May 3, 2012

It's In Our Selves

See? I told you my luck wouldn't last.  I promised this post "next week" almost 3 months ago at this point...yeesh.  Sorry about that.  Life really does just pile it on sometimes.  Well, now that I've dug myself out a bit, I gotta say it's good to be back.

Well I think that's enough preamble; we've already been putting this off for 3 months, so let's get into it.

Blame Over

First off, for those who were stumped trying to figure it out (which I assume is all of you since no one came forward with an answer), the title (and now titles) of my post are paraphrases from a line in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius says "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings."  (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 140-141).  This line was a commentary on the idea that in order to escape servitude, one must take responsibility for one's actions and work to correct it.  While I've not been talking about subservience explicitly in these posts, I think you'll find it's appropriate for what we're about to discuss.

When last I left you (sorry), we had explored how the act of assigning blame is akin to a threat.  Let me clarify one thing before we proceed: I do NOT think that a life-threatening moment (e.g. physical assault) is tantamount to blaming someone for messing up a project or whatever.  I drew the comparison only to point out that threats of any kind instill in us this Fight-or-Flight reaction, and it often does so out of proportion.  Any circumstance we find ourselves in where we feel vulnerable, exposed, or cornered invariably produces this kind of response to some degree, but the assignment of blame is ubiquitous enough that we need to find ways to mitigate that response.  I therefore submit to you my suggestions for how to fix some of the problems the blame game creates; and as the title suggests, it's in our selves:

1) Solve Problems Rather Than Punish Failure
A big part of the problem is just how eager we are to assign blame.  I haven't spent enough time abroad to know if this is uniquely American or not, but it does feel as though a huge portion of the population is very attached to the idea of blame.  I don't mean it in a sadistic way; just that a lot of people seem to take comfort in the notion that blame is both a way to get things taken care of while simultaneously relieving them of their own responsibility.  And you know what? I see the appeal.  Who wouldn't want to be completely exculpated?  It's normal and natural to want to be free of burdens (to an extent...another post, I promise), and it's also normal to want to simply be looked over when things get rough.  But it's not an excuse to start tossing out blame. 

As we already covered last time, blame is a type of threat (or is at least perceived as such).  Since threat almost invariably results in that cycle of pointing and deflecting, it only creates a hostile environment that feeds on its own hostility until someone in the scenario is unable to defend against it.  The result may be that something gets done, but even if it does, the damage caused to the psyches of everyone involved is NEVER worth it.  I can't think of any scenario where unsettling and even hurting our colleagues and coworkers has any benefit to solving problems in a collaborative environment.  Even in the interpersonal blame situations, I don't see how hurting someone over responsibility ever really improves matters.  I've only ever witnessed it killing productivity and straining relationships.  It reminds me of the expression "once bitten, twice shy" in that it's never easy to feel safe around someone who "bit" you with blame recently.  You might find a way to get along, but you'll never have the sense of confidence and trust in that person(s) you did before.  Besides, they already demonstrated that they can and will bite...who's to say they won't do it again?

So, basically, we need to take it upon ourselves to stop being so willing to blame others.  There will always be situations in life where you want to blame someone, however rightly, for your predicament.  Someone will make a mistake, someone will forget, or someone will do something wrong, and you'll be tempted to point fingers and accuse.  But instead of starting the blame game, try asking yourself "is blaming this person going to improve matters?"  I can already hear some of you saying "Of course it does! They need to know that what they did is wrong! If they never know that they did something wrong, they'll just keep doing it!"  True, but it's not the same as blaming them. You should DEFINITELY point out where and how something has gone wrong, but it's not necessary to dump a lot of threatening language and hostility on anyone.  Just explain, calmly and coolly, why what happened was bad, and more importantly, how they can fix it.  Remember, assigning responsibility is about problem solving, not about hurting.  There'll be a time and place to vent your frustrations, but this isn't it. Punishment doesn't usually get results, or at least, it usually doesn't get good results.  Encouragement and reinforcement, on the other hand, usually do.  

2) Consider Your Reaction to Blame
I've already made it pretty clear that I think that those who fixate on blaming don't have their heads in the right place, but I also want to stress that this isn't all on the blamers...the blamees need to do some work too.  Even if you've been rightly blamed for the inciting incident, how you react to being blamed can make all the difference.  It's unreasonable to expect everyone to just never blame again, so when they do inevitably point their fingers, we need to be prepared to meet it in a reasonable manner.  The tough part here is that you're fighting against instinct, so it's often hard, if not outright impossible, to preempt our reactions.  When it is possible, though, we need to react to blame calmly.  If at all possible, try to recognize that your accuser doesn't necessarily mean you any harm; they're just trying to fix a problem.  Even if they do mean you harm (which some of them might), focus on the knowledge that what needs to happen is that something must be fixed.  Try to re-frame the accusation as "I need you to fix this" as opposed to "you broke this".  If you can't fix it yourself, instead of fighting back, try to suggest a way it could be fixed or who might be able to fix it. I know it seems trivial or even stupid, but it's not.  We always respond better when we feel we're working towards something good rather than making amends for something bad.  Furthermore, other people will respond to YOU better if you show that you're willing to work with them rather than skirt responsibility altogether.

