Church Policeman: Right, we'll arrest them instead.
The idea that people can be forced into a life of crime through extenuating circumstances. When a person is born into a poor, violent, or disenfranchised social milieu, we should not be surprised when such a person becomes a criminal, nor should we blame him for resorting to criminal activity; all his life, he has been operating at a disadvantage that most Acceptable Targets don't suffer from.
The Trope Codifier was the legendary American defense attorney Clarence Darrow (best known for defending John Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial), who defended a pair of young Straw Nihilist thrill killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, by arguing that society had twisted their minds. Though everyone expected them to hang, they were sentenced to life plus 99 years each instead.note
More mature entertainment will try to make one-dimensional villains more complex and grey by giving them a crappy background to explain (or at least raise questions about) how they became the way they are and how society, genetics and other predisposing factors can influence antisocial behavior. In crime dramas, many an Insanity Defense is rooted in trying to implicate society's problems but for the most part, it's portrayed as a last-ditch excuse that the audience is not expected to take seriously. Genre fiction or children's writing will just have people doing evil because they are Evil.
In general, this trope is often a cause of Unfortunate Implications because it can come across as painting the poor/downtrodden as being predisposed to criminality or at least minimizes the presence of personal values against crime. It can also be criticized for denying or downplaying an individual's responsibility for his or her own actions, or for rationalizing and/or excusing violence.
On the other hand, it can also be used as an argument that a particular society is to blame for a social ill, and therefore a justification for rebelling against that society—even if the social ill is common to all human societies and therefore the revolutionary regime will probably have the exact same problem.
See Rousseau Was Right for one cause of this kind of thinking. Contrast The Farmer and the Viper, in which the evil is inherent. Driven to Villainy is for the more Comic Book-ish kind of bad people. This trope is a common theme for a Criminal Found Family.
- Invoked in YuruYuri by Himawari's hilariously Wise Beyond Her Years (or possibly just precocious) little sister to explain Sakurako's behavior.
- Invoked by a lot of villains in My Hero Academia, who blame hero culture for various things that drove them to villainy- Shigaraki says that nobody helped him after his quirk manifested destructively because they were waiting for a hero to come, Stain thinks that heroes also being celebrities has made them selfish glory hounds, Spinner was discriminated against for having a Quirk that made him look inhuman, and Toga wasn't given mental help she needed to manage her quirk because her parents made her repress herself to look "normal" till she had a psychotic break. A common trait is that many of them likewise had no one to help them, and ultimately gravitated towards the League because they were willing to accept them for who they are, with Twice in particular considering Hawks' offer to help him as Condescending Compassion since it would require turning on the League. How much the heroes accept this reasoning varies, as some like Best Jeanist state it doesn't matter since they're Villains that need to be stopped, while others like Izuku and Ochako acknowledge the issues and sympathize, but make clear they need to stop them first and foremost before they can help them.
- Played with in Naruto, during a conversation between Naruto and his father about Pain. They agree that while Pain was a natural product of the wars and the Ninja system, he is still fully responsible for his own actions since his revenge shows no regard for his victims' guilt or innocence.
- Really, this is the backdrop behind pretty much every villain in the series, at least the ones that aren't just plain Ax-Crazy. Orochimaru was orphaned by the ninja wars, and thus sought ways to conquer death that led him off into inhuman territory. Gaara was a Tyke Bomb designed by his father who just snapped under the social pressure of being a complete pariah. Itachi was really screwed up by torn loyalties, Pain corrupted by the futility of constant war, and even the main villains of the entire series were messed up by clan warfare and the casualties of war. The series does not claim that their actions are justified because of that, but the messed-up system of the shinobi world is shown to be responsible for many of the monstrosities.
- Hayate the Combat Butler's Hayate uses this trope when trying to explain his reasoning for attempting to kidnap Nagi. Only the fact that he fails, horribly, and then saves her from real kidnappers, getting her to take him on as her butler saves him, and starts the real story.
- Rainbow blames it all on World War II—with Japan's economy in ruins, there simply isn't enough to go around, and those who can't survive legally must necessarily steal to survive.
