Playing the Blame Game

There I was . . . doing the best I could . . .

I wanted to be helpful, but then my best efforts turned out to be troublesome. Suddenly, I was pulled unwillingly into playing a game . . . the blame game . . . and I was losing. I heard the words that were spoken to me, “What did you do that for? You should’ve known better.” Blame had been assigned. The high bar of expectation had not been cleared. In an instant, my feeling of euphoria in being helpful became one of distress and misery as power had been wielded over me, and I had become imprisoned by blame.

Before I go any further, let me say that blame may have a function. Sometimes we truly have committed an egregious offense for which there is a high penalty. As the authors of “The Contours of Blame” write, blame often arises out of a sense of moral responsibility as a moral standard has not been maintained.[1] Compassionate Communication speaks of blame and judgments flowing out of a need that is unmet (needs in this context are universal qualities in which humanity thrives, such as respect, security, dignity, equality, trust, freedom, etc.); thus, in the above story, the unmet need of  the one placing blame may have been efficiency. Blame, then, may be positive since it alerts our moral compass of a wrong direction or informs us of unmet needs.

Yet, it can hinder open and authentic discussion as people are imprisoned by blame.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is a tricky maneuver to discuss blame for even in the very discussion of it, one may appear to be blaming others. Of course, it is an impossibility for humans to avoid blaming. After all, since everyone does it, we may actually be unaware of when we are doing it. Yet . . . that’s the point: our being unaware.

Blame can come from anywhere and at any time. It may be from a spouse, a parent, or an adult child. It could be from your boss, a Facebook friend, another church member. It could be couched in generic labels, such as liberal, conservative, Boomer, Millennial, Muslim, Christian, Republican, Democrat, etc. Or maybe it is simply that incessant internal voice—you blaming you.

The assaults of blame can begin in various ways. You should’ve . . . You should’ve known better . . . You could’ve . . . You could’ve done that differently . .  . What did you do that for . . . What were you thinking . . . It’s your fault. Blame may lie behind such pronouns as they or those people, which removes the personal element from the equation. Think about it. We can use the word “they” in a way that makes the other less human and more like an object. Such a move only serves to increase the gulf between us and them. The other disappears into a category, a label, that seems benign, such as immigrant, the Left, or the Right. However, collective labels can become subtle tools of power over. Collective labels may be wielded with finesse to gain the upper hand and to reduce its victims to nothing, all the while appearing innocuous. Such labels are not harmless. Blame combined with labels is a way we implicitly detach ourselves from others, turning them into the enemy, an object of our disdain.

Megan Feldman states that the psychological definition of blame is “to discharge pain and discomfort.” She goes on to say, “Blame creates bullying, self-loathing, and war. Blame is violent.”[2] Thus, it becomes a tool of violence whose mission is to seek, sink, and destroy.

Blame.

It is powerful.

The blame game is played in the halls of relationships.

It may begin with the breaking of something—a business deal, a relationship, a machine, a system, a principle, a standard, a promise—and the placing of blame is soon to follow. However, when we play the blame game, we actually enter a losing game. The cards, which are dealt, are stacked against us from the start. It is a game because blaming is a competition—who can win, who can have the better hand, and who can achieve and sustain power over the other. Like a game, it boils down to us vs. them as we seek to defend ourselves.

Our defense, I believe, is motivated to a large degree by fear. Fear is uncomfortable, so we seek to cover it up. Maybe we fear we will be found out—that people will see us as a fraud, a failure, or a freak. It might be fear of rejection. Fear of a loss of security. Fear of losing our dignity, friend, approval, companion, acceptance, respect, etc. And so, we seek a strategy to defend ourselves.

For some, fear instigates a fighting strategy.

We become like an angry caged animal. We growl and hiss at the foe in our attempts to protect ourselves from the pain of blame. We may have been dealt a losing hand, but we are determined to go down fighting with our claws extended. Baring our teeth, we fight back. We heap blame on the other. Such an attack mode may appear as overt yelling. Fists are clenched, and we are striking blows wherever we can. Playing dirty. Committing overt fouls. For others, the fighting appears as being passive aggressive. I will destroy you with silence or sarcasm. I will subtly undercut you at every turn . . . or if I am blaming me, maybe I will sabotage my own efforts.

For some, fear triggers the strategy of fleeing.

I will put distance between you and me—I’ll cut the other off. This could be physical, such as moving to the other side of the nation. It could be emotional, such as putting up emotional barriers. We may attend the same church, live in the same city, even on the same block, or maybe next door . . . Or even in the same house. However, our interactions will be minimal . . . if at all. I will de-friend the other on Facebook. Yet, despite going to such lengths to remove myself from the game, I remain in it. Cutting myself off from the other only intensifies the game—it does not remove me from it. When I use this strategy, the other retains power over me. In fact, I give away my power to the other by distancing myself from him/her. If he/she moves closer, I move farther away; hence, my movement is based on what the other player does, thereby they retain power over me, and I am trapped in the game.

For still others, our fear produces the strategy of freezing.

