Meet the Book Author: Beyond Complicity: Why We Blame Each Other Instead of Systems

Francine Banner, University of Michigan-Dearborn

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Francine Banner, whose new book Beyond Complicity: Why We Blame Each Other Instead of Systems was published in January 2024 with University of California Press.

What is the book about?

My book explores complicity as an organizing principle for human relationships today. The project is, in part, a work of legal scholarship. Discussing recent U.S. accomplice cases, such as the trial of the accomplice officers after the 2020 killing of George Floyd, the book argues that complicity law provides a prime example of what Cass Sunstein calls law’s “expressive function,” signaling a growing understanding that responsibility for harm creation can extend well beyond a single perpetrator.

The book also analyzes everyday discourse, where complicity and adjacent concepts—conspiracy, collusion, facilitation—infuse media discussions about not only politics, but issues such as addiction, mass shootings, racism, sexism, disinformation, and climate change. Complicity is front and center as individuals and institutions re-evaluate opinions and behaviors in a post-#MeToo and Black Lives Matter world. Fears of complicity fuel demands to boycott corporations whose practices might support discrimination, promote unfair labor practices, or enable bad state actors. The phrase “Silence is Complicity” is ubiquitous in email signatures and social media posts.

I compare investigating complicity to unfolding a complex work of origami. Complicity provides a means of uncovering intersecting paths of accountability, and thinking through what obligations we may have to others in an increasingly precarious world. 

Why did I write it?

My academic background is diverse and interdisciplinary—encompassing literature, law, and justice studies. I like to make connections between the practical and the possible, to look for the undercurrents that propel human interactions, and to expose power dynamics at work under the surface. 

My interest in complicity initially stemmed from teaching criminal law. While most criminal laws demand proof of every element beyond a reasonable doubt, accomplice cases are an outlier. Perpetrators can receive harsh sentences for crimes in which they provide relatively little help, or be punished for events they didn’t want to happen. I taught for many years in the Michigan prison system. Many of my students were “juvenile lifers,” individuals who were sentenced to life in prison as teens for playing relatively minor roles—lookout, scout, getaway driver—in violent felonies. 

As I was hearing my students’ stories, I began to notice that complicity infused the world around me. The media was replete with questions about whether allies of Donald J. Trump colluded in insurrection, if friends and colleagues of sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein enabled gender-based violence, or whether celebrities who flew in private jets were facilitating climate change. Discussions about complicity seemed to be so prevalent that I worried I might be suffering from the Baader-Meinhof effect. I decided it was time to write a book. 

How did I research?

This project is largely theoretical, although I rely on empirical studies as the basis for the book’s conclusions. Methodologically, the project is best described as critical discourse analysis, exploring how the conversations about complicity taking place in law and society are shaped by surrounding social, political, and economic forces. As I prepared to write the book, I extensively reviewed legal scholarship on accomplice liability. There is a lot of it, since legal scholars tend to dislike how complicity laws are applied! I also explored a much smaller body of research relating to civil legal applications of complicity—there is a growing literature, for example, about the role complicity plays in conscience claims by religiously-affiliated corporations.

To discuss the social aspects of complicity, I read research from scholars in broad variety of fields, including sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, and philosophy. Although it can be tempting to view current times through a lens of hopelessness, I am inspired by Ulrich Beck’s discussion of metamorphosis and emancipatory catastrophism, the idea that societies can emerge out of a crisis with a newfound capacity to see things through a different, more insightful lens. In considering accountability, I find literary theory particularly useful, for example, the work of Adam Kelly and Will Norman, who describe complicity as having a “spatial” quality. In the book I explore how accusations of complicity can be harsh and stigmatizing, isolating individuals for having played even a minor role in harm creation. But, ultimately, I see my project as a hopeful one. In traditional conceptions of the law, identifying the perpetrator would be the end of the story. Today, a criminal conviction or finding of civil liability is often just the start of a larger conversation. People are asking questions about what other individuals, institutions, and systems might also be responsible. When we discuss who is enabling, fostering, or facilitating harm, we are looking at a problem in a different way, and articulating a new vision of the individual self as situated within the collective.