Blame And Responsibility

 
"Round and round in the usual old game... and it's all your fault!" The ever-popular blame-game... see it on any street corner, in any queue, in any office or boardroom or works canteen, any time you like...

Blame and responsibility seem to go hand in hand: "who is responsible for this mess?" yells an irate school-teacher, as he surveys the aftermath of a few minutes'-worth of over-exuberance from his students. Which is odd, though, because in many ways they're opposites: responsibility is, literally, 'response-ability', the ability to respond in the present; whereas blame is mostly concerned with the avoidance of responsibility - assigning it to someone else or somewhen else.

Without responsibility, we have no power; without power, we have no choice. It's as simple as that. So the more we try to avoid responsibility by blaming, the less power, and less choice, we have; the more we allow others to offload their responsibilities onto us by blaming us, the less power, and less choice, that we all have available to share. So we need to separate responsibility and blame, and distinguish clearly between them: but that's not quite as simple as it sounds...

Blaming the world


A simple question to start with: why does it always seem so much easier to blame - blame anyone, or anything - than to accept responsibility? It's weird...

It's been a bad day: I've had yet another one of my infamous rows with Mary at work, straight after having to deal with one of our more obnoxious clients; Kaye's blaming me for having mislaid a file that Mary says is crucial, but I know it's her fault that it's gone missing. And now, rushing out from the supermarket, trying to make up for lost time, I've just tripped over and dropped the whole lot on the floor. Broken eggs and broken bottles everywhere; coffee and honey and cooking-oil all mixed up with toilet tissue and breakfast cereal and Gawd only knows what else. Chaos! Panic! "Why does this always happen to me? Why is the universe conspiring against me?", I wail; but strangely enough, nobody's listening...

Stop for a moment, Chris, says an inner voice: try listening to yourself... might just see what's going on behind that maze of blame... So yes, I stop for a moment: the panic eases, softens. All right, yes, it's true, it doesn't "always happen to me": it just happens on rare occasions - like right now. And it probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been so busy blaming everyone else that I forgot to look where I was going. Right. There's still one heck of a mess there on the floor, but at least I'm able to respond to it now...

So go back to an incident of your own which had that same feeling of "why does this always happen to me?" Sometimes, as we've seen, there is an element of geas, of something which does "always happen to me" - but it's much more likely to have been tied up with getting lost in blame. If so, how - if at all - did you recognise that you were lost in blame - using blame to avoid your own responsibility? How - if at all - did you reclaim that responsibility, to deal with the task in hand? If you 'passed the buck' to someone else, what happened? And how did you feel about what happened?

Life seems so much easier, being a victim: it's always someone else's fault, and it's always someone else's responsibility to fix it. Being a victim, we can blame others in the past in order to avoid responsibility in the present: "if only they hadn't done that to me, I'd be able to..." The catch with 'playing victim' is that we then need someone else to play the Parent and do the fixing for us: and if everyone's busily playing victim - locked into 'a culture of complaint', to use Robert Hughes' term - then nothing is ever going to get fixed...

A victim is literally 'a conquered one': it's an accurate enough label for someone who's in shock, or actively recovering from some traumatic incident, but most of the time, bluntly, self-styled 'victims' are more likely to be playing the blame-game for all it's worth - if only to gain "that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable". What they rarely seem able to see is that the only way out of the situation about which they're so loudly complaining is to acknowledge their own responsibility in the affair: but since that's what they - we - are usually most avoiding, there tends to be an awful lot of 'round and round the garden' before any change starts to happen...

I'm sitting in the café on a quiet Sunday morning, when in storms Julie, wanting someone to talk at. "That's another lousy man I've had to get rid of out of my life!" she says, gesticulating wildly. "He insulted me, so I slapped him - I mean, what else could I do? And, d'you know, he not only had the nerve to get cross about it, but he even threatened me: 'I'll hit you back if you do that again' - that's what he said! I mean, I ask you! Why do I always get these creeps, Chris? That's the third time this year... Are all men bastards, or are there any good ones out there?" And a thought crosses my mind: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action... but who's 'the enemy' here? Men - or Julie's own reliance on blame?

