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Is Blame Justified?


Ah, blaming! Few things in life rival the satisfaction of pointing the finger at someone else. There's that exquisite feeling of relief when you finally decide who messed up, almost like wiping sweat from your brow. Uncertainty? Gone! Thanks to blame, we can all take refuge in the security of moral righteousness without pursuing further investigation.


Courts of law decide every day who’s guilty of notable crimes and who’s not. Punishments and imprisonments galore follow verdicts.  Appeals notwithstanding, the truth of blame prevails, at least that’s the story we tell ourselves.


We all encounter daily annoyances and disturbances that tempt us to find blame.  Who is right and who is wrong?  We want to know. A sound night’s sleep might depend on it.


When your teenager sneaks out at night to spark up with friends, does that warrant blame?  What about that hotshot at work who treats co-workers like yesterday’s leftovers? 


Who should be blamed when a returning soldier with PTSD has a psychotic break and shoots the mail carrier?  Or when a beloved family member inexplicably takes their own life?


Consider Marty, my childhood neighbor: he was the poster child for trouble. Always fighting, skipping classes, and collecting detentions like baseball cards. Poor impulse control was his middle name. A dependable braggart and thief, neighbors dubbed him "loser" and "troublemaker." He descended into drug addiction, failed relationships, and an early death.


Marty should've pulled himself together, right?  But hold on a sec. Turns out, his life was a cocktail of bad luck and bad influences. Three data points stand out:


First, he encountered notable childhood adversity, including beatings from his father, and the tragic drowning of his older brother when Marty was 14. 


Second, Marty tested with high levels of testosterone throughout his life.  So did his father, a former boxer and football player.  Reliable studies have shown that heightened levels of testosterone dramatically increase the risk of impulsive and criminal behavior.


Third, Marty was raised in a family environment that encouraged violence and racial hatred for generations.  His grandfather lobbied against African Americans buying homes in certain sections of the city.  Marty was once kicked out of a high school soccer game for targeting, and illegally tackling, a black player on the opposing team.


Sure, he made choices, but when hormones, early losses, and family violence pulled his strings, how free were those choices?  Perhaps hidden factors shaped Marty's path more than any "choice" did.  Upon reflection, I see that these factors paint a different picture than my childhood memory.


For decades, I have been emphasizing personal responsibility in my teaching, coaching, and parenting.  The premise is that each of us can decide to be responsible, or irresponsible, in the situations we face.


This sounds reasonable, and fairly straightforward: Marty was irresponsible and immature. I want to believe that he could have taken a different life path, but chose not to.


How accurate is that? 


Some people have risen above poor odds like Marty’s without negative consequences, but most do not.  Is there a secret sauce to resilience, or are all of us more resilient than we might believe?  Or do some just get lucky?


To what extent should individuals be blamed for operating under the influence of factors they cannot control?


As a leadership coach, I've heard every blaming excuse in the book:


“My sister should know better than to move halfway across the country to help her able-bodied son who refuses to work.”


“My boss is intimidating.”


“Our fully remote workplace tells me that the owners care more about efficiency than about promoting a healthy culture.”


“I don’t have any use for my brother because he never comes to visit our mom.”


Blame is as common as Monday morning grumbling. The trouble is, it’s often just too easy. Before we wield the blame hammer, we need to understand what led to the person’s behavior. It’s time for questions, not conclusions.


What’s their backstory, the hurdles they faced?


What part of the blamer’s problem belongs to the one being blamed?


Who gets to assign the blame?


Here are some considerations I turn to, when tempted to blame:


1. People act in ways that are greedy, dishonest, manipulative, even violent. It matters whether they do so willfully or unwittingly. I rarely have a good understanding about the motives or backstories of those I blame.  Without those data points, can I honestly blame them?


2. Purveyors of violence and other serious crimes should be removed from situations where they do harm, while suspending blame (until we get the full backstory on factors out of their control).


3. In general, I try to dull the sword of retribution by seeking greater understanding, without excusing the offense.


4. I try my best to step back and evaluate. Why is my teen sneaking out? Why is my brother not visiting?  What can I do to get into their shoes?


5. I check my own thinking and actions. Is it my place to blame? Do I somehow think I am above what I am blaming the other for?  Am I blameless?



The French artist, Valentin de Boulogne, might have best captured the argument against blame, in his 17th century painting “Christ and the Adulteress (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.)



And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they said unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?  This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.


John 7:53- 8-11, King James Bible

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