- In One Piece, the New Fishman Pirates' Irrational Hatred is explained to be a result of growing up in a culture dominated by racism. Prince Fukaboshi goes on to say that the rest of Fishman Island is to blame, as instead of trying to reform the Fishman District's residents, they just ignored them and hoped things would turn out okay.
- Parodied in One-Punch Man, a criminal organization known as the Paradisers - lead by Hammerhead, go around causing trouble because of an unequal society divided by wealth, and the frustrations of labor. No-one listens to the leader's rants, and they only start paying attention to them when they're beating up heroes or knocking down buildings. Naturally, after running into Saitama, Hammerhead reveals that he's just a Lazy Bum refusing to work, and as Saitama spares him, he muses that he could've been like him (himself unemployed, and only doing hero work for a hobby). The anime goes further Saitama listening to the news report in the background discussing the Paradisers and how they could have arisen. An "expert" interviewed blames modern pop music for corrupting modern youth preventing them from getting "real" jobs like everyone else.
- One Judge Dredd story plays with this by introducing a group of concerned citizens determined to demonstrate that Rousseau Was Right and get criminals to reform by showing them kindness. Of course, the criminal they try this on turns out to be incorrigible and kidnaps his "rescuer". It's then Played for Laughs by having her be so obnoxious that he begs to go to prison just to get away from her.
- Eva Lord from Sin City laughs at this trope once she's revealed as the Big Bad in A Dame To Kill For. She mentions that, if she were ever caught, people would be reluctant to call her evil. They would simply blame society.
- There was an issue of X-Factor, early in the second series, that used this as a Running Gag: one person blamed society for something, then someone who hadn't been in the room came in, joined the conversation, and said, "Personally, I blame society," about something else, the topic having shifted, and then it happened at least once more.
- Aladdin in the Disney film of the same name has to steal to survive, being an orphan with no education in a difficult time. In the 2nd film, after he's a guest of the palace, he becomes a Robin Hood-esque bandit who steals from criminals but doesn't keep any of the booty for himself, giving it instead to the downtrodden and poor. The cartoon series refines this even further in a flashback scene of Aladdin butting heads with another street rat over his willingness to steal money, whereas Aladdin only steals food.
- The South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut movie's memorable song, Blame Canada!
Should we blame the government?
Or blame society?
Or should we blame the images on TV?
Blame Canada! Blame Canada!
We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before someone thinks of blaming us!
- The criminals in West Side Story (1961) invoke this mockingly in the song and dance number "Gee, Officer Krupke". The gang leader plays himself, with other gang members playing a low-ranking police officer who arrests him and various authority figures. These various authority figures have various shallow theories about what the problem is, most of these theories being in Society Is To Blame territory. But what they all have in common is that they whack him over the head and send him away to be somebody else's problem. Oh, and they all either insult the lowly policeman or ignore him. It all ends with a mutual rejection: The final authority figure dismisses the gang leader as a bad person period, and the gang concludes that they simply want society out of their lives.
"We're not bad/We're really good/We just had a bad childhood..."
- The gang members in West Side Story eventually reject the theory that society is to blame. After considering possible explanations for their crimes ranging from parental abuse and neglect to psychological problems to unemployment, they eventually settle on the reason: they're just bad.
We're no good, we're no good, we're no earthly good
Yes, the best of us is just no good.
- The "no earthly good" self-flagellation? Preceded by yet another authority figure's rant, not hewing to this trope. After Riff explains to the social worker his resigned attitude ("work" is a four-letter word, strictly for chumps), "she"—play-acted with screeching intensity by A-Rab—adds her caterwauling two-cents:
Officer Krupke, you've done it again
This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in The Pen
It ain't just a question of misunderstood
Deep down inside him, he's no good!
(throughout stanza, imagine several exclamation points; even the unadorned lines should be at top-of-lungs volume)
- Followed by, "We're no good" etc. So in context, the (apparent) admission of moral responsibility is merely another way-station along a near-death-march of absurd rationalization and counterreaction: a Chorus provided by "sympathetic liberals" and the withering disapproval of the (at time of release—of play & film—yet to be named) Silent Majority. All ineffectual; all as prone to whining as are the Jets themselves.