She sees another friend across the way, and moves over there to pour out her tale of woe once more. But just as I breathe a sigh of relief, in walks Geoff - who does exactly the same. "Bloody women! Blood-sucking leeches, the lot of them!" What is it this time, Geoff? "Sarah - you know. All those things I gave her: I mean, she took them from me, and now she's gone. Gone off with Barry. Hope she does the same to him, the swine... Took everything I gave her, and never a word of thanks!" Did she ask you for any of it, Geoff? Did you ask her for anything in return? "No, I just gave it to her, didn't I, but so what? I don't know what you're on about: I mean, she took everything, didn't she? Bitch... Are there any good women out there, Chris?" And a slightly nastier thought crosses my mind: Geoff, meet Julie; Julie, meet Geoff; you've got a lot in common, you'd get on like a house on fire... literally...

Who do you know like Geoff or Julie, so busy blaming the world that they don't notice the part they play in creating their own mess? Why is it so easy for us to see what's really going on, but so hard for them to do so?

Stop for a moment, though, and turn this round: how much do you play the same blame-game as Julie and Geoff? (It'll be embarrassing to explore this, but do it anyway.) From this side of the mirror, it'll be hard for you to see what's going on, but much easier for others to do so; so perhaps you can use those others as 'allies', to show you how you're contributing to your own problems. Who could you do this with? Perhaps more to the point, who would you feel safe to ask to do this for you?

No-one is immune from the blame-game; everyone does it to varying degrees at varying stages of their life. Ultimately, no one - no one individual - is ever to blame, because everyone is to blame: the threads of wyrd pass through us all, and we're all shirking some part of our responsibilities somewhere in there. It's not exactly comforting to face that, but at least it's honest - which blame rarely is.

The whole purpose of the blame-game is to 'export' responsibility to others: that way, we hope we'll be able to avoid the work that being 'response-able' always involves. But Reality Department rarely lets us get away with it - although sometimes the ways with which it works back to us can be more than a little weird... One form of the blame-game begins when we 'project' onto others what we're feeling, but don't want to admit to, or are too embarrassed or too frightened to admit to: "what's wrong with you? why are you angry?", I ask, when it's obvious that the only one who's angry is me, but I don't want to admit it. Another form of the game starts by assigning responsibility to others for what are our actions, our choices: "you made me love you! you can't leave me!", I wail, carefully avoiding the possibility that my clingy dependence is not something anyone would want as part of their 'We'...

"Why aren't you with that group any more, Chris?" asks a friend; "you were very involved with them: what happened?" "Oh, they pushed me out - did the dirty on me after all my hard work - didn't you know?" In reality, they'd done nothing of the kind: I'd wanted out, for a number of reasons - over-commitment elsewhere, habitual 'issue-hopping' and a short attention-span - but it's much easier to blame them than to face the embarrassing fact that I'd broken my promised commitment to them...

Look back at some of your own examples of where you blame others: watch out for the feeling of embarrassment that you'll want to shove down quickly in angry blame, but which always hides the facts of your own choices in each incident. What do you learn about your choices? What other feelings are hidden behind that wall of blame?

Running away from responsibility, it always seems easiest to blame someone. If we run out of others to blame, well, we can always blame ourselves... But that's no solution either: since the threads of wyrd pass through everyone, blaming others is, in a weird sense, blaming ourselves, and blaming ourselves is also a way of blaming others. The real problem is not who to blame, but blame itself.

Blaming ourselves


One of the traps when we first recognise the dangers of blaming others is that we'll switch over to blaming ourselves instead - and we'll have plenty of 'encouragement' to do so... "See! You admit it! It isn't all my fault, is it? So it must be all your fault - go on, go on, admit it!" And perhaps the most popular tactic in the blame-game is the old 'all-or-nothing' trick: if you're willing to accept responsibility for anything at all, you must be willing to accept the blame for everything. It's a massive disincentive against honesty: but it does mean that once we do start to be a bit more honest with ourselves, it's all too easy to take on far more responsibility - and certainly far more blame - than is actually appropriate.

Back in primary-school days. One of the students has pushed another's shoes into the toilet: the teacher wants to punish the culprit, so we're all stuck here until someone owns up. We wait. And wait. And wait. Two hours pass: it's obvious no-one's going to admit to it. I look around once more. Oh well, someone's got to do something, I suppose, so it may as well be me... The teacher frankly disbelieves my 'confession', but beats me anyway - on principle, perhaps - and lets everyone else go. Do I get any thanks from the real culprit, or anyone else, for my self-chosen martyrdom? Not likely! What I get instead is a great pile of mockery - and everyone else's blame for anything they can dump on me... Not a wise choice...

Go back to some incidents of your own where you were 'over-responsible' - for example, where you took on the responsibility for something which you didn't do, and found yourself landed with the blame instead. What did you feel when your well-intentioned actions went so wrong? What did you - or do you - feel towards those who were so quick to use your self-blame to dump all their blame on you?

