Since I work for an agency that helps to create, or recreate – and then hold together – new families, an article in today’s Times – entitled “Lessons in Domestic Diplomacy” * – caught my eye. There are some good ideas in the article, and towards the end the author straight out says, “To stop fighting, stop saying ‘you’.” In other words, eliminate blaming. I don’t know how you can possibly blame someone without using the word “you” and it’s cousin “your.” But, for me, the most interesting thing in the article is that the word “blame” was nowhere to be found. It is the blaming itself that destroys – the use of the word “you” is how people blame. It is the means. But I suppose there could be other ways of blaming, without the use of the word.
I sound, I know, like a broken record on this, but I see it everywhere. Two weeks ago, the top article, on the front page of the Times was titled, “Rise in Egypt Sex Assaults Sets Off Clash Over Blame.”** If you run the word “blame” in the Times search engine, you get 379,000 results. I just went through the few pages at the beginning of the list and it is overwhelming to see how pervasive that word is. And that is just Times articles, not the whole internet.
Are they using “blame” as a synonym for “accountable?” I ran “accountability vs. blame” on Google and found this sentence: “To be blamed for something is to be made accountable in such a way that deserves disciple, censure, or some other penalty, either explicit or tacit.” Uh huh. Penalty. Deserves penalty. Uh huh. What’s the missing word?
The missing word is anger. Blame is not about responsibility, nor accountability, nor solving the problem. Blame is about expressing, or more likely, inflicting our anger onto someone. And it is always about the past, not the present nor the future, which are all that matter. When my son Irving got killed because the drunk driver of the car Irving (stupidly) was riding in hit a tree at a curve in the road on a rain swept night, I didn’t blame the driver. I knew that it could just as easily have been Irving, presumably also drunk, driving that night. I don’t even know what happened to that guy long term. But I know his father showed up at Irving’s funeral. All I wanted was for that kid to wake up and never get behind the wheel of a car drunk again. I wanted to “solve that (for me, very personal) problem.”
Seventeen years later, when Abraham was beaten so bad that he later died from his injuries, there was obviously more intention to hurt here than with Irving’s death. But still, I didn’t blame the guys who did it. I simply wanted them to wake up and decide never to do anything like that again. Should prison have been involved? I don’t know. I don’t care. But what was missing was any focus on “solving the problem.” Putting them – putting anyone – in jail in order to wake them up hasn’t really been proven to work too well. It may often be necessary, but it is almost never sufficient.
And it’s not just about eliminating blame in one’s approach to life. During this past week, I had two very intense conversations where I realized that blame is built so automatically into our culture, that it is not enough to avoid it – one must consciously make decisions and build processes, rules, protocols, to build it out of our systems, out of our approaches to life. One of those, certainly, is the rule I started this posting with today: forbidding the use of the words “you” or “your”. People, especially vulnerable people, are too prone to automatically blame themselves when things don’t work for them. For instance, if we place a child for adoption with a family who later kick the kid to the curb, unless we have built in ways to prevent the self blame from taking root at those times, those kids will automatically, and probably silently, blame themselves for the breakdown. Especially when that’s the only way families ever kick kids to the curb: by blaming the kid. Thus, our naming of the reality of “counterfeit adoption.” Telling a child “it’s not your fault” usually has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing their self-blame. Telling a child about the concept of “chocolate milk” as an analogy for authentic adoptions and using the phrase “counterfeit adoption” as a name for the experience when adults kick their “adopted” kids to the curb, actually work to prevent self-blame from taking root.
It is my experience in this world that far more evil consequences come from stupidity rather than intention. It is our responsibility, as Aunt Rita insisted day after day after day, to figure these things out through thinking. She was so right. Thirteen years after her death, and she continues to influence my world. Now that’s a person who was real…..
** Online headline differs a bit from the paper edition I quote.