Fault Lines: Tort Law as Cultural Practice

By David M. Engel; Michael McCann | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
“Nobody Broke It, It Just Broke”
Causation as an Instrument of Obfuscation and Oppression

ANN SCALES

The title of this chapter refers to a Swahili language-teaching exercise that a friend experienced in Tanzania. It goes like this. One speaker asks a question, “who broke it?” Another speaker responds, “nobody broke it, it just broke.” My friend, who grew up in England, was struck by the contrast between her own habits of assigning responsibility with the apparent comfort among Swahili speakers with things just breaking for no apparent reason. She went on to narrate how this linguistic insight conformed to her other experiences of living in Tanzania. She took some solace in being in a society where people did not always feel compelled, in her words, to impose linear explanations upon the world.

The Swahili-learning story is about variability in perceptions of causation. As David Engel's work much more fully illustrates (Engel 2005, and this volume), perceptions of causation are matters of cultural and theological habits. Every culture has varying stories of causation and responsibility. I think these are essentially human stories, the need for which emerges from the form of consciousness that humans, perhaps uniquely, exhibit. They are stories of origins, stories of beginnings, connections, and ends, stories of possibilities beyond present experience, the possibilities for wholeness within, or transcendence of, this mortal coil. They can also be stories of oppression and greed.

I want to tell a specific chapter in the story of causation, one having to do with gender oppression in the U.S. torts system. Of course, it is not only women who have lost out. Like every other legal institution, the torts system has disproportionately disadvantaged the groups who were already subject to a range of

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