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[Back to Essays]

Victims and Blame

Recently on a radio talk show, I heard an argument on an old theme: Black people should take more responsibility for their problems, said a guest. That's wrong, said a caller: It's not black people, but white people, who are to blame for the problems of black people.

The guest immediately began to defend her position by pointing out ways in which Blacks harm Blacks. What she did NOT point out is that responsibility has nothing to do with blame.

We establish fault in order to blame someone. These are rules we make for purposes of punishment and compensation. We sometimes call this the establishment of "responsibility": "Who's responsibile for this mess!?" But we also speak of responsibility in a positive sense: We say, for example, that someone who takes good care of his family is being responsible. He is doing what is necessary to achieve a result. He is knowingly causing something.

Therein lies the confusion when someone speaks of the need to bear responsibility. The word is used in both senses: Blame and recognition of one's own role in what occurs. Recognition of one's own role: If you call out, who did this, who will respond? Who has response ability? Who is able to face up to having caused something?

It is important, when we speak of the need for Blacks, for example, to take more responsibility for their condition, that we make it clear WHICH "responsibility" we mean. If we mean that Blacks should take more of the blame for their status in this society, we are exonerating others (Whites, for example) who have traditionally borne that blame. Here we are arguing history and law: We could argue that Blacks sold Blacks into slavery, that Blacks commit most violent crimes against Blacks, etc. (I am not saying that we SHOULD say these things or that they are valid arguments. I am simply pointing out the sorts of things one might say in an argument about blame.)

If, on the other hand, we mean that Blacks should look at ways in which they contribute to their own conditions, we are not exonerating others. Suppose, for example, I am crossing the street on a green light, with the walk sign on, well within the cross walk, when a car zips through the red light, strikes me and injures me badly. Who is to blame? Blame is a matter of rules and legality. The law has established my right of way as a pedestrian, the rules of green and red lights and so forth. Any court should say the driver is to blame and must pay damages and perhaps be jailed. The driver of the car is at fault.

But who is responsible for that accident? Had the driver been more attentive and law-abiding, the accident wouldn't have occurred. But perhaps, had I been more attentive, I'd have seen the car coming soon enough to jump out of the way. Then, too, the accident wouldn't have occurred. We've established the rules of blame. The fact that I MIGHT have acted to avoid the accident, the fact that I was, perhaps, pre-occupied, thinking of an argument, an injustice, a coming vacation -- these do not mitigate the driver's blame, because I, as a pedestrian crossing the street with the light, have the legal right to be there, day- dreaming or not, while the driver does NOT.

The fact that I, crossing the street, was not paying enough attention to save myself does not lessen the blame of the driver who went through a red light. If, having been struck by that car, I can take responsibility for my condition, I don't forfeit my settlement, my hospitalization payments. But I do benefit: For example, I recall that my attention was stuck that morning on an argument with my wife in which I blasted her unfairly and that at the time of the accident, I was rerunning that argument and elaborately justifying my actions.

Perhaps the bloody accident begins to make sense, for example, as a wake-up call -- and oddly, it is easier to recover from something that makes sense. Pointlessness leads one to hold pain in place, wanting it explained. Also, looking at how one has contributed to one's own condition relieves one of the burden of blaming others, where we malinger to prove to others how right we are, how wrong others are, how deserving of sympathy we are. And, of course, if we recognize what we did to precipitate things, we are less likely to make the same mistake again.

Blame is determined by rules, but there are no rules constraining responsibility. Responsibility is an ABILITY: You are as responsible for what occurs as you are able to take responsibility for what occurs. When a dictator takes over a nation, most citizens submit. They say, "I can't help it." They are not responsible. A few citizens say, "I can do something about this" and, at risk of their lives, fight back. They say, "I can take some responsibility for this." We call them heroes.

Years later, when the dictator has fallen, most of the cowed citizens say, "It was not my fault. There was nothing I could have done." A few say, "It was my fault. I could have done something, but I didn't. I let it happen." They are taking responsibility for an earlier failure to take responsibility.

The second group says "It was my fault", but it is not their being at fault that makes them responsible. Of these two groups of citizens, one was not more at fault than the other. Both groups let the dictator take over and did nothing to resist. But only one of these groups is RESPONSIBLE. Only one says, "Our decisions contributed to what happened. We are at least partial owners of this mess." Only one group has recognized that it contributed to the causation. Which of these two groups do you suppose will be most effective in helping to create a new, saner society?

And the dictator himself, the Hitler, the one person, perhaps, most to blame is probably the LEAST responsible of all, having reduced himself to a natural force like an earthquake, his actions now ebbing in tics and spasms from the force of his denial of responsibility.

We recognize this when we argue that insanity should be a legal defense: What's the point of punishing someone who can't understand what's right and what's wrong and doesn't even appear to know he's being punished or that he's committed a crime? What's the point of striking the river with whips after a flood or screaming curses and throwing stones at a volcano?

Responsibility begins with a willingness to ask, what part of this did I contribute? It's not a question of "Am I responsible?" It's, "How much responsibility am I willing to assume?"