- The gang members in West Side Story eventually reject the theory that society is to blame. After considering possible explanations for their crimes ranging from parental abuse and neglect to psychological problems to unemployment, they eventually settle on the reason: they're just bad.
- Repo Man has the immortal dialogue when punker Duke is gunned down during a robbery:
Duke: The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.
Otto: That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me.
Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts. (dies)
- Monster: Aileen Wuornos, after being raped and forced to kill in self-defense, tries and fails to find legitimate work because of her criminal past. She becomes the most notorious female serial killer and is executed.
- Touched upon in Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne begins to sympathize with the criminal element when he encounters people who have to commit crime in order to survive (and, having cut himself off from home, having to do so himself), and then finds himself feeling a thrill when he expands his motivations from survival to profit. This is countered by Ducard, who notes that criminals look for, thrive on, and encourage society's tolerance and understanding of their motivations. Bruce eventually settles on something somewhere in the middle, and he tends to restrict his hunts to those who cannot claim it is society's fault.
- This is pretty much the main theme of Joker (2019), with Arthur Fleck even outright stating this during his climactic Motive Rant towards the film's end:
- The plot of Menace II Society: Caine is a violent gangster who is a product of his crappy upbringing but at the same time he has a chance to rise above his circumstances and everyone who cares about him tells him to make something of his life and get out of the streets.
- Boyz n the Hood: The only one of the three boys to overcome the pressures of street life is Tre, due to the presence of his father counterbalancing the negative influence of life in Compton.
- In Ever After, as Danielle saves a servant named Maurice from being arrested over the Baroness' debts, Prince Henry asks her why she would do such a deed. Danielle replies that she believes in this trope, since "a servant is not a thief... and those who are cannot help themselves."
- 2666: Regarded as an explanation to the motives behind the killings.
- Spoofed in America (The Book), in the chapter on the judicial system. It presents an open-and-shut murder case, which has "this guy is guilty" written on it in big red letters, and then the "verdict" column begins going through possible extenuating circumstances such as marital abuse and fatty foods.
Besides, when society fails one of us, aren't we all guilty?
- In The Phantom of the Opera Erik's behavior (killing people) is often attributed to this.
- The classic example would be Robin Hood, where the peasants must resort to crime to survive the impossible taxation inflicted on them to pay for their king's war.
- Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series deals with this on several occasions, as the protagonist over the course of several books meets and befriends criminals and vagabonds who commit crime to survive in Victorian England. She often finds that people on the wrong side of the law can be equally moral and good as anyone else.
- Lampshaded but defied in Captain Underpants Extra Crunchy Book o' Fun. In the final exam, one question asks what is often to blame for creating monsters, and the first answer is "society." The correct answer, however, is nuclear waste.
- This is a very prominent theme in the works of Victor Hugo... for example, Les Misérables, in which Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family — and is then sent through the tortures of the French prison system, which leave him hardened and even more desperate. The fact that Valjean is nonetheless a moral man sets up the ultimate dichotomy between him and Inspector Javert.
- Law & Order, especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, often uses this. We wrap up the A plot more quickly than usual, find out that Johnny did it and the jury agrees... but our heroes realize that it's not really Johnny's fault and strike back against the corporate overlord / gang / societal disease that "made him do it".
- Criminal Minds has quite a few instances of this, with a number of different societal problems being at least partly responsible for the pathologies of the killers. In particular, there's bullying ("Elephant's Memory"), war ("Distress"), gang violence ("True Night"), failures of the foster care system ("Children of the Dark"), and the corruption of the business world ("Pleasure Is My Business").
- It does try to present socialization as a factor, rather than a determinant, but it has wildly varying degrees of success. "Distress" and "True Night" used serious and overwhelming psychological illness as the motivator; "Pleasure is My Business" used almost nothing other than the societal issue.
