Figuring out the source of a problem is an important ingredient in generating solutions. To prevent a problem from happening again we need to understand where it came from in the first place. There is a time and a place in the process for that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, driven by anger and fear, we all too often leap directly to that phase then let its short term emotional payoffs seduce us into believing we have vindicated our anger and solved the problem all in one fell swoop.
The allure of the ‘blame game’ is not hard to understand. The simplicity of a world divided neatly into people who are good and those who are bad is appealing. Those who are good generate all the things which make us happy in our lives while those who are bad are to blame for all the thing we don’t like. The vast majority of us will always see ourselves as being good and if the things we don’t like are someone else’s fault that absolves us of any ownership or responsibility for any of those disliked things.
There are some of us who do go through life viewing ourselves as being bad and therefore to blame for all things wrong in all situations. Sadly, if we find ourselves trapped in that perspective it tends to be as a result of having the message we are bad repeatedly hammered into us from outside sources to the point we eventually come to believe it.
We can even convince ourselves there is a degree of nobility in embracing our status as bad but in truth it is just another backhanded way of further stripping ourselves of power. Both because we are superseding someone else’s thoughts over our own and because resigning to the label of a bad person is another way of falsely absolving ourselves of expectations or capacity to do anything about our circumstances.
The plain and simple truth is that none of us are purely good or bad. People are not that simple. Situations are not that simple. Problems are not that simple. Solutions are not that simple. Life is not that simple. We all have both hero and villain within us and which we contribute to the world around us is our choice. We can’t control how others choose to brand us but we can control what we contribute.
The primary, and only, key to resisting the temptation to be drawn into the ‘blame game’ is to ask ourselves honestly whether we are seeking punishments or solutions. They can seem seductively similar but they are in fact very different things.
Punishment for wrong-doing can certainly be part of a solution, and sometimes a necessary one. and there are certainly times determining a source of trouble and enforcing consequences can be needed when dealing with someone whose actions are perpetuating and exacerbating an existing problem. Accountability can both keep a problem from getting worse as well as act as deterrence and is an essential ingredient in societal trust of institutions and ideologies.
If people are able to break the agreed upon rules without consequence then both the rules and the perceived need to follow them, or any rules at all, lose their meaning. This holds all the more intensely true when only some groups or individuals are exempted from accountability while others clearly are not, which can engender very intense and fully justified resentment and animosity.
But punishment in and of itself is not a solution. Deterrence is part of the intention but ultimately punishment is about making us feel better, that those who have done wrong have suffered the consequences for it. Punishment is purely about consequences for causing a problem through transgression. Solutions are about acknowledging, understanding, and doing something about the problem so it doesn’t happen again. To keep ourselves from being seduced into the fleeting gratifications of the ‘blame game’ we have to ask ourselves are we interested in assigning blame or determining responsibility.
Blame looks towards the narrowing end of the funnel. It seeks to reduce, restrict, singularize, and limit both the range of perspective and the breadth of accountability. Even if it targets the entirety of a large group the first thing the machinery of blame does is reduce all perceived members of that group down to a singular and narrow definition, making the collective group a purely bad single entity.
Blame is also automatically imbued with judgement and condemnation. It starts from the faulty assumption that all of the ‘wrong’ in a situation will have been caused by someone who is bad, which they will have done deliberately due to their purely and irredeemably evil nature. Any information gathered, which all too often winds up being little to none, is aimed at assigning guilt not understanding contribution.
The only resolution blame seeks is that of consequences enforced upon those it is assigned to. It is about the assigning and punishing of guilt and is fueled by another faulty assumption; that once the bad person is defeated and punished any and all problems they have caused will instantly disappear.
Once the bully has been beaten up any harm they have caused will be erased and they will never, ever try it again. Once the person who got the job we wanted is fired we will be able to start work on Monday. Once the candidate we don’t like is voted out of office the country will instantly start operating the way we think it should. Once we assign blame on a country of origin the pandemic will simply disappear.
And in this day and age we are also all too familiar with blame’s fraternal twin, the ‘whataboutism’ which is not only mechanism for assigning blame but also a method for attempting to sidestep or deflect potential impending blame or accountability.
Responsibility looks to the widening end of the funnel. It seeks to discover any and all possible contributing factors and to understand what impact those contributions had on the overall problem. It doesn’t think in terms of good or bad but rather of involved or uninvolved, relevant or irrelevant, deliberate or unintentional.
Responsibility starts from acknowledging a problem exists and that it needs to be figured out and dealt with. It seeks resolution of the current problem and prevention of possible future recurrences. It casts a wide net back to determine what factors might have contributed to how we got here, takes as wide and all-encompassing a view of where we are to assess how the situation functions and what impacts it is having, and takes a realistic view of the possible roads ahead to try and assess possible risks of recurrence.
For the machinery of responsibility to function effectively acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility once it has been determined is essential. Not for the sake of punitive consequences, though those may sometimes be necessary, but to generate awareness and understanding of how certain contributions led to certain results with the goal of preventing those results from happening again by preventing the contributions in the first place.
Taking responsibility for harming another person means acknowledging and understanding our actions can and do impact others, whether those impacts are what we intended or not. Taking responsibility for our choices means acknowledging and accepting that the decisions we have made with the information and perspectives we had at the time may not have been correct and may have contributed to the problem rather than its solution. The lens of genuine responsibility is not blind to its user. We can discover responsibility of our own even while exploring a problem we are seeking to solve.
Genuine responsibility is not about trying to dump all of the fault, obligations, consequences, and any future efforts onto the narrowest of possible targets which most definitely are not ourselves. It is about acknowledging there are no instant fixes or singular roots of all evil. Genuine responsibility understands that genuine solutions will take ongoing effort and involvement from many people.
We are living in a world which is constantly expanding and diversifying, simultaneously giving us access to everything but offering little to no guidance about how much of it all we are supposed take onto our own shoulders. The most crucial skills we need to survive it are the ability to critically assess and to effectively problem solve.
There are no ‘easy button’s or short-cuts for either of those things. We are emotional creatures and our emotions want us to act immediately but all actions have consequences regardless of how rash or considered they are. Skills of assessment and problem solving can be developed and honed to the point where we can be quite quick and efficient with them but what we practice we will perform.
If we are always looking for the quickest and simplest answer, if we are always looking for the easiest way to make whatever is upsetting us someone else’s fault then that is how we will respond to each and every situation which comes our way. Large, small, simple, complex, low stakes, immensely high stakes, what we practice we will perform and over the past several years we have seen what happens when world leaders try to force all discourse through the narrow blame-centered end of the funnel only to be confronted with incredibly complex global problems with life or death stakes.