I found an article on the internet some time ago about blame, and how pointless it is to blame anybody for anything. I’ve never found it again, and it’s a shame because the idea–so radical, so strange–has stuck with me for a long time.
In our culture, we are bathed in blame. From earliest infancy, we learn to blame ourselves and others for anything that might go wrong. Blame is such a powerful instinct, we don’t even blink when we see people instantly blame somebody, possibly themselves, for a situation that is clearly not under anyone’s control.
It’s easy to see how pointless it is to blame yourself or another person for something like the weather, or the choices of another person, or other calamity that is clearly no one’s fault.
It’s much harder to look at situations where someone is clearly at fault, and see how blame is pointless, counterproductive, even unfair.
If someone has committed a crime, should he not be blamed for that crime? If it is his fault, then he deserves the blame. He knew better and should not have done wrong. Right?
Not necessarily. There’s a fine, but important line between blame and accountability. When we wield the scimitar of blame on someone who has done wrong, we un-person him or her. We ask them to absorb a ball of shame the action created and somehow neutralize it. But that’s not how shame works.
When someone does wrong, and knows they do wrong, we assume they have the ability to make a different choice. We all have grooves in our brain, a lifetime of our own experiences stacked upon a lifetime of our parents’ and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ experiences. Let’s say someone is guilty of shoplifting. We assume that because we are able to make a choice not to steal, and are able to provide for ourselves, that the individual who was caught shoplifting also has that ability.
But why do you and I have the ability not to steal? Is it because we are virtuous people who have wrestled with all of the shoplifting demons and defeated them? Or, let’s be honest…do you really just not want to?
I’ve never even wanted to steal an item from a store. Not once. I’ve never doubted my ability to earn money and somehow obtain the things I need. Why? Because I have grooves in my brain establishing positive behavior around those values and habits. I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to struggle. I just don’t shoplift.
So what do I know about someone who shoplifts? I know he has different brain grooves. I know that even if he knows it’s wrong, even if he knows that someone is getting hurt by his actions, even if he wants to stop shoplifting, the grooves in his brain are going to push him very hard to do so. Those grooves were created during a very different life experience than mine, one in which shoplifting was necessary for survival, or was a coping mechanism that he can’t simply let go because he wants to.
We all have those kinds of grooves in our brain. Some of us are lucky, and our grooves only result in endearing and forgivable peccadilloes, like an addiction to soda or leaving passive aggressive notes for your coworkers.
How many people do you know with a minor peccadillo that are actually able to decide to stop and then succeed? It is equally difficult to overcome a larger problem, something destructive, antisocial, or offensive. The truth is that most people are doing the best they can at any particular time, given the hand they were dealt the tools they have for coping and change (which may be zero). Some of the very “worst” people are those who have lost their capacity to learn and grow. And those are also the ones we blame for the bad things they do and that happen around them. If they could do better, they would. Eventually, some of them will. Just the same as that office note-leaver.
Blame is a pointless exercise in shame reassignment. But that doesn’t mean everyone is off the hook. Accountability looks different than blame. Accountability means that even if you were doing the best you could, you have to accept the consequences of your actions, including people being very angry and hurt. Accountability means accepting help and working toward growth and change in whatever way your current neural wiring allows.
Holding someone accountable is not the same as blame and punishment. In many cases, it means helping and setting limits so no further harm can happen. Accountability for a perpetrator looks like making a good faith effort to change and make amends (if possible), or do some other good to outweigh the harm. Accountability for the victim means owning the hurt and letting forgiveness happen in due time if it’s right for the situation.
When we indulge in blame, we never give ourselves a chance to experience our pain and transform it. Seeing oneself as a victim is meant to be a phase of healing, a temporary one, a time for releasing self-blame, not a permanent life condition. Blaming is a way we give our power away. Choosing not to blame is choosing not to be tangled up in someone else’s brain grooves, to wish them well in finding their healing path, to take back your own power. Whoever you’re blaming today, try to imagine that in some way that is very real to them, they had no choice, even if it seems they did, even if it’s a choice YOU are able to make. Think of that annoying thing you do that you know you should stop, and have some compassion. We are all doing the best we can.