Looking back with the advantage of hindsight, you're likely to have had some kind of warning from the wyrd that this kind of self-blame was not a good idea: and that 'warning' was likely to have been linked to a particular feeling. Can you yet recognise this feeling of 'impending wyrd', which you can use to warn yourself in future?

Another word for self-blame is guilt: and trying to take on the guilt of others - trying to emulate "the one who died to take away the sins of the world" - is rarely wise, not least because those others rarely notice anyway... So self-scapegoating is a problem; but there are other kinds of self-blame which are rather less honest. Sometimes it takes the form of 'playing victim' to oneself, and blame our own choices in the past in order to avoid responsibility in the present: "if only I hadn't done that to me, I'd be able to..." Another form is a variant of that old game of trying to gain "that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable": if no-one else will blame me, so that I can complain about how unfair all this blaming is, I can probably get the same attention by blaming myself... "Oh, woe is me! Oh, I have been so foolish! Look at what I have done wrong now!" says Chris, in over-dramatic voice...

I know that, at school and elsewhere, I often tried to 'buy being liked' by blaming myself for everything that went wrong, for anyone: I didn't like some of the 'attention' I got for doing this, but at least it was attention... And it took me many years to stop blaming others for what they then 'did to me' as a result of my habit of self-blame - and recognise that it was in my choice to end the hurt, simply by ending the dishonesty of blame.

In what ways have you 'played victim' to yourself, in order to gain attention, or to avoid responsibilities in the present? What did you feel about yourself when you did this? Feeling uncomfortable about that, how much did you blame others for 'doing it to you', when in fact you knew it had been your own choice?

Blame helps no-one. Once we start to look more closely at our own involvement in each interaction with others, it slowly becomes obvious that we can't blame others: as the wyrd will often show us with startling clarity, 'they' are just people, doing what people do, and making mistakes just like everyone does. But it's then essential to remember that exactly the same applies to us: we're human too, we make mistakes too, just like everyone else - and blaming ourselves helps no-one either.

What does help is taking responsibility - the appropriate degree of 'response-ability'. Not too little - running away from responsibility - but also not too much: especially as some common ways of appearing to be helpful or over-responsible - such as the 'gatekeeper' and the 'judge' - are really little more than a subtler version of the blame-game.

The gatekeeper and the judge


A while back, we looked at how we sometimes shirk our responsibility through 'faked incompetence', pretending that we're not capable of doing some task - such as the boring household chores, or tackling the frustrations of a new computer system. But it is true that everyone starts out incompetent at those tasks: and we can't do better than that unless we're genuinely encouraged to find our own power and responsibility within them - which we certainly won't be able to do unless we're allowed to learn. What happens instead, in yet another version of the blame-game, is that someone demands that we 'should' or 'ought' or 'must' do some task or learn some new skill - and then acts as 'gatekeeper', preventing us from learning how to do the task whilst at the same time complaining at us, or blaming us, for having supposedly refused to do it. Because the gatekeeper holds back essential information, we can't do the task properly - or even at all - and hence often give up in frustration: which is then taken as 'proof' that we've faked incompetence, and ducked our responsibility. The gatekeeper probably feels equally frustrated - "dammit, it's quicker to do it myself!" - but often finds it easier to blame others than to notice their own involvement in the situation...

Mary's landed me with the task of bringing Kaye up to speed on the new computer system. I must have shown her how to use it a dozen times today: but here she is again, with yet another question. How on earth am I supposed to do my own work with Kaye interrupting me all the time? "Look, it's simple: you click here, then you select the next record, highlight it, then do this" (I quickly type in a short key-sequence) "then cut-and-paste to the other file - okay?" And I'm already starting to walk back to my desk before Kaye has a chance to say 'No'... Five minutes later, she's back again, looking more frustrated than ever; and I'm fit to explode - "why can't you work it out for yourself?", I want to scream at her, "it's obvious, dammit!" Just in time, though, a gentle hint comes drifting in from the wyrd: "How long have you been working on that system, Chris? Six months? And how long has Kaye been using it - six hours, perhaps? So perhaps what's obvious to you might just possibly not be obvious to her, eh?" Uh-oh... I've been playing 'gatekeeper' again, haven't I? Better show her properly this time - without blaming her for not knowing what she simply doesn't know; and this time find out first what is obvious to her, in order to find out what isn't...

