Politics allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist. C.S. Lewis
In the aftermath of the awful El Paso and Dayton shootings, I have not heard a single 2020 presidential candidate – of the more than 20 including President Trump – say, “Here is what I personally should have done or can do to address the trend of mass shootings.” Think about it. We have a President, former Vice President, numerous Senators, Governors, members of the House of Representatives, Mayors – the most powerful leaders in the country – and rather than look at their own leadership, they said things like:
· Elizabeth Warren: Trump’s done everything he can to stir up racial conflict and hatred in this country
· Beto O’Rourke: Trump made it "very clear" that he's a white supremacist
· Bernie Sanders: Believe he [Trump] is a white supremacist
· President Trump: Blamed the media while tying the Dayton shooter to Sanders, Warren, leftist ideology and Antifa
Virtually all of their comments included name-calling, blaming someone else and focusing on what others should do. The list of things blamed is long and distinguished: guns and specifically assault rifles, video games, Trump, prayer or the lack of it, mental illness, NRA, background checks. Just like so many of these mass shooters, our leaders relied on hyper-charged name-calling and blamed someone else.
Remember when Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked during the first presidential debates about the problems of police relations with the African American community in South Bend? His answer: “I just didn’t get it done.” How refreshing, how rare! Compare that to President Trump in El Paso: “My rhetoric brings people together.” Can you imagine how different it would have sounded if Trump had said, “I regret any role my rhetoric might have played in this.”
It is truly amazing how quickly anger liquifies into blame, blame metastasizes into the urge to exert power over the opposition and then coagulates to inhibit progress to the next step: identifying real personal responsibility-taking. Here is the deal: To get real change enacted requires not just getting people who agree with you to act; it requires getting those with whom you disagree to join you in changing directions. Does vilifying the other side make them more likely to join you in collaborative action or does it make them more likely to fight and oppose? As Ben Ferencz prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials has said: Wars make murderers out of ordinary citizens – gardeners into killers. Engaging in warfare will not diminish violence.
Marriage counselors, mediators and negotiators know that the most likely breakthroughs in addressing big problems and relationship challenges are only possible when both parties divert their focus from blaming others and actively examine: What part of this do I own? What can “I” do? Top coaches and athletes know that blame and its first cousin excuses – even when there are bad calls, injuries and bad luck – are obstacles to individual and team development and performance. While our backgrounds and experiences are very different, each of us knows what it is to be wronged and long for justice. But it is restorative justice – combining restitution, accountability and redemption – that is most powerful, sustaining and beneficial.
Blame is the lazy weapon of a coward – it requires no courage or risk. Unwilling to face its own failings, blame looks to outsource the responsibility to someone else. It means asking the other side to be the person of compassion, courage and responsibility while I skate free. It is like what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap” grace – gain with no give, pain or struggle. It carries a certain level of arrogance and hierarchy that says the problem is all on someone else and beneath me. Blame can sound serious but is actually unserious and has no skin in the game. Blame is the surest way to get nothing done. Blame cannot be trusted.
Blame admits nothing, concedes nothing and thus learns nothing. It is truly a free ride to nowhere – an opiate that feels good but actually hollows us out. Listening to today’s blathers of blame – talk radio, partisan cable TV, shock blogs where everything is predictably the fault of the opposition – indeed hollows-out us and, collectively, our culture. I heard a partisan blogger lament recently on Twitter, how tired he was. Yes, blame and shame not only hollow us out but wear us out.
Worse, it increases the odds the other side will not hear or act on the current circumstances. It most likely elicits responses of “fight” or “flight” neither of which offer much hope for doing the hard work of hammering out constructive attitudes, emotions and actions. Stated more precisely blame says: I accept no responsibility and by my blamey words I make it less likely you (the other) will.
And that is where we are in the world today on the issue of senseless violence, bombings, shootings, and plunging vehicles into crowds. While each of us may have our favorite “cause” behind senseless violence and favorite “solution” – the test is not where we can most easily place blame, but what we find that is meaningful, hard, risky and courageous that we can do.
The opposite of blame is taking responsibility. There are many things today that warrant outrage and blame and seldom do parties share equally in the level of pain or in their own role in causing the problems. But that is not the point. The point is that when we are willing to own our stuff, the odds increase greatly that others will begin to own theirs and take responsibility for collaborative actions that can address multiple causes and solutions. It’s called leadership.
For example, if I think getting rid of assault weapons is key, then where I would be willing to consider concessions on issues of mental illness or video game actions in order to get movement forward? Remember the old adage that there is no limit to what you can get done if you don’t care who gets credit – or are willing to forego blame.