We do not attack outwardly; we do not attempt to run away, but instead we turn inward—self-blame becomes the strategy of choice. Such a response takes the cards the other player has dealt us and uses them for further condemnation—towards one’s self. Being steeped in shame, it believes, “I am bad. I am not good enough.” It believes, “I am responsible, not only for what is broken, but also for you and your reactions. It is my fault that you failed to land on Park Place. I am to blame for the hand you have been dealt. I caused you to roll deuces when you needed fives.” Rather than fighting back by saying, “You should’ve . . .,” this response says, “I should’ve . . ..” It takes responsibility without having the power to change the situation. This strategy not only keeps the self imprisoned, but it also seeks out further isolation — self-imposed solitary confinement.

Since the blame game fuels our competitive nature and our fears and since we may seem to be playing several games of blame throughout the day, or maybe even every hour, it may be too much to ask that we stop playing altogether. But perhaps we can slow down the games through self-awareness and learn new strategies to end at least some of the particular blaming games.

I learned one such strategy while taking a class for a master’s degree, a strategy that eases one out of a blame game. And . . . well . . . I will admit . . . it changed me.

The class? Conflict and Conciliation.

The demonstration? A role play of four students who were Mom/Dad and their two sons.

The conflict? The athletic son, who usually received all the accolades, had broken his brainiac brother’s science exhibit—a plane for a highly competitive contest. The plane stood out as a potentially momentous event for the non-athletic son as it was his first opportunity to gain recognition from others. In the role playing, the “parents” were to attempt to resolve this conflict.

Their strategy? They confronted the athletic son by saying, “Why did you do this?” The whole class was drawn into the blaming game as the “father” utilized “you . . . you . . . you” and the athletic son utilized strategies of attacking, distancing, or turning inward. Needless to say, the conflict was unresolved as blame sucked the air out of the room. Blame had caged us all.

At this point, the professor entered the circle and began to play the role of the father. In a similar manner that we use blame with great finesse, the professor overflowed with gentleness and grace, and the blame seeped out of the room. Rather than focusing on the athletic son’s actions, which were so apparent to all of us (including the son), the professor centered on the broken plane. It became the focus of our problem. We stared at this plane . . . which is saying a lot considering that it was a make-believe plane. As our attention was drawn away from the son, we entered into questions such as, “What are we going to do about this broken plane with the competition being hours away?” In the midst of the conflict, there emerged a super-ordinate goal, a goal we all shared.

And a shift transpired in the room.  

The change was so distinct that it seemed we could taste it. We could breathe. My desire to distance myself or to blame me (my go-to strategies in the blame game) dissipated. Self-defensiveness left the building, and the blame game ended when power over was replaced by power with. This was accompanied by healing as the athletic son embraced his action that had hurt this family, and together, the family began to work on a plan to solve the problem of the broken plane.

Tears came to my eyes. I was dumbfounded. Up to that point in my life, I had only experienced blame’s power over, but on that day, I witnessed a different power . . . power with.

As a Christ-follower, I see how such a strategy is portrayed in our scriptures.

Take for instance the sending of the Son, Jesus. According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ embodies power with through the hypostatic union of being fully God and fully human in his very person. God is forever alongside humanity in a power-with relationship in the being of Jesus Christ.

We see a similar strategy of power with in the story of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel and his friends were taken captive by the Babylonians and were living in exile in Babylon under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. In such a situation Daniel and his friends found themselves far from home in a strange city with foreign customs, meaning familiarity and personal freedom were absent. Such circumstances could produce for anyone feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, or depression as one grieves a multitude of losses. So, it is possible that Daniel and his friends experienced such emotions as an outflow of their own humanity, which may invite blaming, such as, “This is the fault of the Babylonians,” but Scripture is silent on this subject. However, we do know of one instance when Daniel chose not to blame in the face of conflict. Instead, Daniel centered on the “broken airplane.”

The conflict? Daniel and his friends were chosen to be in service to the king and were thereby to be trained for three years. They were to consume a diet of rich foods and drink the wine of Babylon, which meant that Daniel and his friends would be ceremonially unclean according to their own beliefs. When Daniel informed their overseer of the issue, the overseer was concerned that Daniel and his friends would appear malnourished, which would endanger the overseer’s life.

The strategy? Daniel, recognizing the issue, did not blame the overseer or the king, but instead the diet became his focus—it was “the broken plane.” A deal was struck: Daniel and his friends would eat their own diet for ten days and at the end of which, they would be compared to those who ate and drank food and wine from the king’s table. It just so happened, that at the end of the ten days, Daniel and his friends looked better and were healthier than those who ate the food from the king.

The point? Daniel refused to participate in the blame game’s competitive nature of power over. Instead, he sought power with his enemy as Daniel joined with those who were responsible for him and his friends by focusing on the issue, “the broken plane.”

So this blog becomes an invitation to us to become self-aware of our blaming; to recognize our current strategies in playing the blame game; to differentiate (see The Powerful Reality of a System and When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .); and center on the “broken planes” among us. In so doing, maybe we will begin to heal the rifts that occur in relationships due to blame, thereby participating in Christ’s healing ministry to humanity that occurs in his very being as the divine-human one.

 

[1] D. Justin Coates and Neal A Tognazzini, “The Contours of Blame,” Blame: Its Nature and Norms, edited by D. Justin Coates and Neal A Tognazzini, 3-26, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] Megan Feldman, “Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World,” TED Talk, http://meganfeldman.com/books/.

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