Sunday, July 26, 2015

Too Much Blame; Not Enough Accountability

In our society, we constantly blame problems (rightly or wrongly) on this or that group or individual, but we never actually hold anyone accountable.

So what's the difference between blame and accountability?  And why does it matter?  

Blame comes from a place of anger and resentment.  When I blame someone for a problem, I'm approaching the situation with negativity.  I'm saying, this person caused the problem.  He or she deserves to be scorned and punished.  But scorn and punishment don't lead to growth, or understanding, or reconciliation, or resolution.  I think that holding someone accountable for their actions is quite different.  It comes from a place of optimism, a belief that the perpetrator can be redeemed and act better in the future.

But can't you do both at the same time?  I don't believe you can.  Blame is focused on the past, while accountability is forward-looking.  Holding a person accountable for their actions can and should be the beginning of a conversation.  The goal of blame is to end that conversation.  "It's his fault, so that's it. There's nothing more to say."

Let's think of an example.  Imagine someone murders a close friend of mine.  If I go about blaming him, I can tell myself and the world that this person is responsible, and he should suffer for his crime.  Well okay, but then what?  I'm stuck with this anger.  Blame inhibits forgiveness and compassion.  And as we've learned from all our spiritual traditions, as well as modern psychology, forgiveness is therapeutic, and I need to work towards forgiveness if I'm to find peace.

But maybe I want to hold onto my anger; The anger makes me feel superior; it validates my own righteousness.  If I see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, then my anger and blame uphold my understanding of the universe. But what is gained, really?  And what is the cost?

And what about the murderer?  We throw him in prison.  And I'm not arguing against that.  But there's no functioning rehabilitation program, because we've decided as a culture that such a villain cannot be redeemed.  So then what happens?  If he is naturally inclined, he might choose to reflect on his situation, and maybe he'll learn and grow, and come out a better person.  But probably not. We certainly haven't done anything to encourage, incentivize, or support that progression.  Maybe he'll get out after twenty years and murder someone else.  Blaming him actually encourages recidivism in some subtle ways.  We isolate and alienate him, which makes him more likely to continue engaging in antisocial behavior generally.  And we label him a murderer, a monster, as if he has no other qualities.  We dehumanize him.  If he internalizes this, then he's almost certain to kill again.  If he doesn't, then he'll be resentful and angry at society in general, which may also lead to more violent behavior.

But if I choose to hold the murderer accountable, then I can have a conversation with him.  It will be a difficult conversation to be sure.  And what if I am not emotionally able to have that conversation?  Then a social worker can perform that role nearly as well in some ways, and probably even better in other ways.  But a true conversation requires two people who are genuinely engaged.  So what if he's not ready to have that dialog and take responsibility for his actions?  Then there really is nothing we can do.  But we can hope that maybe with some of time, eventually he will be ready.  He'll know the conversation is possible because it was already started.

What does it really mean to hold the killer accountable?  There's no way he can bring my friend back.  I don't really know the answer.  I don't think there's a generic prescription.  But it starts when he offers a genuine apology that expresses responsibility, understanding, compassion, and remorse.  And if nothing else, that alone should help to prevent future violence.  It reminds me of countless stories and anecdotes of victims expressing genuine joy and serenity at the validation and vindication granted by a genuine apology.

You might be thinking that anger has value, and positive qualities.  Anger can be the fuel to motivate change on a personal or even on a societal level.  This is a valid point.  But people who make this argument undervalue compassion and altruism as powerful motivating forces, and I believe more powerful than anger, although admittedly difficult to harness.  I think about all the time and money Americans donate whenever there is a catastrophic natural disaster.  I think about Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr.  And I think about how social campaigns based on anger play out: even if successful.  Such movements reinforce animosity between the opposing sides, helping to perpetuate a culture of intolerance and negativity.

I realize what I'm saying is a bit idealistic.  The real world is messy, and everybody is flawed, clinging desperately to their egos and ideologies.  It takes strength and perspective to forgive,,and it takes great courage to have a human conversation with someone who you see as a villain.  And we can't force criminals to take responsibility for their actions.  But the alternative is to perpetuate the status quo:  a world where individuals and groups are locked into a vicious cycle of vilifying and dehumanizing each other, engendering yet more anger, hate, and violence.

I want to say one last thing on the subject. In the modern world, corporations produce dangerous products and cause catastrophic disasters.  They are constantly getting sued.  And settlements often involve a refusal to admit culpability.  First of all, a monetary settlement is not a measure of accountability, unless the offense was strictly financial in nature.  This is a big problem.  But more importantly, corporations cannot be held accountable.  A corporation is just an imaginary construct that we've created.  Corporations do not make decisions.  Every decision is made a person or a group of people.  And when we blame a corporation, and even when we try to hold a corporation accountable, we divert focus away from the person or people, within the corporation, who are actually responsible.  And the shareholders, who in many cases had nothing to do with the problem, are the ones who pay.

I can't change our culture by myself.  But change starts with one person.  And here's what I am doing to help.  I will try not blame and shame in my conversations. I will not post or even 'like' anything on social media that perpetuates our culture of blame, even if the post is empirically valid or supports my own perspectives, beliefs, or goals.  And I will apologize when I do something that harms another.  I humbly suggest that you make a similar commitment to yourself.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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