It has nothing to do with blame, fault or guilt. In a sense, these are all OPPOSITES of responsibility. Blame is an attempt to insist one is not responsible: You did this to me. I am only a victim. Guilt, too, more subtly, is an abdication of responsibility: It says, "Hurt me! I'm a bad person! I did this! Oh, I feel just terrible about the terrible thing I did!" It says, in other words, "I feel as bad about this as you, because I, like you, am a victim of what happened. I did it, but I -- the person I am now -- didn't cause it, as you can plainly see by my loathing for that other self who caused it." Guilt is the guilty person splitting up into two selves: One who is to blame and another who takes the viewpoint of the blamers.

The driver of the car, for example, is likely to feel as guilty as he is unwilling to take responsibility for what happened; that is, unwilling, simply, to recognize what he has caused and do what he can to make up the damage. Of course, some people are beneath, even, guilt -- will not even recognize that they have caused anything or that what they've caused had bad effects. Others, even less able to assume responsibility, take hallucinatory responsibility for great events that never occurred. Thus, guilt is not really the opposite of responsibility, but a low level of responsibility. There are levels far below guilt.

And above guilt there are other abdications. For example, we view pictures of the Holocaust, piles of naked bodies, ovens, gas chambers, lampshades made from human skin, and we are outraged and disgusted and cry out that it is totally beyond human understanding that man could do this to man. In our vehement insistence that this is beyond understanding, we are saying two things: "I could never do to others what those monsters did" and "These terrible things could never happen to me." And we justify, thus, our continuing to live without understanding of that, in ourselves -- in people who are decent and not monstrous -- which can create a Holocaust. We are outraged, we are disgusted, we are ashamed, but we take little responsibility for what has occurred.

If I, now, look at my condition in life and ask myself how I am contributing to it (for better or for worse), I put myself in the position of being the one who causes things, and then I am able to change things. Are there limits to what we can change? Yes, we are as limited as we are unable to assume responsibility. A person who can take a great deal of responsibility for the condition of his own life and his family's life is likely to reach out and take responsibility for his community. Some people take responsibility for the condition of the entire planet -- and, as a result, create noticeable effects upon the planet.

What would it mean for a Black person to take increased responsibility for his or her condition? Only that person can say. If I asked you, "Is there some condition in your life that you'd like to improve?", what would you say? If I then asked you, "How much responsibility for that condition can you take?", what would you say? Perhaps the answer is, "None, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it"; then we would need to find some other condition, something you CAN do something about and work on that, then look again at the first condition.

And why ask such questions? Because -- well, to be CAUSE. To become increasingly able to cause what we want to happen. Blame is a legal concept. Responsibility is an ethical concept. In our personal ethics, blame is harmful, because the more we blame others for our condition, the more we become victims, people who cannot cause things. Each time I blame someone else for my own problems, I grant that someone else power over my life. Each time Blacks, for example, blame Whites, Blacks grant Whites power over their lives -- even if the blame is angry and rebellious. Each time I blame the driver for my injuries, I tell myself that I'm a victim and that someone else has done me in and that there's nothing I can do about it -- except, perhaps, try to victimize the driver in return (revenge). The psychiatric wards are full of victims who mumble endlessly (aloud or silently) a litany of blame and shame and regret.

But what of the situation where there's no conceivable way to take responsibility? A meteor or Holocaust plunged out of the sky and took my home, my family -- how could I have known? Job suffers to settle a score between God and Satan. How could someone help having been born to abusive parents? "It just happened to me. It had nothing to do with me."

Perhaps not. I find it useless to argue the point, because my own view of this is that there is no limit to responsibility, but that view is based on discoveries I made when I began to take responsibility for obvious things. I discovered that as my level of personal responsibility rose, so did my awareness of the possibilities of responsibility. For example, I became aware of ways I was creating illnesses and ceased to suffer from those illnesses. I became aware of ways I'd contributed to conditions in my life that, earlier, I could not have imagined had anything to do with my decisions. Finding that loose end of decision, I was able to trace it through the whole skein of my life. But I could not have anticipated that when I began to tug at the thread.

One person sits in a room and will not go outside, cannot take responsibility for that much motion, cannot even get out of bed. Another person stands behind a counter and "can't help you, because rules are rules." Another person walks onto a raging battlefield with such presence that both sides hold their fire. The level of responsibility that is real to one is unreal to another. One person says, "There's no way I could have seen that car coming." Another says, "Something told me to step back...", and perhaps another says, "I heard something and pulled him back out of the way."

Perhaps there are limits to responsibility, though I think not. This much we know: A society of victims will not long endure. We become saner as we find ways to increase our levels of responsibility. And this can only be done in a space free of blame, self-accusation, guilt and fault-finding. The first step toward becoming more able individuals and living in a saner world is to distinguish between responsibility as blame and responsibility as recognition of one's own contribution to what is. We cannot begin to sort ourselves out until we understand that there is such a thing as responsibility, that it has nothing to do with blame, that blame is a fixed, socially-agreed-upon thing, while responsibility is self-defined, something we choose to take upon ourselves independent of social agreements, and is only as great as we are great.

Copyright c. 2004 by Dean Blehert. All rights reserved.


Last updated: December 13, 2004