By Donella Meadows
–February 13, 1992–
When was it that this country devolved into the nasty, fruitless habit of blaming?
Even Barbara Bush is joining in. “If the Congress would just do what they’re supposed to do!” she said in a recent appearance in Lebanon NH. “For three years George has had an economic growth program in front of the Congress, and they don’t do anything about it.”
Pointing the accusatory finger outward, toward someone else. Ducking responsibility. The central tenet of American politics, especially in an election year. It’s not MY fault, it’s THEIR fault.
We learn the trick of blame in childhood quarrels. I didn’t start it; HE started it. Anyone who is allowed to grow up using that trick rigidly and compulsively becomes a walking source of unsolvable problems — from personal addictions to unworkable marriages to business bankruptcies to disintegrating societies such as Belfast and Beirut. From a position of blame, one can only confront and obstruct, one cannot move forward.
And, conversely, the solution to many a problem, individual or political, is the cessation of blame. The moment when a persistent, debilitating, unresolvable stuckness finally begins to come unstuck is the moment when the parties to it stop pointing the finger of blame outward and start searching inward for their own responsibility.
One of the 300 or so daily polls in New Hampshire last week asked the populace who was to blame for the current recession. Thirty six percent of us blamed Congress. Twenty percent blamed George Bush. The only other choice we were offered was “someone else,” which was in fact the most often chosen category (37%). It would be interesting to know which “someone else” the respondents had in mind. Ronald Reagan? Corporate America? Would anyone have throught to answer: “Ourselves, for voting for Congress and George Bush and Ronald Reagan, and for consuming beyond our means the products of Corporate America?”
In Twelve Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is owning the addiction: locating its source within oneself and ceasing to blame any triggering person or circumstance. It’s not that I drink because my wife nags me, or because my boss picks on me, or because my buddies entice me. It’s not that I drink because some event made me depressed or triumphant or bored or afraid. I drink because I am an alcoholic. Full stop. Strangely enough, that admission opens the path to recovery.
Similarly, the key to marriage counseling is getting each spouse to see his or her own role in the troubled relationship. Yes, he does this to me, but I invite that behavior, or support it, or fail to oppose it, or propel him into it when I do that to him. Almost never in a failing marriage does the fault lie with just one person.
And how many businesses have gone under with its managers reciting the Chant of the Auto-Makers? The Japanese are doing it to us. The environmentalists are doing it to us. The unions are doing it to us. Government regulations are doing it to us. Look everywhere else for the cause of our failure; do not look at us.
To stop blaming is not to render the other party blameless — it’s as sick to take all blame upon oneself as it is to take none of it. Guilt is not a cure for blame. What’s needed is a clear-headed ability to sort out the truth, to take responsibility for the part of the problem that one is truly responsible for, and to start cleaning up one’s own act — the only thing one can actually control. Doing that takes honesty, maturity, humility, wisdom. It takes a greater interest in solving the problem than in being self-righteous about it.
When public figures break through the pattern of blame, history is made. When Anwar Sadat gave up the traditional Arab intransigence and went to Jerusalem, he established a lasting peace between two countries that had been continuously at war (and he lost his life at the hands of compatriots who were still embroiled in hatred and blame). The cessation of blame was the great achievement of Mikhail Gorbachev, who allowed the truth to be told: that his party, which had based its authority on scapegoating, and blame, was responsible for the mess that his nation had become.
When public figures blame, the public good festers. Indulgence in blame to ridiculous levels is causing the stalemate between the Democratic Congress and the Republican administration. It is fueling the downfall of the automobile industry and the nuclear power industry, to name just two from a long list. It is preventing this nation from finding a way to have both a thriving economy and a healthy environment.
In an election year blaming reaches a peak, and that gives us a terrific opportunity to put an end to it. Any time you hear a candidate whining about who else caused a problem, you can assume that he or she is not yet grown up. If you want to live in a society where problems get solved, vote for someone else.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992