A thread that has run through my various rants on this blog, usually more implicitly than explicitly, has been blame. Who or what is to blame for something undesirable? Blame is another name for causation (of a negative outcome). As conscious beings we’re drawn to find that causation and attribute it to agents, be they gods/spirits/the universe, governments, corporations, CEOs, supervisors, friends or ourselves. In my mid-forties I’ve become better at watching myself for situations involving blame/causation and pause when entering them, because everyone’s unconscious bias often is to seek very simple scenarios of blame. But, much as we’re trained as scientists to find parsimonious conclusions, Occam’s razor can balance a very complex scenario on its knife-edge when reality is indeed very complex. And the point of this post is to explore how that complexity is often very real, but that needn’t be stifling. That’s probably bloody obvious to everyone but maybe the exploration will be interesting—or at least, for me, cathartic.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10- or blame me. I’m at best an amateur philosopher and psychologist!
I feel that a big part of my job as a responsible human, adult, parent, supervisor, colleague, scientist, etc. is to blame myself when I deserve it. “Responsible” encompasses that ability to attribute blame/causation correctly. I find that blaming myself comes easier now that I’m battle-scarred and wiser for it, and I am more able to watch for excessive self-blame and paralytic pummelling than I was when I was younger. Low self esteem makes it easier to find the simple solution that you’re entirely to blame, or that simply someone else is. Excessive self confidence/power makes it easier to deny personal culpability or hunker down until it blows over. Balance is hardest– and I fail all the time.
I’ve been in many situations, ranging from the more micro-scale (smaller, embarrassing/silly events) to more traumatic (e.g. long-term arguments, correction/retraction of papers), in which I’ve had to consider blame or something like it. Foremost in my mind are my health problems and personal relationships. I’ve explored some of those here before and there are others I’d love to write about publicly but, no.
Yet lately it seems that blame is everywhere; the “blame culture” we hear about. Watch the news and virtually every story is about blame. Blame is a symptom of an angry world. It can be informative (or even a fun game) to think over who/what is not blamed in those stories (a simpler narrative is convenient, or propaganda and/or paranoia). We should be looking inwards at those we don’t want to blame, too.
There are many ways to confront the issue of blame. On one side we can say “don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff”. I hate that shit. “Happy happy joy joy” and all that; Voltaire rotates in his crypt. To me, that attitude also means “existence is meaningless” and “we are utterly powerless and blameless”, which is in contradiction to my experience and philosophy. On another side we can try to micromanage everything around us (small and big stuff), dissecting all the levels of blame in every situation, and we’d go/be insane. A middle ground approach within this spectrum, as usual, is best. Don’t be ashamed of that blame; it’s a thing we can tame.
Purpose and meaning in existence are chosen based on the direction we want our life to go (and how our successors look back on it postmortem). We place blame on those causative agents that push us away from that vector, and credit those that aid us. The more neutral agents are harder to grasp (e.g. the indifference of the universe to our existence). Purpose comes from our consciousness — to me they are the same; although our purpose leaves a legacy that persists after consciousness departs. Consciousness arises gradually from the spectrum of life – a virus is somewhat alive but closer to a rock than we are in terms of its “purpose” (more mechanical, less choices to make), then as evolution added nervous systems and other bits to life, more choices and complexity piled on. Purpose could be said to exist throughout that spectrum, from “instinct” to “choice”, all of which involve some causation — and chance. Vast oversimplification here, yes, but please stay with me. I’m getting there.
To avoid the extreme ends of the blame spectrum, we have to pick our battles and choose what is right or wrong in our world view. Lately I’ve watched smaller-scale events like United’s awful treatment of a passenger (and inability to de-escalate, then terrible PR handling) and huge global events like the resurgence of anti-intellectualism/populism or the clusterf*@$ in Syria, and blame inevitably comes to mind. Those who had more power AND responsibility to amend these situations, like CEOs or politicians, often deserve more blame. But the more complex story is that blame can be spread around these situations, much as they rightly anger us.
On an even smaller scale, close to my own profession and direct experience, I read a story by a PhD supervisor that largely blamed their student for falling silent (“supervisor phobia”) and then having problems with their degree, while the supervisor “was too busy to notice for another six months.” That seemed to exhibit gross irresponsibility for apportionment of blame in a messy situation: the old-fashioned legacy of authoritative, hierarchical scientific culture when people ranging from the university, department, colleagues, supervisor and student were to blame. It’s also a learning opportunity for many of us, to see how a bad situation evolved and think about what could have been done differently—indeed, differently from what one participant judges post hoc.
The red flag of a silent student/staff member could mean many things: the person might be intimidated about poor progress– or they might have self-esteem sharing what is actually good progress, they might be totally inactive (too little training? Hard technical problems stopping them?), or more. The point is that time is vital and acting too late probably will only worsen the problem, adding more blame to the supervisor and upper echelons.
The overall, common-sense approach I’ve cultivated with figuring ways out of hard situations at work and elsewhere is to (1) watch for (potential) problems, (2) think them through – allowing for the conclusion to be that the situation is complex and requires a nuanced approach (e.g. openly accepting one’s own culpability, maybe not yet pointing fingers at others deserving blame), and then (3) take action to try to resolve them. “The system” (e.g. rules and regulations) may be part of the problem but it can also be part of the solution. Although the system’s carrot is far more pleasant to use than the stick, they are there for reasons, to be applied with empathy and patience. Being human, we can run out of those latter two things and their fuel levels need monitoring.
The hope is that, finally, action leads eventually to a better outcome with a lesson mutually learned and, eventually, greater peace of mind as we reconcile our worldview with reality. The distinct possibility, though, is that we can’t fix everything and sometimes we have to try to find contentment in an imperfect world. Some causes are mysterious and we might have to settle for that mystery. Or we can spiral into paranoia and conspiracy theories; all the rage today; which can be simple scenarios of blame or very elaborate ones. These scenarios deserve their own rational inspection for personal biases that lead toward them, and the desire for easy answers.
But we can still blame the fucked up shit, and that can be therapeutic. Even if we hold onto blame, we can forgive it. Maybe this holiday weekend is a good time to forgive someone that is blamed.