- Cold Case mixes this with an economy-sized deconstruction of Good Old Ways. Expect at least five episodes a season or more to make the era of the murder the true villain, particularly when it comes to issues of race or sexuality. The episode "Best Friends," with an interracial female-female romance in the 1920s, plays both factors for everything it's worth.
- In Power Rangers Time Force, the future is a Utopian nightmare where everyone is a gen-engineered bundles of perfection, and anyone who isn't is thrown in a dumpster and becomes a terrorist.
- The worst part in this whole thing is that they never imply that the main characters have figured it out enough to want to fix it. They're happy to keep putting mutant criminals in prison forever? They don't want to fix things so that society stops creating more?
- Well, Daddy's Little Villain Nadira is on parole in the next season's team-up, despite the Cartoonish Supervillainy, superpowered larceny, and the shooting Redshirts dead in the premiere, so it looks like some changes are being made.
- In The Office episode "Weight Loss"...
Michael: Body image. We are here because there is something wrong with society.
Jim: See, you're always saying there's something wrong with society, but... maybe there's something wrong with you.
Michael: If it's me, then society made me that way.
- On The 100, Abby is initially horrified that her daughter, Clarke, allowed a missile to hit a friendly village, leaving hundreds of people to die, because saving them would hurt her military strategy. However, Kane points out that Clarke grew up on the Ark, where leaders like him and Abby often denied people access to food or medicine and would routinely execute people for even minor offenses, all in the name of ensuring their species' survival, so they shouldn't be surprised when Clarke, having been given a position of leadership, behaves with the same ruthless pragmatism. As Kane puts it, "She learned what to do from us."
- The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two-parter "Past Tense" sends Sisko, Bashir, and Dax back to 2024 America, where the homeless and unemployed are relocated to "Sanctuary Districts." Theoretically they're given food, shelter, and help finding a job but in practice, they're locked in, overcrowded, and violent residents nicknamed "Ghosts" prey on the weak. The most prominent of these is B.C., a hair-trigger thug who knifed an important historical figure before his time and begins the all-important riots. As the crisis goes on, however, he shows hints that he wouldn't have turned to violence if he hadn't been shoved into the Districts—and in fact, those with existing records are not allowed in, so many Ghosts likely only became dangerous after they were swept under the rug to be forgotten.
B.C.: Why are they acting so surprised? You treat people like animals you're gonna get bit!
- "Breaking the Law" by Judas Priest:
"There I was, completely wasting, out of work and down
All inside it's so frustrating as I drift from town to town
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life!"
- In The Hamilton Mixtape, "My Shot (Rise Up Remix)" opens by pointing out that black youth "end up robbin' somebody or killin'" because society treats that as inevitable; trying to defy society's stereotype by working as hard as he can throughout his life, with the same determination and ambition as Alexander Hamilton himself.
- Don Henley had a song about a delinquent, Johnny Can't Read:
Is it the teacher's fault? (oh no)
Is it his mommy's fault? (oh no)
Is it the president's fault? (oh no)
Is it Johnny's fault? Oh no!
(This last "oh no" is delivered as a Big "NO!", such as to suggest it's somehow much less acceptable to imply it's his own fault and much better to blame society.)
- The lyrics to Within Temptation's "Angel" include these lines, but then immediately subverts it:
This world may have failed you
It doesn't give you reason why
You could have chosen a different path in life
- Oingo Boingo's Only A Lad. See the Quotes page for lyrics.
- Replace "criminal" with "entitled, lazy punk with delusions of grandeur" and you have the reason that American Idiot's Johnny/"Jesus of Suburbia" acts the way he does. ("And there's nothing wrong with me, this is how I'm supposed to be.") St. Jimmy, too, though he is quite a bit closer to the trope than Johnny is.
[Jimmy] says we're fucked up and we're not the same
And Mom and Dad are the ones you can blame
- Calvin and Hobbes:
- In one comic, Calvin tries to pull this excuse on his dad, saying that he's a pawn of unfortunate influences and the culture is to blame. Calvin's dad responds that that means he needs to build more character and sends him to shovel the walk.
