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October 23rd, 2013 (November 21st, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)


For most people, blaming comes really quick to mind. It can be blaming others, blaming circumstances, blaming society, anything!

Recently, a shared article [1] about "real men" not  being defined by the "40 things they should possess" attracted a comment from a man basically blaming women for judging men on their possessions.

Many couples argue, and the arguments often start with blame. "You did this! You didn't do that! You said…"

People easily blame their parents… including for feeling bad due to being upset at them!

At its worst, of course, buddhist monks blame Muslims for… buddhists killing Muslims [3]!

Blaming is the practice of identifying a person or people (supposedly) responsible for creating a problem, rather than identifying ways of dealing with the problem.

The errors of blame

There are multiple cognitive errors associated with blame.

First and foremost, blame is almost invariably accompanied by over-determinism. It takes the form of "this and that happened to me hence I had no choice but to…". While there might be valid causal angles in the story, it is usually pushed too far: other people similarly 'suffered' from this and that,  but they reacted differently! This and that  is insufficient to explain the reaction.

Second, and this is quite known, it basically takes away all responsibility. This is a complicated issue.

Blame takes away all the responsibility of the sufferer / victim. There's been a heated debate recently in women's magazines, following a call to women to stop binge drinking to reduce rape [2]. On one hand, it is an effective advice. On the other hand, it's discriminatory and perpetuates the classic "oppression in the name of protection". There's no simple answer.

What people recently notice a lot more is that, in spite of appearances, ending the "blame of the victim" only to blame the perpetrator instead also  takes away all the responsibility of the perpetrator! If someone says "I couldn't control myself, you  should have controlled yourself", the door is wide open for the response "Well, I couldn't control myself either!" If someone plays the victim of circumstances, then everyone can: this has been used on rather deleterious websites, squarely positing that "two drunk people having sex isn't rape" (or it's reciprocal rape, rejecting the equations "man=rapist, woman=victim")…

Neither blaming the victim nor blaming the perpetrator works, because blame is too simplistic by nature. The causal web is inter-dependent and if you take responsibility out of the equation then you cannot cherry pick where responsibility lies. The perpetrator simply becomes a victim of ignorance, of circumstances, of delusions… various tendencies you might want to lock away in prison, but that's making a victim of ignorance pay for their ignorance, which ethically is dubious. If you go back to "they 'should' have known better" then it can be applied to all involved… You cannot selectively condemn ignorance! There's no black&white answer in serious ethics: due to its simplistic nature, blame doesn't work, it doesn't reflect causality.

Third, a fact is often missing in both the "blame the victim" and its principled counterpart "blame the perpetrator", it is that without owning one's share of responsibility (neither all of it, nor none of it: one's fair share), there's no learning, no owning one's lessons… no progress.

This one is the most disturbing, because it's what justifies apathy and the perpetuation of the status quo: if we say that what happens to others is their 'fault', then we don't have to weigh in and change societal values, etc, do we?

We can even happily blame others for blaming others! We can blame the "rape culture", or the "politically-correct victimhood", or whoever / whatever, without asking ourselves what we contribute to this state of affairs.

It is noticeable that "there's nothing I could have done"  ("I didn't know", "I'm too weak", "I was scared"…) is a variant of blaming all others, usually followed by the very convenient belief that there's nothing to do now!
This works for fictional WMD in Iraq, for letting the CIA spread violence and disorder in disliked states (and then wondering why violence spreads!?!?), the NSA listening to everyone… This works for scandals, inequalities, etc.
The past is past, what about now? What to do now  in order to be better informed in the future, in order not to be weak, in order not to be scared, in order for inequality to reduce or at least not to worsen, etc.? That's taking ownership of one's participation in the very fabric of society.

Not  switching from one extreme to the other

Refraining from blame does not  mean people are fully responsible for every aspect of every experience they have: responsibility is given back to each party involved, not just one of them! Actors are not responsible for the choices of others.

Refraining from blame does not  mean that people are not experiencing a lot of suffering, that everything is 'perfect' as it is, that what people get is what they deserve, that life is fair (reminder: karma is a causality law, not a retribution law, 'fairness' has nothing to do with karma), that nothing needs improving.

Emptiness of blame

There are conditions and circumstances more dramatic than others, a lot more, life isn't fair… And yes, according to karma, you played a part in setting these circumstances up, but you have to remember one very fundamental dharma seal here: selflessness.

"You may have played a part in setting these conditions and circumstances up" by being (born) in an environment that you appropriated as 'yours'. The causes are 'yours' only due to their appropriation as 'yours'. No 'self' has actually transmigrated from a previous life to now, not even from a previous moment to now: your current 'self' is merely appropriating a past as 'its' past.