In what circumstances, and for what tasks, do you find yourself playing 'gatekeeper'? Childcare? Household maintenance? Something at work that you think of as your own specialty, that you're certain no-one else could - or should - do as well as you? Whilst appearing to help others learn those tasks, in what ways do you actually prevent them from doing so - and blame them for it? To resolve this problem, 'do no-thing' about it: let those quiet inner whispers from the wyrd warn you when you're doing it - and take action when you hear them!

The 'judge' is another variant of this: like the gatekeeper, it blames others for failing to do what it in effect prevents them from doing - but masks the dishonesty of the blame with a great deal of righteous indignation.

Sounds like Mary's had real problems with that client again: she's in one of her fortunately-rare 'judge, jury and executioner' moods, and everyone's running for cover. She'll soon find something wrong to get angry about: and this time it's Kaye who's not been quick enough to get her head down. "That's just not good enough, Kaye!", says Mary. "You know that this form must be laid out in the way that I've said!" Kaye mumbles something... and Mary snaps back, "So what if it doesn't fit! That's your problem! Just do it!" She drops back into her 'sweet-and-reasonable' voice - "Just do as I ask, will you?" - and sweeps back to her office, putting on her smile-mask for the client as she does so. Out here, everyone else stops holding their breath - and we turn to the shell-shocked Kaye, to help her recover from The Judge...

Not pleasant... but it'll probably be even less pleasant to turn this round, and face what's really been going on in those times where you've played The Judge... What was your righteous indignation there being used to hide - from others, or from yourself?

There's a weird twist to this. Most people's idea of a judge seems to be that of someone in authority, with the right to have power over us: but the problem is exactly that, namely 'power-over'. In a more practical sense, 'judgement' is about the development of skills and awareness - appropriacy, rather than abstract 'truth' - so the functional röle of a 'judge' is not to judge as such, but to help others develop their own judgement: power-with, not power-over. So the more authority we gain, the more responsibility is placed on us to mediate with others, and the less right we have to judge others - which is not quite how most people in 'authority' positions tend to see it... Yet successful leaders, and successful relationships, depend on awareness of that twist.

I remember, a few years back, watching a classic example of how not to do it - playing at 'judge', rather than being that röe. It was at a kind of conference, somewhat political, but there were also schools delegates there - even some from primary schools - so part of a formal agreement signed by each delegate was a commitment not to use 'offensive language'. Unfortunately, one of the organisers - taking an overly subject-centred attitude, as tends to happen at such events - decided that 'offensive language' included any comment which in any way disagreed with his own personal politics: so he felt that he was not only within his rights, but righteously correct, to publicly eject from the conference anyone whose words - or presence - he disliked. A few people questioned his behaviour: this too was deemed 'offensive language', and he demanded their instant removal too. Quite soon the discussions became quite heated - some of it using a great deal of offensive language! - but eventually the organiser's 'judge'-game was brought to a halt: especially as the event's main theme was supposed to be 'freedom of speech'...

"I disagree with every word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it": how easy is it for you to follow this old maxim about freedom of speech? To what extent do you want to control others' thoughts as well as their actions - or for them to control their thoughts to conform to your beliefs, which comes to the same thing?

Maintaining true freedom of speech is always going to be difficult. The political-correctness movement, for example, started with the laudable aim of creating 'non-offensive language', to reduce habitual disparagement of minorities. But it soon fell into that trap of playing The Judge, issuing ever-more-tortuous tirades of blame, and demanding increasingly harsh 'anti-vilification' laws to vilify 'offenders', until eventually it became it became clear that its tactics were, in reality, even more oppressive than the original supposed 'offensive language', and the whole movement collapsed into self-parody, where it remains to this day. A single thread of wyrd, complete with the weird twist - its geas - through which it comes to its end... The aim of the movement was right, and responsible; where it went wrong - the choice which was never faced, and which led to its end - was in its dependence on blame.

Dancing with responsibility


Responsibility is not something which can be dumped on others, but is a dance with ourselves - a dance with our own choices, and our own 'mis-takes'. One shift in perspective that's important to make is to recognise that responsibility is about our responses - and no-one else's. If I take offence at something you've said, it's my response to your comments - not something you've done 'to' me - so I need to understand that the 'response-ability' to act on that response lies with me, not you. Anything else is blame, which doesn't work: all it does is build more walls.