- In another, Calvin invokes this when he goes trick-or-treating as the scariest thing imaginable ... himself:
Calvin: I'm yet another resource-consuming kid in an overpopulated planet, raised to an alarming extent by Madison Avenue and Hollywood, poised with my cynical and alienated peers to take over the world when you're old and weak!
- The most vicious subversion of this particular trope is a John Callahan single-panel cartoon in which a partially-dismembered mugging victim begs the cops not to punish her attacker: "I think we should look for the root cause of the problem."note
- In a Peanuts strip from 1959, Linus chases a toy airplane inside and accidentally breaks a lamp. This exchange ensues:
Lucy: Ha! Now you've done it! Now you've broken a lamp, and you've got no one to blame it on but yourself!
Linus: (considers a moment) Maybe I could blame it on society!
- The Shadow: In episode "The Silent Avenger", a Cold Sniper who also happens to be a deeply disturbed Shell-Shocked Veteran goes on a killing spree. Lamont Cranston/The Shadow's opinion is that it's everyone's fault, that "society trained him to kill men," and that "teaching men to kill in time of war, and expecting them to respect life in time of peace" makes no sense.
The Shadow: "Danny Bricker was an enemy of society - a killer. But only because you and I and countless thousands made him one. No, Commissioner, there is no glory in this for you or The Shadow or for any man."
- Several versions of the Monty Python "Church Police" sketch quoted above presents an interesting example of how this trope has evolved over the years. the "Society is to blame" line doesn't differ, but the responses certainly do:
- Monty Python's Flying Circus: "Agreed"
- Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief: "We'll be charging them too."
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl: "All right: we'll arrest them instead."
- Monty Python also had several sketches/versions of a sketch depicting a trial. In the one performed at the 1976 Secret Policeman's Ball, the defendant, played by Peter Cook, launches into a speech in this vein and is met with a Collective Groan, then shot by the judge.
- This seems to be the play's message regarding Jean Valjean and many other people in Les Misérables. Valjean only stole to feed his sister's family, and got five years in prison. The conditions were so brutal he tried to escape multiple times, with each extending his sentence. When he's paroled at last after nineteen years, he finds it impossible to find work as a felon. He is so suspicious and hardened that even when someone does try to assist him (a kindly priest) Valjean instead steals his silver. The priest, instead of sending him back to prison when he's caught, instead covers for him, giving Valjean a second chance. Once removed from this state, he becomes a successful businessman and town mayor, but only by breaking parole. Thus he's pursued by Inspector Javert, who only cares that he broke the law, which leads Valjean into further crime to escape. It's also echoed by Fantine, who's dismissed from her job when it's found out she's an unwed mother and forced into prostitution to survive. She's arrested for striking a man harassing her, catches a fever, and dies. Javert on the other hand firmly believes this is wrong, but rather crime isn't the result of environment or heredity (especially the latter he's keen to disprove, as both his parents were criminals). When it's finally proven to him that Valjean is a good man, he can't stand the revelation, killing himself.
- In Persona 5, this excuse is the MO of almost every Palace owner. Each of them blames some facet of Japanese society for making them into what they are, even going so far as blaming all of their victims some of the time, all to avoid admitting responsibility for their actions. The Phantom Thieves don't buy this for one second, saying that their Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse and/or that they always had a choice, but chose to let the world corrupt them rather than fight against it. Even so, the Phantom Thieves admit there may be a kernel of truth to what they're saying, and this ultimately leads them to The Man Behind the Man when the rest of Japan turns on the Thieves.
- Done satirically in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. When the player beats or kills someone or steals a car, CJ will sometimes spout lines like "Don't blame me, blame society!"
- Gurdurr in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity. He used to be a pride carpenter, but one injury and one malicious client later and he lost all confidence in his skills, which took him down the path of unjust. When confronted about his wrongdoings by the player character and his partner he will say: [ ] you can't get mad at me. It's just the way this rotten world works.
- Homer sometimes says the same line if you hit someone's car in The Simpsons: Hit & Run.
- Tommy Vercetti in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City will sometimes quip: "You can blame my mother. I do."
