Politics of Blame

“He who blames others has a long way to go on his journey. He who blames himself is halfway there. He who blames no one has arrived.” — Chinese proverb

The year has been dubbed a super election year, an unprecedented year in which around two billion people are expected to vote in over 60 countries. 

Yet, with the rise of populist and authoritarian leaders around the globe, there are growing concerns about threats to democracy. What we see during election campaigns is politicians centering their narratives around scapegoating; looking for someone to blame for whatever ills our societies face. 

Blame is deeply ingrained in us. In psychology, it’s called ‘projection,’ a defence mechanism. We blame someone else for our shortcomings to avoid dealing with our own issues, e.g, we blame our parents for whatever we may struggle with.

It’s also easy and frankly quite satisfying. It absolves us from questioning our responsibilities, and it provides seemingly simple solutions to complex problems. But its impact on our society is destructive. It places us in a constant state of antagonism, of observing what others did wrong, and, in this process, we become united only in what we are against. 

So how did we get here and is there a way out? 

When things go wrong, Margaret Wheatley explains, professionals and leaders have been trained to look for simple cause and effect, for someone responsible. When things go wrong, anger is often the first energy available to us, “anger energises us and quickly opens the door to blame. Blame walks in and, like a lighthouse, searches through the darkness until it finds an object to illuminate: an individual, a team, a group, a family member, them.”

In a world of constant blame, it’s easy for us to lose our humanity towards another group. And it blinds us to what is actually needed. This in turn makes us ill equipped to cope with world altering crises like climate collapse and war.

But it’s not universal, Wheatley says. “Blame is rooted in our Western concept about fairness, our belief that things are unfair makes us seek reason, and therefore blame.” 

These concepts came through the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, which made a big market of shame, blame, and power over people using fear. “The West has perfected blaming the victim in the false doctrine of Social Darwinism. Starting in the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s discovery of survival of the fittest was linked to Puritan Christian beliefs about salvation,” Wheatley writes.

These narratives of blame are everywhere, at the interpersonal level and at the geopolitical level. It’s a strategy to avoid responsibility and accountability. 

Women, for example, for centuries, have been (and continue to be) blamed for many of men’s failures: they were witches, temptresses, prostitutes, immoral, asking for it. 

Many times, children that report being hurt by an adult are put in a place of mistrust.  The abusive priest, however, will be believed before the child. 

The whistleblowers are the ones to blame for the consequences of their revelations, not the wrongdoers. Old people are responsible for climate change. Young people are too self-absorbed and distracted by the technology we created. Poor people are blamed for being poor. Colonised people are blamed for the burden they place on the coloniser having to civilise, displace, or erase them. And anything else can of course be blamed on immigrants, refugees, or foreigners. 

But it’s not just the haters who use blame. Many of us who want to respond to these injustices use the same approach, just reversed, towards the perpetrators. Often overly simplifying a problem: ‘if only this politician was removed, or this political party banned, it would all be fine.’ And if we can’t find someone to blame for whatever went wrong, we turn on each other, or blame ourselves. 

In a conversation with Christiana Figueres on climate change, Rebecca Solnit says we have been made to believe we are the problem, individually, and that we are all to blame. In this narrative, individuals are too selfish and driven towards a politics of blame. But none of us are actually benefiting from the destruction of our planet.

So what would a culture without blame look like? In Western culture, it’s science-fiction (e.g. Ursula Le Guin), but there are many cultures where blame does not exist, Wheatley explains, “just like shame, fairness, hope, these concepts don’t exist in Indigenous cultures, or in goddesses cultures.” That’s why, she says, we must seek out other worldviews in order to understand our own destructive behaviours.

A society without blame is not one in which everything is accepted, it is one with responsibility and accountability. In Indigenous cultures, if someone does a terrible act, it is the community that takes responsibility, it means they have failed the person.

So we have to understand what is going on and how to react appropriately without blaming ourselves and each other, she says. “In our culture of blame, there’s an instant reaction to pin this on someone and demand redress. It’s essential to call out the real offenders, but focusing only on blame can end up as a distraction and a loss of precious energy needed for meaningful service.”


Words, Veronica Yates

Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

See also: The Practice of Humility / Towards a Regenerative World / Working with Emergence 

References

Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, Second edition, Margaret J. Wheatley.

Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth, Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, PhD.

’Uncertainty and Possibility - Meeting the Climate Future,’ Christiana Figueres with Rebecca Solnit and Roshi Joan Halifax, Outrage + Optimism Podcast, 12 October 2023. Listen here.

Further Resources

Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer.

IndigenousX, https://indigenousx.com.au/about-us/

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