“Memorials to Credit & Blame,” by Charles Tilly

Editor’s note: Charles Tilly wrote this article for the May-June 2008 issue of The American Interest. It is republished here with their permission as part of the SSRC’s tributes to Charles Tilly and as a prelude to the conference in honor of him on October 3-5. The article draws on the ideas of one of Tilly’s last books, Credit & Blame (2008)–particularly its last chapter, which explores the public assignment of credit and blame and its profound implications for democracy. We have created pages for each of the article’s five sections, which are open for comment from readers. The entire article can also be downloaded (PDF: 18 pages, 108 KB).

Tilly begins by citing Germany’s Hermann Monument and France’s Sacré-Cœur Basilica as testaments to the universal human tendency to assign credit and blame for historical events.

We Are Our Stories
In this section Tilly argues that the process of collectively discussing and assigning credit and blame defines our moral boundaries. Such storytelling, he says, effectively binds us together.

Credit and Blame in War
“War stimulates collective attributions of credit and blame more than any other human activity,” writes Tilly in this section–an impulse that, in the Western world, tends to be expressed in churches and war memorials.

Reconciliation, Retaliation or Reparation
Taking the further step of seeking reconciliation, retaliation or reparations can drive societies away from consensus and toward long-lasting “us-them” divisions, warns Tilly in this final section.

Tilly reiterates the need for being careful about asking authorities to back up our judgments of right and wrong. Too much official sanctioning of “us-them” runs counter to the democratic spirit and can undermine democracy, he concludes.

SEE ALSO: Charles Tilly’s Popular Writings and Public Social Science

New York Times Book Review

Book Chapter 1

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