- Ace Attorney: Dick Gumshoe rather uselessly claims this when trying to console Ema Skye.
- Carl from Llamas with Hats uses this to justify his having burned down his swan-filled house.
Carl: I've got nowhere to go. I burned my house down once it had enough swans inside, and I used up the rest of my savings buying the swans.
Paul: And whose fault is that, Carl?!
Carl: Society. Society and the swans.
- In RWBY Chibi, Ruby almost name-drops this trope in an attempt to get out of trouble. (She also blames video games.) We never find out what she and Yang did, but it involves a large fire and some hairless cats.note
- Dinosaur Comics had this strip where T-Rex told a story of Sherlock Holmes deducing that all of society was responsible for a crime, but then saying that since Holmes lived in history times this didnt apply to modern audiences.
T-Rex: Luckily, Sherlock lived in history times where things were way worse than they are now and children worked in coal mines, so his devastating conclusion did not apply to us, the reader!Utahraptor: Oh, phew
- The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh:
Piglet: It wasn't me! I was young and foolish! I blame society!
- From The Simpsons:
Gabriel: Homer, your problem is simple. You're a fat, selfish buffoon.
Homer: Which is society's fault because...
Gabriel: It's your fault!
- In 1990, The Simpsons exploded onto the pop-culture scene. Bart Simpson almost immediately became the most Moral Panic-inducing public figure of the past decade, not the least because of a line of subversive T-shirts with Bart's image that kids of all ages began sporting on the streets. One of the most notorious had Bart casually explaining: "I'm just the product of a society that's lost its good manners, man."
- From "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace" episode:
Moe: You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society.
- In one of the early shorts, Bart wants Grampa to tell a scary story. As Grampa starts telling it, he suddenly dies. Not really. He's just pulling Bart's leg.
Lisa: You killed Grampa.
Bart: No way, man! Society killed Grampa!
- In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Birds of a Feather", The Penguin looks to go straight once he's gotten out of prison, but when resident Rich Bitch Veronica Vreeland and her snobby friends decide to make him the butt of an exceptionally cruel joke, he reverts to his criminal ways to exact revenge. In the end, he muses, "I suppose it's true what they say; society is to blame. High society." At least Vreeland had the decency to feel bad about her role in it by the end though.
- Harley Quinn recites this trope as well when her attempt at a normal life goes awry in Harley's Holiday: "I tried to play by the rules, but no, they wouldn't let me go straight! Society is to blame!" Which, unlike the Penguin's, was Played for Laughs because her "crime" was having paid for the dress... but neglecting to let the woman remove the security tag, and not letting the store's guard explain the situation to her before overreacting.
- Futurama, "Hell is Other Robots":
Bender: "My crimes were only boyish pranks!"
Robot Devil: "You stole from boy scouts, nuns, and banks!"
Bender: "Aw, don't blame me, blame my upbringing!" (Stealing a wallet)
Robot Devil: "Please stop sinning while I'm singing!"
- Bump in the Night: In one episode, Mr. Bumpy disguised himself as Molly Cuddle to play a prank on Destructo. When he got caught, he tried several desperate ways to divert blame. This trope was included.
- Subverted in a Family Guy Show Within a Show called Gumbel 2 Gumbel, where one of the detectives is interrogating a thief and offers this as an explanation, only for the thief to shut it down.
Brian Gumbel: Purse snatching... society's fault, or one man's cry for help?
Thief: What are you talking about? I wanted her money!
- In one episode of Dudley Do-Right, Nell defends Snidely Whiplash in court and claims that if society had some sort of program to help people with a compulsive need to tie stuff together, Snidely's habit would never have progressed to the point where he started tying women to railroad tracks. Thanks to the Rule of Funny, this actually works.
- This can be Truth in Television. An infamous example would be Child Soldiers, who are literally forced to kill.
- Another very common example is being driven to steal food and other necessities because you have no other way to get them. Given the choice of breaking the law, or death, most will prefer to break the law, and society is often responsible for the person's predicament in such situations. Sometimes a "necessity" defense can win an acquittal in such cases, or at the very least the charge may be reduced (though not always).