the paradigmatic dyadic model. But why should I take this to be the case?

One reason is that social agents are capable of responding to mediated blame in diffuse contexts just as well as to direct blame in dyadic contexts. Thus, there is no principled reason to confine blame to the face-to-face paradigm. If I blame someone through an intermediary, I manage to express my reactive attitude to the person, albeit indirectly. In the digital age, mediated blaming responses are more ubiquitous than ever. In fact, social media arguably makes mediated blame the norm, i.e., the paradigm case. When we blame someone in person, we typically also blame the person in our social media interactions – by unfriending, restricting, blocking, or otherwise modifying the virtual relationship. Sometimes the first and definitive blaming response is virtual, as in the practice of ‘ghosting.’ In political contexts, virtual blame is the only option for ordinary citizens, since we never directly encounter most politicians, particularly at the federal level. Likewise for celebrities and public figures. But these people have the largest sphere of influence and the largest impact on the social imaginary. When Jennifer McCarthy promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism, many people decided not to vaccinate their children, and the rate of infectious diseases increased. Notably, Trump has also spread anti-vaccine rhetoric. This campaign hurts children and vulnerable groups the most. If blame is to serve the function of promoting relations of equality and respect, thereby enhancing collective responsibility, we ought to blame public figures for damaging statements by any means possible. In many cases, the only means is social media.

When we blame people in virtual reality, even if we do not expect our message to reach the intended target, we might reasonably expect our message to contribute to a chain of opposition, constituted by a multitude of sympathetic commentators or political activists. Even if the ordinary citizen’s individual voice is never heard, the formation of a collective with critical mass and visibility will most likely attract the attention of the media, who will echo the conversation in public platforms such as newspapers and television. In the modern age, blame is often a collective phenomenon, vocalized by chains of actors, and delivered via social media, the press, and sympathetic public figures.

Another reason to think that blame and praise do not need to be direct and unmediated is research on the psychological effects of the reactive attitudes. For example, there is evidence that praise positively affects not only the target, but also bystanders. Researchers reported that when teachers praised the top performers on a mid-term exam in front of the class, those who fell just short of the top scores improved on the next exam, compared to students who had not witnessed any public praising (2017). One of the researchers explains the results by conjecturing that “student performance is influenced not only by personal benefits, such as grades or passing an exam, but also by the existing performance norms,” which are expressed in the teacher’s praising attitude. The lesson is that praise motivates both the object of praise and bystanders who are in close reach of achieving the commended norm. Similarly, praising and blaming people in virtual space could motivate witnesses to approximate to the norm endorsed in the statement.

List and Pettit’s theory of corporate responsibility points to the potential responsibilizing function of collective responsibility attributions, which hold all member responsible even if they did not contributed equally, or at all, the the conglomerate’s operative decision. The rationale is that holding members responsible for the group incites them to take an active interest in the company’s ethical protocols, preventing a descent into corruption, akin to what happened in banks and Government Sponsored Enterprises during the subprime mortgage crash of 2007-2010. Holding people collectively responsible is supposed to prevent the diffusion of responsibility that afflicts many collectives, leading to internal corruption and moral anomie. The same thing can happen to governments if no one takes responsibility for the government’s collective decisions, or intercedes to prevent corrupt members from eroding democratic norms. At the moment, G.O.P. insiders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can be held responsible for enabling Trump’s anti-democratic behaviour – the Muslim ban, the racist proclamations, etc.

These considerations suggest that blame and praise do not need to be addressed directly to the object of the attitude to be psychologically efficacious – they have indirect and diffuse effects, motivating bystanders, witnesses, and group members to conform to endorsed norms.

Public shaming: collective blame gone wrong

The opposite of silence in the face of injustice is unjust or disproportionate public blaming, which can include ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘public shaming.’ ‘Virtue signalling’ refers to superficial or self-serving public expressions of blame, and ‘public shaming’ refers to collective acts of blame that are unfair, false, or disproportionate to the offence.

While judicious public blaming, which recruits chains of actors to disseminate the message and positively shape public discourse, serves to promote relational equality and shared moral responsibility, unfair and disproportionate public blaming does exactly the opposite – it promotes and retrenches injustice, and can seriously harm the target agent. While there are significant differences between blame and shame in psychological terms, the phrase ‘public shaming’ in popular discourse is used to denote a collective action or campaign aimed at holding someone responsible for a putative normative violation. This is what I mean by mediated or collective blaming, so, on my view, public shaming is a species of collective blaming.


In the digital age, blame can have serious negative consequences, both on individuals and on social institutions and practices. In ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ (2015), Jon Ronson draws attention to the perils of public shaming campaigns, which can target innocent people or severely punish people for relatively benign transgressions. He traces the history of public shaming through the Middle Ages, when it was common for convicted criminals and ‘undesirables’ to be pilloried or hanged in the town square, to the digital age, when online shaming campaigns can result in people losing their jobs, reputations, and social standing. Ronson focuses on errant shaming campaigns, like the online shaming of a U.S. care worker who jokingly took a picture of herself yelling in front of a ‘silence and respect’ sign in a cemetery. The shaming response was, in Jonson’s view, greatly out of proportion. Although Jonson doesn’t develop a philosophical position, his point seems to be that social media enables a magnitude of resentment that is out of proportion to the offence, and this is unjust to the targeted individual, and can also distort our shared norms. If we outcast someone for a practical joke, we’ve seemingly lost the ability to discriminate between benign violations and core moral ones like assault.

Although Jonson is critical of public shaming in the book, he can’t possible mean that we should never publicly shame people. In fact, when questioned about the Twitter campaign devoted to outting people who participated in the white supremacy rally (@YesYourRacist), he approved of the campaign, saying, “They were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media..[there is] “a big difference between making a thoughtless or offensive comment online and marching in the name of white power.” Publicly shaming public figures and very heinous people (like Nazis) is, in his view, morally permissible. Evidently, he does not want to eliminate public shaming, but to caution people to exercise epistemic and moral sensitivity (in effect) in deciding whether to shame someone.

This view balances the need to hold public figures accountable, with the mandate that we not ruin ordinary people’s lives for relatively benign normative violations.

Of course, it can be difficult to anticipate whether a post on social media will gain support, so the safe bet might be to confine public censure to public figures, while holding private citizens responsible in the traditional way, i.e., in face-to-face interactions. This would ensure that the magnitude of the response fits the severity of the offence, in general. Face-to-face blame modifies the interpersonal relationship without triggering institutional consequences – consequences like firing, expelling, and outcasting. These responses are typically more fitting for highly influential public figures than private citizens, whose impact on social and institutional norms is fairly limited.

That said, there can be exceptions for private citizens who commit very serious offences, particularly offences that reinforce social inequality, and exceptions for offenders who escape fair sentencing due to inequalities in the justice system. In  such cases, public blame serves as a substitute for criminal sanctions, and compels legislators to amend the law.


*I’m using mostly masculine pronouns because this analysis is about Trump, a man.


One thought on “Charlottesville and the responsibilities of political actors: A resistance model of responsibility

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s