February 10, 2012

It's In Our Stars

Well, would you look at that...I managed to crank out a post within the time frame I actually promised!  Hope this doesn't set a precedent or anything, cause I doubt I'll be this lucky again any time soon. But, we're here now, so let's get down to business.  I promised we'd discuss Fault in this post, so that's what we're gonna do. 

-Before we get to the nitty-gritty of it though, I'd like to offer 100 points to anyone who can correctly identify the source for the title of my post.  Hint, it's a reference to a story I like, but it's also directly related to our current subject matter.  The answer will be in next week's post (boy the expectations are high, aren't they?) if no one gets it. 

A Game of Blame

We've all been victims of it; we've all done it.  Every person who's ever been able to understand the idea of "consequences" has been guilty of pointing fingers at someone at least once in their[NOT sic] lifetime.  Everyone who's ever done anything that's gone even slightly wrong has had a finger pointed their direction.  It's unavoidable; it's undeniable…so why talk about it?  Because it's…well…evil!

We'll get to why in a second, but to facilitate understanding why, I'd like you to try something for me.  Ask yourself some questions: Have you ever felt afraid for your life?  How about your livelihood?  Have you ever felt like your very state of being was ever threatened?  Maybe just shaken?  It doesn't need to have been a truly mortal moment.  Maybe you were just really startled.  Maybe you were mugged at knife-point, or maybe just pick-pocketed.  Think back to any moment where your personal security was genuinely compromised. 

Now then…how did it make you feel?  Scared? Nervous? Panicked? All of the above?  Did you get angry? Did you feel like you should defend yourself at all costs? Did you suddenly feel like something needed to be done IMMEDIATELY?  Did you simply shut down and feel numb? Helpless? Maybe you just felt like giving up or felt robbed of your control over events? 

Now think back to a moment in your life when you were blamed for failing at something.  Doesn't matter how big or important that particular instance was; just find a moment where YOU were held responsible for a mistake and YOU were put in the spotlight for it.  How did you feel?  Notice anything familiar?  I'd bet a healthy sum of cash that you experienced most, if not all, of the same sensations you felt when you were threatened.  It's understandable, since both mortality and blame pose a similar problem for the individual: the threat of vulnerability and exposure to circumstances. 

If we break down what happens when someone points at us and says "It's YOUR fault!", we can see that what's essentially happening here, is that we are asked to account for ourselves.  The bubble of comfort we normally walk through is busted and we are forced into a fight-or-flight mode to protect ourselves from a new "threat".  In this, case, it's the threat of consequence for failure.  It many cases, it might even be life threatening.  I doubt very much your boss wants to see you killed, but isn't it just as bad (if not worse) to find yourself out of a job?  We need jobs to maintain our livelihood and the notion of suddenly finding ourselves without that security definitely falls under the heading of "life-threatening". 

Of course, we don't usually think of blame in these terms.  I can hear some of you saying "Trevor, it's not that bad. People just need to take responsibility for their actions.  That's all they're saying when they assign blame."  That's certainly true, but what's true in theory, is not necessarily true in practical reality.  Just ask any UChicago student. Practically, we do not respond "rationally" (God, I hate that word…another post, I promise) under threat.  And no matter how you cut it, a finger of blame is a threat. 

This "blame game" gets played out everywhere for minor and major things, but it's always about responsibility.  Something went wrong, so someone is responsible for it.  Leaving aside the possibility that no one is responsible (which may very well be the case), we can safely assume that one or more parties involved had something to do with the mistake.  Let's take all that for granted.  Basically, the game is asking that someone to take responsibility for the error and work to correct it.  If they claim that responsibility and they fix the error, everything goes back to the way it's supposed to be.

In theory, all this is fine and good.  But, as we already discussed, theories are treacherous things that welcome you in with their soft, warm, sweet, simplicity and then turn out to be a bear trap baited with marsh-mellows and cotton candy…whoa…I gotta remember what I had for breakfast this morning.  Moving on…In practice, what this means is that someone in the group (you know who you are) gets really excited that it's not their fault (or at least that they can claim it's not their fault) and gets to point a finger at someone before someone else decides to do the same.  The result is this sadistic cycle of finger pointing where everyone is both trying to avoid blame and assign it immediately.  If someone else in the herd gets taken down, at least it's not you. 

We try so hard to not be the one whose life is threatened that we go out of our way just to make sure the spotlight falls on someone else…even if it is our own fault! Look at the lengths to which we'll go just to find a bad excuse. And who can blame us?  We're just trying to get back to doing our "thing" in peace. Besides, it's not so much that we don't think we're to blame…it's that we don't want to deal with the fall-out.   Furthermore, in our zeal to blame someone, we often focus exclusively on making sure the blame sticks.  Since we all understand the need to defend ourselves from blame, we work extra hard to make sure it sticks to the one we've targeted. 

