National Blaming Week

The Political Blame Game

Last week should aptly be renamed “National Blaming Week”; albeit, we could reasonably have several of these per year. A mentally unstable young man commits a horrendous and senseless act of violence. What is our first response? Blame somebody – blame something! Many in this country responded to the recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona by blaming anyone and anything that could have potentially and negatively influenced this person in any manner.

This article is not a political treatise but rather a social psychological assessment of our propensity to blame others for secondary gain and diminish the importance of personal responsibility in our society. It is hard to know exactly what to blame for the fault finding missions following the events in Tucson. As in other cases of bad or even apparently bad events, accusing others may alleviate our responsibility or perhaps accomplish some other secondary agenda. Some of the blame is blatantly political and therefore agenda-driven while others are reflex blames; deep-seated, even primal behaviors. The urge is overwhelming. We blame primarily to either shift responsibility away from ourselves or in the case of the Tucson shooting, onto others.

As I describe in The Blame Game book, there are many reasons why we blame; ranging from secondary gain to innocent or casual storytelling. Why do we do this? Why do we behave in this way? Perhaps we can blame the process of natural selection for the gradual improvement in our ability as both individuals and as a society to accuse and avoid liability.

The fact that blaming has been observed among Lowland Gorillas speaking sign language indicates that we are not the only species who partake in this behavior. It also suggests that there may be some evolutionary advantage for us to blame each other when we are unhappy or uncomfortable with what is going on in our lives. As with other “negative” behaviors, blaming would be a potentially protective mechanism keeping us isolated, safe and removing us from possible harm.

However, the negative aspects of mindless, toxic blaming far outweigh the theoretical evolutionary advantages for our species. Blaming hinders relationships, leads to failed marriages, lack of business success, unhappiness, distrust, and a lack of respect. In the case of the Tucson shootings, the costs of blaming are even higher. Our society is built on certain positive personal freedoms and liberties allotted to us by our Bill of Rights and Constitution. Implicit in these rights are the need for personal responsibility for our actions.

At times it might be easier to look at how we can change society to try to prevent all personal bad behavior, and indeed, there are many politicians and news pundits whose recent agenda included several specific suggestions for the directions of these changes. However, the slope is more than slippery. There is no line between eliminating the potential for “bad” behavior and the potential for “good” behavior, in other words, the ability to have personal freedoms. These are the freedoms that we value so dearly such as the freedom to think, feel, say, act and react as we believe we should – as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others.

The underlying principles in this doctrine rely on our acknowledgment and acceptance that we are in control of our thoughts, feelings, words, actions and responses. When we do something bad we like to believe that someone else somehow made us do it. But the fact is that we are each responsible for our actions, inactions, and reactions. We so desperately want to “fix” a problem; we expect perfection and believe that government can or should be able to accomplish this task. There are many instances where this is the case. But this should never be assumed without just cause or convincing evidence, since there are even more instances where we should be held responsible and accountable for our behavior.

If you want to find someone or something to blame, open your eyes. The answer is always right in front of you. The TV, the radio, the talk show hosts, the government, the weather, the bank, rock music, maps with targets… The search for someone or something to blame is always successful, but not always productive. We need to look at the bigger picture of what our accusations may bring about if we truly got our wishes. For example: it would be nearly impossible to end conservative free speech without at least severely limiting liberal free speech.

I am not advocating accepting unethical or immoral acts or condoning bad behavior. Productive attribution of fault can be quite positive and helpful at improving efficiency and safety. By doing a root cause analysis of what transpired and an unbiased assessment of the sequence of events, we may be able to decrease the chance of similar occurrences. But we also must take into account personal responsibility, personal behavior, and in this case, a deviant personality disorder.

Last week something remarkable happened. Sarah Palin and President Barack Obama were in agreement. They both advocated that our time would have been better spent helping those who were grieving rather than playing the political Blame Game. They both expressed the sentiment that there was no basis for the senseless use of blaming in the absence of solid evidence. Congratulations to both of them.

These same thoughts were expressed by others whom I hesitate to mention here because simply the mention of their names is enough to cause many to hit the “File Close” tab and stop reading the rest of this article. But I must remark that besides Sarah Palin, the blame for the Tucson massacre quickly and inappropriately spread to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, all other conservative talk show hosts, the entire tea party and to all conservative listeners. They were all implicated in the murders and accused of aiding and abetting this specific violent act. Even Rush Limbaugh can not make you do something that you do not want to do.

Perhaps there is more to the story than has been released publicly; a single, apparently apolitical, individual with violent tendencies and erratic behavior acting alone to cause massive pain and suffering. Perhaps there are some systems that could be improved which may decrease the chance of similar horrible events occurring such as some reforms to the mental health system, or the procedures in purchasing a fire arm or ammunition.

This is where a root-cause, fact-finding assessment is valuable. If indeed, it turned out that every time someone in public office drew a map with targets on it, there were many people incited to violence, we should probably look more closely at improving public education about exactly what these targets imply. However, to discontinue MTV, talk radio, the use of targets on maps or the use of conservative rhetoric is unhealthy and dangerous for us as individuals and as a society. Rather than effective problem-solving, our society has taken a knee-jerk blaming response. While pointing fingers requires little physical energy, the damages and negative implications are vast.