The aim here is to move from 'you-statements' - "you insulted me!" - to 'I-statements' - "I feel offended by what you've just said". That shift in perspective usually feels weird at first - 'I-statements' can sound pompous and stilted, and can seem much more difficult to say, mainly because we're accepting that the responsibility is on us rather than on 'the Other'. Weird though it may feel, it does work: a 'you-statement' builds walls of projection and blame, but an 'I-statement' opens a doorway, and creates a space for negotiation. I still don't like what you've said: but you're not an object, so I can't force you to 'take back your words'; and you're not my subject, so I can't demand that you change yourself to suit my whims. You're you; I'm me; 'We' has a disagreement; let's talk about it...

"You insulted me!" Try watching the way you interact with others: notice how many 'you-statements' you use in a single day; notice how many walls you build or reinforce that way...

So shift your perspective, and try to reframe those 'you-statements' into 'I-statements' - statements about what you feel, not what you think the other person did. Notice how much easier it is to blame others instead... so what is it that 'I-statements' demand from you? At first, it's probably safest to practice this in private, such as in a personal diary; but aim to find the courage to put it into practice in public. When you first do so, don't be surprised if the initial response is one of mockery and disbelief - which will hurt. But if you can, persist, bearing always in mind that this is your 'response-ability': then notice the weird 'negotiations' that begin to happen...

What we're doing here is working with projection and export - both our own and that of others. The purpose of the shift to 'I-statements', weird though they feel, is partly to provide enough awareness of our own self to enable us to identify the degree of our responsibility - and hence our appropriate 'response-ability' - and also to prevent us from responding in kind when others blame us. With that awareness, we watch the feedback: both directly from those others, and also from the more tortuous twists by which we get feedback from the wyrd.

Projection and export depend on blame - in many ways are blame - and also depend on playing dishonest games with boundaries. The first part of the game is a switch to a subject-centred view, to dissolve genuine boundaries and drag in some 'other': "it wasn't me that broke the plate - it was my hand", says a friend's small son. The 'other' - whatever or whoever it may be - is then assigned the entire blame for the incident: "it was my hand that did it!", exclaims the boy. And the export is completed by switching back to an object-centred view, slamming the boundary shut by making the other 'Other' again: the boy looks down at his hand, and slaps it, saying "naughty hand! - you musn't never do that again!" - so it's now the hand's responsibility, not his...

Disentangling these weird webs of projection and blame can take a lot of work - and a lot of honesty. "We've been trying to get the co-op going for ages, but nothing seems to happen", says Kim. "Last week one man said 'I don't know where my commitment is with this, I don't think we've any chance to get anything together till next summer'. And it felt like it just cut everyone off at the knees: an abandonment, a betrayal. He didn't turn up to last night's meeting, but I had to go into the pub then to make a phone-call: and there he was, glaring at me with eyes of hate - that's what it felt like, anyway. But I know I'm angry with him: so is this 'hate' I perceive genuinely his, Chris, or something I've projected onto him? I just don't know..."

The way to resolve this is simply to ask - build communication - starting with an 'I-statement'. Not quite as simple as it sounds, though: for example, if the other person doesn't want to communicate - share 'response-ability' - then we have to accept that this is their choice, no matter what we may feel about it...

When someone 'refuses to communicate', what do you feel? In what ways do you try to force them to 'communicate' - even though it can't be true communication? What does it take for you to move beyond blame, to allow them to communicate in their way - and also accept that a refusal to communicate is itself a communication?

There are a few tricks that can make this shift to 'response-ability' easier - even though, in the usual weird way, they actually demand more from us. One of the most useful - though often most challenging - is to assume that people's intentions are good, even where their actions seem to be otherwise. For example, since everyone had agreed not to use 'offensive language', back at that political conference, it would have been useful to assume that if they then used 'offensive language', it was by mistake - a 'mis-take' - rather than by intention. If I take offence at what's said, that's my response, not something they've done to me; and it's up to me to say so, and accept the feedback that I get.

Even where they're nominally 'wrong' - such as by breaking an agreement about not using 'offensive language' - my only 'right' is to negotiate, not blame. Once is happenstance: however well-intentioned we may be, 'mis-takes' do happen. Twice is coincidence: sometimes we do have to repeat our objections before they're heard - and it's up to us to ensure that they are heard. So it's useful to assume that it's only when it gets to be three or more times that it's likely to be intentional - at which point we may indeed need to suspect a possible 'enemy action'...

Even then, it's wise to be wary about thinking in terms of 'punishment': it's true that some people, and some situations, can be abusive, but it's not going to help anyone if we just add to the abuse with an over-zealous 'mis-take' of our own. Uncomfortable though it may be, it's time we looked more closely at the problem of abuse - and our own 'response-ability' within it.