And what's the result? Someone is blamed (however rightly), everyone points, and then one unlucky person defends and is either shut down or passes it on to start the whole cycle over again. Meanwhile, somewhere in this shuffle, a thing is broken, a person is ignored, or a task is unfinished…all while we were trying to establish who to blame for it.  Nowhere in this process was any problem actually solved nor has anyone actually taken responsibility for solving it.

That's the kind of nonsense we're dealing with when we play the blame game; and it has got to stop.  Now I notice I've been rambling for a while now and I have yet to give you my suggestions for what can be done to deal with this; and I hate simply posing a problem without at least hinting at my idea for a solution. Since I don't want to give everyone eye-strain, let's make this a 2-part post.  For now, I'd like all my loyal readers (and the noobs if you're not a veteran) to post their suggestions for how we can address this issue.  Give us your thoughts on the matter, and I'll share mine with you next time.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.


  1. Suggestions for addressing blame-mongering... give humanity another outlet for its bloodlust? Control breeding for a few dozen generations until we're more high-minded, cooperative, and goal-oriented as opposed to being so aggressively individualistic? Sweeping sociocultural change? ...oh, you wanted practicable suggestions.

    You're right to read the parallels of casting blame and conducting an outright attack; it seems to me that the former is a socially-acceptable outlet for the urge to do the latter. If actually removing someone from the gene pool will result in your own rejection from society, much better to do everyone the favor of simply isolating the offender (by e.g. reducing his status, income, etc.). Or anyone's status, for that matter, so long as it allows your organization/you to maintain the precious illusion of pristine effectiveness.

    There's a lot going on here. People want to feel superior and entitled, and if you make mistakes, well, maybe you don't deserve that $100,000 car. If you can find someone else to blame, your own self-image stays intact-- so long as you don't waste time worrying over every peon, colleague, or friend thrown under a bus.

    To avoid sounding completely bitter, I want to acknowledge that "responsibility"-based conversations do happen; problems are fixed, people learn and grow. But when there's pressure to perform and we don't have the "luxury" of treating our fellow man with all that high-minded dignity... Kill or be killed is still a respected and viable business mentality, if not /the/ respected and viable (business) mentality.

    So I guess we should all just blame capitalism.

    Wait a minute, there...

    OK: Maybe the real issue to address is why mistakes feel like an attack in the first place. If we can find a way to present negative outcomes as opportunities for improvement rather than "Somebody screwed up" or even "We're in trouble," the reduction in pressure could allow people the time to make a more productive response.

    Unfortunately, I keep coming back to money: ultimately, there ARE consequences for certain negative outcomes because we're not willing to pay for a broken toy. Some companies, relationships, people are big enough and strong enough (read: wealthy enough) to weather setbacks and development; some aren't. When faced with the question of survival, people and corporations get nasty. If cutting a few employees will improve morale and your numbers, that becomes the rational choice. But that's "mean," so we play the blame game until we can feel (and look) better about letting them go. It was all Jim's fault anyway.

  2. For what it's worth, let's look at this from the perspective of medicine. There are many illnesses to which that patient's behavior is a contributing etiologic factor: the various complications of smoking or intravenous drug use come to mind. Obesity and its sequelae such as diabetes are a bit more controversial because it isn't so clear whether overeating is really a choice. Be that as it may. Now, I follow a lot of blogs where the topic of health insurance and the health care "reform" act are frequently discussed. One of the arguments often raised against expansive (vs. restrictive) benefits in health plans is that the patients are to blame [that word used] for their conditions and ought to bear that cost themselves.

    That suggests that the issue is something like this: something bad has happened, and now there will be costs to clean up the mess. I don't feel that I did anything to contribute to the mess, and I don't want to be left holding the bag to pay for the cleanup. So I want to assign blame to somebody else so that I can avoid those costs. This in turn suggests that the culture of blame is connected to a broader ideology, one that says: leave me alone, I don't want to be a part of your society, I am [want to be] an island. This makes sense when we think that the European countries, which have broader social insurance, tend, I believe, to have less culture of blame. If the losses are already covered, the absence of someone to blame is less threatening. In a society like ours where people avoid participating in social insurance schemes, blame is enhanced.

    Well, if I may digress, last night I watched the movie Mask [not to be confused with The Mask], starring Cher and Eric Stoltz. It says a lot about the whole issue of in-group/out-group, normal/deviant that was discussed in an earlier post on this blog relating to ComiCon. If you haven't seen Mask, I recommend it.