On blame

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Blame is a response to adversity which is reasonable up to a point, but only up to a point. If I were to hit your mother over the head with an axe, you would be completely justified in blaming me for her demise. In that sense, the entire criminal justice system is about apportioning blame for the bad things that people do. But there are many bad situations which are not simply the fault of one person, or of a particular group of people, and in those cases blame is unhelpful and indeed counter-productive.

In itself, blame is never the solution to your problem. Even in the case where I attacked your mother, the problem is that there is an axe-murderer on the loose, and the solution is to lock me up before I attack someone else. It may turn out to be helpful if you finger me at an identity parade, but it is isn’t the solution in itself. (It may not even be necessary if my fingerprints are on the axe, for instance.)

But of course blame is always a temptation whenever things go wrong. Which of us doesn’t enjoy the occasional blast of righteous anger? I know I do. Social media are notoriously awash with the stuff. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this: the platforms themselves benefit, of course, and we should never forget that these are commercial organisations who trade in your attention; it may also be true, as John Michael Greer suggests that “hate is the new sex” – public anger is taboo-breaking; but there’s also another reason why it’s so prevalent in our current culture.

Quite simply, if blame is a response to things going wrong, there will more of it flung around when a lot of things are going wrong all at once. Increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of at least some of these; blissful ignorance is difficult to maintain in the presence of ever more intrusive problems. There are not many places you can look these days and not see at least one serious issue.

We’ve been here before, of course. At the height of the Black Death, the flagellants rather publicly blamed themselves and their sinfulness for what they saw as God’s righteous anger. Nero blamed the Christians for the outbreak of the Great Fire of Rome; subsequently the Christians blamed the Jews for pretty much everything. Lots of people felt better about things, but the Black Death kept on killing people, Rome kept catching fire, and things still went wrong in mediaeval Europe.

Blame, in other words, is a diversion. It is a natural response to feeling overwhelmed by what is happening around us; if may even be a necessary one, if you subscribe to the Kübler-Ross model of grief; but it is not in itself going to fix anything. Every revolution sees the heads of the oppressors paraded on pikes, and every revolution is succeeded by another oppression, often worse than what preceded it.

People sometimes use blame as an excuse for inaction. After all, if (say) climate change is all the fault of the big oil companies, then that lets you off the hook, unless you happen to be the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Conspiracy theories are simply a more extreme version of this. If it’s all down to the evil space lizards, well, what can you do?

What is useful about blame, however, is the energy it gives us. As William Blake said: “Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.” Many of the problems we face collectively today do not admit of a solution, but at least some of the problems we face individually can be addressed by our own actions. Often this requires hard work on our part: growing your own vegetables, for instance, is going to involve a fair amount of physical labour. But pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure is a lot easier if you can tell yourself that by doing so you’re really sticking it to The Man.

And of course in many ways you are. One of the more insidious features of our culture is that it encourages individual passivity while pretending to do the opposite. Want to reduce your consumption of natural resources? Buy our product! Want to do – well, pretty much anything? Buy our product! And if you do buy their product, suddenly you’re even more deeply entangled in the whole mess of industrial civilisation and jobs and all the rest of it. It’s like a spider’s web: the harder you struggle to get out, the more stuck you get.

Blaming yourself can be a trap. Naturally you bear some share of the responsibility for where we all are, although probably not as much as you think. Most of what happens is the consequence of a vast number of mostly very small decisions, some of them made by you, and largely in good faith. Most people, most of the time, are just doing their best. Blaming yourself is no more appropriate than blaming anyone else, because no single person is wholly responsible for the outcome.

But attributing blame is attributing agency, and just as power brings responsibility, so too does responsibility bring power. You have no control over Exxon-Mobil – I don’t think any one person does have control over Exxon-Mobil, to the extent that they could stop it doing what it does – but you can choose to drive less, or to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Not only will that make you feel better about yourself (and save you money), but if enough people start to make those choices then Big Oil is going to feel it.

As Gauguin said: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Sometimes, though, the most obvious form of revenge is not the most effective. Where commercial organisations are concerned, the best way is to stop giving them your money. I have successfully resisted the temptation to send Bill Gates a letter-bomb, but I haven’t paid money for a Microsoft product in 25 years – for most of which time, by the way, I was a professional software developer. Likewise, by avoiding social media like the plague that it is, I have not allowed myself to be a commodity in the “attention economy.”

There are many small things you can change in your life than can make the world a better place for you and for others. You won’t be able to fix everything, but you don’t have to. And best of all, instead of taking the blame, you can take the credit.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

4 thoughts on “On blame

  1. Indeed, beating oneself up can be as much a bad habit as looking for others to blame. Often people who lost their jobs in times of serious unemployment, blamed themselves. Which rather missed the point of being tangled in a complex society that had its built-in contradictions and bad theory.
    Anyway this has been a refreshing read. I would value a complementary essay on ‘forgiveness’. smile


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