Blaming seems to be like wanting to appropriate some aspects of a context (this is my 'perfect' life, which 'I' deserve) without appropriating other aspects of it (this is what happened to me, which 'I' didn't deserve).

But the reason blame fails is that "this is what happened to me" still  is an appropriation, rather than the rejection it's hoped to be.
It still is a narrative 'I' identify with, in order to justify 'my' behaviour (now and in the future), and in order to tell "who I am" and "why I am the way I am"… Blame becomes one of the pillars on which the self is built, instead of a rejection! The more we blame a particular experience, the more it becomes us and we become it!

According to selflessness, the whole appropriation mechanism is an illusion though, the illusion of 'self', and seeing through this is a big step toward the cessation of suffering.

For almost "this and that" which happened to us, someone else also experienced them, but reacted differently.
We don't have to identify with the response we gave in the past: we can appropriate another stream of consciousness, another way of responding, as 'ours'.

Obviously, we hate to see this! We want to believe that our 'self' is real and unique, i.e. that our circumstances were extra-special, unique…
And, in a sense, they were!
But their uniqueness is not captured by "this or that"  (regardless of how many terms we add to the description): "this or that" is a mental summary in 'categories', i.e. a summary incapable —by construction— of capturing uniqueness… which is to say "this or that" is not  justifying our reaction now!

Yes, whatever happened to us contributes to our reaction here&now, this is causality… But no narrative, and in particular no blame, will explain why we choose how we act now: the truth is that right now we have choices on how to respond.
They may be limited choices, they may look like "equally bad" options, but we still have choices.
One of them is to be mindful of our own contribution in the perpetuation of the status quo. 'Our' contribution might be small, but just like a straw can break a camel's back, small doesn't mean it doesn't need attending differently.

Blaming is the practice of identifying a person or people supposedly responsible for creating a problem, rather than identifying ways of dealing with the problem…


Blame is a cognitive disaster. It doesn't capture "things as they are", it dramatically simplifies them; it provides certainties blinding us to the possibility to react differently; it provides narratives we can build huge cathedrals of 'self' upon; it prevents lessons from being learnt; it disempowers…

Those who accumulate many blame narratives usually spend their subsequent life telling their stories (of the past) to others, instead of living!

And not only they get stuck themselves, but their narratives will influence others and impede the progress of all. This is a major point in fighting discrimination: narratives on how difficult life is for some category of people in a particular context are enough for many people from this category not to even try! This is not to say that discrimination didn't exist, or doesn't exist still, but the narratives are enough to perpetuate it: if "things change" but no one joins, no one will ever change the narrative and the status quo perpetuates. It is a chicken-egg question. But the only (scientific) response when we don't know what comes first is to experiment, to change the rules of the game and see the impact it makes. The inappropriate response is to perpetuate the status quo, simply because we don't know. [This is a case of karmic continuation: the person narrating a particular past shapes the future, in which a new (re)born would pick up the story where it was left…]

Blame is the antithesis of taking responsibility to change things. It crystallises suffering, into a non-negotiable unchangeable certainty. It is the projection of a past onto the future, explicitly in the form "this happened and the consequences will ripple for a long time / forever".

Causality (karma or otherwise) doesn't support this: consequences can certainly ripple far, but their own arising depends on conditions and circumstances. If we change future conditions, the expected 'consequences' may not find the fertile ground they need to arise, let alone to perpetuate.

But then we can't just blame: to improve the situation, we have to own a share of it. We have to take the responsibility to change things. It won't change the past, but how we respond to this past is what will define the future. Reconciliation or hate is the choice we face, and while it's often easy to justify 'hate', this doesn't help anyone, not now, not ever.

Reconciliation may take a route via 'justice', 'condemnations', 'consequences'; I'm not advocating that perpetrators shouldn't have to learn (be it by strong incentives, such as incarceration) that a particular tendency is not wholesome… But reconciliation is the goal.
Perpetual condemnation is saṃsāra, and it doesn't lock solely the attacker, it also locks the victim.
Compassion doesn't mean being stupid or naïve. A generous, compassionate, patient, perseverant, engaged and wise response is the wholesome life; blaming is not.

The question remains the same: what to do now? The past shouldn't be denied, but its simplified narrative will not actually justify how we act here&now. The question remains the same: what to do now, for the sake of all? At best, blame is a waste of time. At worst, it sustains blinders and prejudices.

« Never here by enmity
are those with enmity allayed,
they are allayed by amity,
this is a timeless Truth. »
— Dhammapada

I posted this video (Unhate - The film) previously but I think it just is relevant.