Historically, in previous periods, senseless violence or oppression required someone to take a stand – to speak out. Think of the civil rights movement or women’s suffrage. Today feels different. It seems in today’s social media age, that everyone is speaking out and few are really listening to attempt to understand the other side. The call out culture, enabled by social media, feeds a blame-first culture that values aggressive attack over sober listening and reflection. Everyone is talking loudly and no one is listening. Talk now substitutes for action.
Rather than speaking out, where I am willing to listen and who am I willing to listen to that makes me uncomfortable? Rather than blaming others, where am I willing to explore the parts of the problem that are uncomfortable for me to face and be more accountable?
Four Keys to Taking Responsibility
Here are four keys to taking responsibility:
1. Listen before you leap into blaming others – take a blame vacation. We are products of our experiences and our wiring – and so are others. There is a reason we feel so emotionally strong about things – we carry wounds and pain from our past. As Paul Watzlawick has said, “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.” Those on the other side – the ones we blame – also have a set of experiences that has led them to their position.
We need to set a prescribed “cooling-off” period, especially in the age of social media before we go “public” on anyone. As the head of software development at my company used to say, “If you give a fool a faster tool, then what you get is a faster fool.” Sometimes venting with a friend with similar views is a way to get your mind right for talking with others, so long as you don’t fall into a prolonged game of “ain’t it awful.” Then ask yourself, “Where is the best place for me to listen to alternative points of view?”
2. Start with actions you can take and sacrifices you are willing to offer: Rather than blaming others, the honest, constructive way to begin is with things you can control and sacrifices you are willing to make. Inventory your own set of actions that might be an alternative to casting blame. For example, consider volunteering -- perhaps locally -- to help with a petition drive, giving blood, donating to a cause, joining a local community group, even participating in a Better Angels citizen de-polarization group to better understand the other side.
One of the obstacles to taking responsibility is the feelings associated with having been victimized – ridiculed, excluded, bullied – by someone or group which makes it very difficult to consider responding to their pain or needs. Research reported by FiveThirtyEight indicates that Democrats and Republicans have very different perspectives about who has been victimized and discriminated against.
Research has shown that the more partisan and victimized we feel, the more likely we are to distort the positions of those on the other side. It is truly hard to see the hurt of someone who has hurt us: Hurt people hurt people. A place to start is replacing statements of blame like “you are” or “you should” with “I wish” and “I need” statements. For example, “you are racist” vs. “I wish you would be more accepting and inclusive.” Shift from the hierarchical “judger” to peer “requester.”
3. Refrain from weaponizing statements of compassion, concession and care made by the opposition. Perhaps you have seen people who – really frustrated and angered by the lack of action – ridicule with statements such as “thoughts and prayers are no longer welcome.” Now think about that. Expressing compassion and concern for those who have experienced loss is not a bad thing, to be condemned. Conversely it is not a substitute for taking no action. It is through thoughts and compassion that we hope people are led to action.
All too often in our blame-first culture, when others make a concession, the immediate response is to blame them for acting too slowly or question their sincerity. When someone on the other side makes a concession or responds to a request – don’t chastise them for not doing enough. Some thought Mayor Pete was weak for his admission on black/police relations. When President Trump condemned “white supremacy” his critics questioned how long it took and whether it was sincere. Weaponizing concessions creates a hopeless loop: blamed when you concede and when you do not. Sadly today, leaders are often advised to never admit fault because they will get tarred if they do. That is not the point. We are all flawed and acting like we are not is weak, insincere and false.
4. There is no substitute for action – even imperfect action: Everyone is searching for “the solution.” Unfortunately, most complex problems have multiple causes and contributors. Rather than finding the perfect solution, we are much more likely to agree on a group of combined actions that might make a difference. A group of actions increases the likelihood that people with different points of view can collaborate in a give-and-take where everyone has enough skin in the game to go forward. In addition, action – even if it is only minimally successful – gives the community a sense of progress and control – a feeling that they are making a small difference.
In today’s gridlock, we err in the direction of talking much and doing little. Inaction is the price we pay for a blame-first society. Action, even if it is wrong, puts in motion an ability to correct and refine. As we used to say in my company about taking action: When it works, we call success and when it doesn’t, we call it learning, and both are valuable. It is hard to learn from doing nothing.
It all comes down to a very simple idea: blame less, listen more, collaborate more. Out of that will come better action.
Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine. His website: www.robertehall.com