We really do need to talk about blame.
Here are some recent news headlines:
“Right-wing figures blame Matthew Perry’s death on Covid vaccine.”
“Britain in crisis, blame Gary Lineker.”
“Tyson Fury tells fans “blame me” after lacklustre Francis Ngannou showing.”
“Putin says the West is to blame for anti-semitic mob storming Russian airport.”
“Hamas leader to blame for collapse of Gaza, says Israel.”
“Israel to blame for Hamas massacre, says Iran.”
Reading these headlines, I have come to a conclusion: blame is lame.
Blame doesn’t actually help anyone. Before you blame me for trying to absolve people of responsibility, hear me out. I will explain below why blame is often antithetical to responsibility, accountability, or peace.
Blame is reactive. It is the process by which a human mind loses nuance and context and collapses complexity into good vs evil. This process has its roots in childhood. Humans are born the most vulnerable creatures on planet earth. This vulnerability comes with a a lot of fear, as American philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes:
“Fear is our earliest and also most primitive emotion…infants, thrust into a world of need and pain, fear that the good things – food, a secure embrace, bodily comfort – will be withheld, and our experience of hunger informs us that the world is erratic and unpredictable. Our reaction to this painful situation is to try to grasp at the sources of good things, and that means controlling others. This reflex – from fear of deprivation and pain to the project of controlling others – persists as an undercurrent, even while we develop sophistication and begin to understand the world.”
This reflex was given shape by the great Child Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who described a primitive defence mechanism in infants where – to protect themselves against overwhelming anxiety – they split the world into good and bad (or ‘good breast and bad breast’). Klein calls this the ‘paranoid schizoid’ position. In healthy human development, the infant moves from this binary splitting of experience into a more integrated, nuanced view of reality. Now the infant can intuit that objects and people (and mother’s breasts) can be both good and bad. Klein called this the ‘depressive’ position, because there is a sobering melancholy or grief when we accept that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than previously believed. Once we arrive at this more nuanced view, the mother, or her breast, or other external objects can no longer be easily blamed for every frustration or setback.
You may have seen a meme doing the rounds that asks the algorithm to “please show me people who can hold nuance and complexity.” Nice meme. Definitely did not work for me. Social media thrives because it taps deep into our paranoid-schizoid selves. These algorithms show us content that is binary and blamey.
Blame is a defensive shield against vulnerability. When people feel powerless, impotent, or ashamed, blaming ‘others’ protects from these feelings, and gives a clear, simple and direct target for overwhelming emotional energy. Brene Brown dug into the psychological research on blame and concluded: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability by definition is a vulnerable process.”
Blame may give us the illusion of control, but it is just that: an illusion. When we collapse the world into good and bad, our ego and our identity gets fortified, and we may experience temporary relief from feelings of fear, impotence, or grief. But those feelings continue to haunt us. Beneath the fortified ego lurks the fear that the world is chaotic, confusing, and scary, and we have way less control than we imagine.
Writing of the politics of blame, Nussbaum explains that “In politics, fear-driven blame provides the illusion of control without actually facing and solving the underlying problem, and it is a source of great danger, since it can lead to dehumanization and even violence. When political leaders tell people that there is a target, and that they are not simply helpless, they feel a lot better. Converting fear into blame, they feel that they have a plan of action. In this way, fear feeds and underlies retributive anger, and anger is the dangerous offspring of fear.”
The energy of blame puts people onto the defensive, and fuels cycles of anger, hatred, and violence. Think of an argument with a partner or a co-worker where you were blamed for something going wrong. Mostly, when we feel blamed our nervous system is triggered and we go on the defensive. Blame doesn’t lead to resolution. Blame doesn’t lead to peace.
Blame is contagious. Research shows that when we see others blaming we end up doing the same. A Stanford University experiment had 100 participants read a news clip about a failure of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with one group’s excerpt including a statement in which the governor blamed special interest groups for the failure and the other participants reading a statement in which he took full ownership of the failure. Later, participants wrote about an unrelated personal failure and had to explain what caused it. Participants who read about the governor blaming others for a mistake were twice as likely as the other group of participants to blame someone else for their own slip-ups.
And blame divides. When we cast blame we create an ‘other’ who becomes the repository for our hurt feelings. In this process of ‘othering’, blame prevents us from seeing the role we might have had to play in the problem. Blame prevents us from seeing the shadow that lies in our own hearts. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero. A binary. Good versus evil.
So what can we do?
It’s simple. Whenever you notice the energy of blame arising in yourself, say hello to the tender, vulnerable part of you that is terrified of things spinning out of control. Know that every single human being alive on this planet feels that same primitive terror. It is one thing we all have in common.
Before you cast blame, ask yourself: ‘is this energy leading to peace?’ If the answer is no, then try a different approach.
And see if you can find a place in yourself (we can call it the depressive position) that is open and available to the complexity and nuance that is reality.
Real problems are difficult to solve. They require dialogue, co-operation, an environment where people are willing and feel safe enough to accept personal responsibility and to accomodate competing narratives. One of my favourite phrases from the world of compassion-focused therapy is:
“It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.”
This is the energy we need to cultivate right now.
Less finger-pointing. More personal responsibility and compassion for all.