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
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.