Responsibility vs Blame

If you look up the definitions of “responsibility” and “blame”, you’ll find that they can be somewhat circular.  “Responsibility” can be defined as “the fact of being to blame for something” while “blame” can be defined as “the responsibility for a fault or wrong”.  However, responsibility has additional definitions indicating that it has broader usage.

Responsibility can be used both pre-decision, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for making the decision” and post-consequence, as in, “I’ll take responsibility for the fall-out.”  It can also be used affirmatively, as in, “I accept responsibility” or negatively, as in, “I shirk responsibility.”  As a result, responsibility is a fairly neutral word and requires additional context to understand which flavor of responsibility is connoted.  On the other hand, blame deals exclusively with the fall-out from negative consequences.  No one accepts blame for a job well done or a good decision, and it is therefore much less subtle than responsibility.

Recalling a couple of prior posts, embracing should and s’pose’da brings with it a certain safety – the safety of belonging to the selfsame herd from which should and s’pose’da gain their meaning. Maybe the desire to belong to the herd is the desire to avoid the fear of being alone – of being singled out, separate and alone, having to hang in the wind by yourself, or of stepping away from the known and comfortable (no hell is more comfortable than the one you know).

In nature documentaries, the narration of a wolf or lion hunt inevitable contains the phrase “the predators work together to single out the weak or young or old from the protection of the herd.”  Perhaps we humans, being social animals after all, have an instinctive fear of being singled out because it means instant death.

In modern times in the developed world, however, the danger is not from wolves or lions that separate, attack and kill those cut from the herd, the danger comes from the herd itself.  Consider this description of sheepthink, as applied to the army, in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:

“After a while, you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the whole crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men…Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you.”  Page 25.

Or this description of how the herd protects itself from internal attack from page 131:

“I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.”

One way the herd beats you into submission is heaping blame on you for rejecting their should and s’pose’da. This is regardless of whether your separateness results in greater or lesser happiness or success.  The result is inconsequential; you are blameworthy simply for being different. Ironically, at the same time, the herd allows you to shirk responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  Whatever the herd’s faults, it is an enabling herd. When the herd’s wisdom is wrong, blame is softened and responsibility is obscured because failing according to the rules can be waved away with “it was just bad luck” or “it comes with the territory” or “it’s a rite of passage” or “it’s just the way things were supposed to happen”.

However, when you separate yourself from the herd, the opposite happens – responsibility falls heavily on your lonesome shoulders, and it may be lesser or greater depending on the wisdom of the decision made or action taken.  But the former herd will mercilessly heap scorn and blame, whether deserved or undeserved. As a result, cutting oneself from the herd requires extraordinary strength and belief in oneself, for when “men do not trust themselves any more…there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.” (East of Eden, Page 12). For a more modern bent on the concept, Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School is quoted here as saying, “[A]nxious individuals seek out and rely more heavily on advice, even when the advice is obviously bad, because they do not feel confident in their own ability to make good judgments.”

This may be a harsh way to frame the issue – to suggest that followers are simply weak and that only the strong are truly independent. However, as I’ve stated before, what really happens is not that an individual cuts off all belonging, but only that an individual is able to choose to which group to belong. It is the act of affirmatively choosing that is important – of considering, of weighing, of thinking and of embracing the heavy responsibility and the breathtaking opportunity contained therein– this is what constitutes living.

It may very well be that the result you come to is what your (former) group would consider “coming to your senses” or “coming home”, but the important thing to remember if you do decide to “come home” is that the decision will be yours for the first time. It will not have been a mere blind acceptance of “what is and always has been and always will be” but an eyes-wide-open deliberate choice. How the group embraces you upon your return is much more a reflection on them than on you.

In East of Eden, one of the characters, Sam, makes a decision to reveal a potentially devastating piece of information to another character, Adam, based on his (Sam’s) own judgment that revealing the information was “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you.” Sam says, “I think for once I will not be careful. Lee [a third character], if I am wrong – listen – if I am mistaken, I accept the responsibility and I will take what blame there is to take.”  Lee responds “Are you sure you’re right?”  Sam replies, “Of course I’m not sure. Adam do you want the medicine?” Adam says yes and off they go.  (See page 304.)

No one is ever sure that they’re right. No one CAN ever be sure they’re right because the future cannot be known ex ante. Everyone makes choices based on the best information available at the time. The question is, are you willing to stand on your own and take the blame or do you stand, unquestioning yet protected, in the group?

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One thought on “Responsibility vs Blame

  1. Pingback: Thou mayest | noonethinksthat

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