Playing the Blame Game

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For July 9th Weekender, 2016

The Ethics of the Blame Game

David W. Hegg

Have you noticed our society has become enamored with placing blame? If you’re late for work it isn’t your fault because there’s traffic to blame, and stoplights not sequenced correctly, and that car in front of you refusing to go the speed limit.

On the national scale, everything that goes wrong becomes a battlefield between competing parties attempting to assign blame. Is the stock market falling? It’s his fault. Are jobs declining while crime is climbing? It’s their fault. If my team failed to win the big game it was clearly the fault of the coach, the referees, and the media.

It is clear we believe every effect has a personal, knowable, and blamable cause, and its turning us into a crabby bunch of curmudgeons whose best conversational skill is placing blame.

Now I’ll admit many things flow out of human carelessness, stupidity, laziness, and downright error. I can also say it is important to determine where human negligence or ineptitude occurs so things can be fixed and safeguards put in place. But our national focus on playing the blame game every chance we get is rapidly eroding two very important concepts needed by every society.

First, seeking to place blame for every thing that happens overlooks the fact that we live in a world where bad things happen and good things break. Can we agree some things are simply the effect of natural causes? New things become old things. They wear out, and they fail, and is many times the case no human error was involved. Despite our growing desire to blame someone, many times there is no clear tie between human activity and a broken water pump that leaves you sidelined on the freeway in rush hour.

But our growing lust to place blame turns these kinds of things into a quest for both retribution and reimbursement. Our car broke, we were inconvenienced, and someone must be blamed. So, we sue the makers of the water pump, the parts store that sold it, and even the mechanic that installed it.

Even more damaging than our insistence that everything can be traced back to someone else’s mistakes is the fact that such thinking pretty much does away with any personal accountability. The only thing equal to our ability to determine who’s to blame is our inability to recognize personal culpability. The title of a fascinating book on the subject by Tavris and Aronson says it all: “Mistakes were made, but not by me.”

If we’re late to work, but we can blame it on someone or something, then we never have to come to grips with our inefficient morning routine. If our lives are not working the way we’d like them to, it is always easier to blame other people or factors than to admit personal responsibility. And it is this erosion of personal responsibility that is most damaging to our national spirit.

In those periods of America’s greatest strength and achievement, an essential component of our success was the strength of our people’s character. We saw challenges and found solutions, not through assigning blame, but by accepting responsibility, locking arms, and fighting through the brokenness to find victory together.

Today it seems we are taking the opposite path. We are a nation of blamers, eager to gain political capital by asserting our opponents have done anything wrong, while we’ve done everything right. We’re in trouble as a nation politically, economically, racially, morally, and it’s your fault, not ours.

Here’s the big problem: As long as placing blame is our greatest skill, we’ll continue to erode as people. It’s time we swallowed our pride, took stock of our own failings, and admitted that pride and stubbornness won’t solve the challenges we face.

Yes, mistakes have and will be made, and those responsible must be held accountable. But the future belongs to those with positive ideas, and the courage and fortitude to stand up and make them work. It must start with each of us, individually, as we stop looking out the window and look first in the mirror. And if you don’t like what you see, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.