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Basically, the old idea that people can be forced into a life of crime through extenuating circumstances. Since a person is born into a poor, violent, or non-white 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 Nietzsche Wannabe thrill killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, by arguing that society had twisted their minds. Though everyone expected them to hang, they got off with life sentences.
More mature entertainment will try to make Complete Monsters and other 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.
- Invoked in Yuru-Yuri by Himawari's hilariously Wise Beyond Her Years (or possibly just precocious) little sister to explain Sakurako's behavior.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 criminals in West Side Story invoke this mockingly in the song and dance number "Gee, Officer Krupke". The gang leader plays himself, with various 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 dismiss the gangleader 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..."
- Of course, 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
- The "no earthly good" self-flagellation? Preceded by yet another authority figure's rant, not hewing to the Society Is to Blame 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:
- 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.
- Also, the South Park movie's memorable song, Blame Canada!
Should we blame the government?
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- The plot of Menace II Society: O-Dog, 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 live 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- Law & Order, often, especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. 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.)
- In Power Rangers Time Force, the future is a Utopian nightmare where everyone is a gen-engineered bundles of perfection, and any one 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?
- In The Office episode "Weight Loss"...
Michael: Body image. We are here because there is something wrong with society.
- Don Henley had a song about a delinquent, Johnny Can't Read:
Is it the teacher's fault? (oh no)
- The lyrics to Within Temptation's "Angel" include these lines:
This world may have failed you
- Oingo Boingo's Only A Lad. See the Quotes page for lyrics.
== Sketch Comedy ==:
- 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 Hollywoood 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.
- 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!"
- Homer sometimes says the same line if you hit someone's car in The Simpsons Hit and Run.
- Dick Gumshoe rather uselessly claims this when trying to console Ema Skye.
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.
- 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."
- 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 guess it's true; 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!"
- This can be Truth in Television. An infamous example would be Child Soldiers, who are literally forced to kill.
- Then there is the 2013 case of Ethan Couch, whose defense against charges of killing four pedestrians and injuring 11 more while driving drunk was that he suffered from "Affluenza" — the inability to tell right from wrong because he grew up too rich, among the society of the very rich, and was taught that wealth brought (and bought) privilege.