In the event that you've already gone into Fight-or-Flight mode, it's still not to late.  We all mess up, and we all get caught off guard once in a while.  The goal then, is to keep things from escalating.  Just back up and try to get to a place where you're not defending, and they don't feel the need to attack.  Keep the problem solving goal in your mind and work towards that.  I know it's hard not to go straight to defending yourself, but it's vital that we come to recognize that we don't really need to.  Even though blame is threat, it's still not truly harmful if we simply look past the threat towards the issue that needs addressing.  We owe it to ourselves and our peers to find this space of comfort with ourselves so we can all learn to be better problem solvers.  If you get good enough, you'll find that when you stop defending, you start encouraging those around you to stop attacking.  The thrill of assigning blame is gone, so there's less incentive for it to happen in the first place. 

This is on us, folks.  We need to find ways to both work around our instinct towards blame and get over our need to fight back.  There are more than a few obstacles to this process (none of which I have time to address here) and it'll be really uncomfortable when we're starting out.  However, like riding a bike or learning to swim, eventually we'll have internalized it so well, it may even surpass our instincts. No, I don't mean it'll completely replace fight-or-flight, just that it'll become second nature.  We'll be able to instantaneously move to a place where we can solve problems instead of assign blame.  It'll be tough, but I promise you that it's worth it. 

It may not be anyone's fault that we live in a world where blame is so pervasive, but that doesn't exempt any of us from trying to fix it.  It's tempting to say "that's just how things are; why should I be different?" and call it a day.  Lord knows I've said things like that myself, but I was just as wrong then as I would be now.  I'm not suggesting we should all be trying to change the world; all we have to do is change our selves and our little corner of it enough, and the world will follow suit.

If you've got any other ideas or suggestions for how we can address the problem of blame, post them in the comments.  I'm excited to hear what you've got to say.

Thanks for sticking with me through this.  I'll try and be more prompt with posts in the future. With that said, next time: something you can't blame me for.

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


  1. First, welcome back. It's been a while, and you've been missed!

    I don't disagree with anything you have said. But I am left unsatisfied by an approach that looks only at the individual. Coming from a sociology major, that's a bit of a let down, no? So, beyond changing the world one person at a time, are there institutions and cultural values that could be changed to reduce the frequency or intensity of blame in our world?

    Let me pose an example: the tort system. In America, if something bad happens to you, you're generally SOL. Unless you can convince a civil court jury (or judge, as the case may be) that the preponderance of evidence says it's somebody else's *fault.* Then you may, indeed, have even won the lottery. Consider a person who has just become a parent of a baby born with severe cerebral palsy. Scientifically, we don't know that much about the cause(s) of CP. Some of it probably comes from asphyxiation of the baby during birth. There is also evidence that some CP arises from pre-natal events that are not altered during labor and delivery. The parent is facing, over the child's life time, probably 7 figures in medical bills. And there's also the question of how to assure that the child will be taken care of after the parents have passed on. A decent society might provide for such matters, but not exceptional America. So you really are left with no choice but to try to hang it on the obstetrician: find a mistake made during delivery (there almost always is one) and make the blame stick. To not do that would be, well, Christ-like. No, actually, satanic: it would be a form of child neglect as you would be foregoing the only way to provide the child with a decent life (unless you're among the 0.01%).

    Anybody else have any thoughts about societal factors that foster the blame game?

  2. Excellent points. I'm sorry to have let you down, though. I don't have the room I would need in a comment post to adequately address your concern. That said, I think it's a valid point and well worth having a whole new conversation about. The short response is that I don't think there's as much to be gained from demanding social change as there is from finding it in ourselves to change when all is said and done. The specifics of why couldn't be addressed competently here though.

    I admit that I don't bring up institutions or societal constructs much in these posts when it comes to suggesting ways to improve the world, and I have a lot of reasons for that. Like I said, I lack the space necessary hear, but if you'd be interested in my personal thesis on why Raging Against the Machine isn't my "thing" in these posts, I'd be happy to come up with a new entry on the matter. I have several topics already in the works that I want to address first, though, so if you're willing to be patient with me (which I'll try not to abuse this time), I'll add it to the stack.

    Thanks for the warm welcome. It's good to be "home".

    As for the rest of you, my readers, I would genuinely love to see more dialogue in these things about larger societal factors, but really, any perspectives you might offer on the matter would be welcome.