You can tell a great deal about a person by listening to—or, in our era of online posting, reading—their thoughts about who is to blame for troubles in the world. We all have troubles to process, after all, both real and perceived, and the temptation to find a scapegoat for every imperfection we see is strong. There’s a satisfaction in identifying culprits—it’s why we watch the ID channel and play the game Clue. But there may be a deeper reason we point fingers when it comes to the state of things In the world: identifying the scapegoat inoculates us from being the scapegoat. Self-preservation is hard-wired in us; it’s human nature.
Each time you believe you’ve found the biggest villain—the one person or group by whom, if they would just change their ways and agree with you, all would be made well—you should consider the unthinkable: the sense of satisfaction you feel upon pointing them out maybe counterproductive to actually solving the problems whose existence prompted your need to search for a party to blame in the first place.
This tendency to look high and low for a villain upon whom to pin the blame for every problem in itself, it could be argued, the biggest villain of them all. It is the meta-villain. A person who blames everything on someone or something external sidesteps accountability for his or her own role in making the mess we find ourselves in. The blamer bears no blame. If someone else created my sad state, I skate free of responsibility for myself.
It goes without saying that unaccountability and irresponsibility are not precursors for success in human ventures. On the contrary, the person who is unable to fully own his or her failures is also unable to learn from them. If you never crack a book in class but then blame the teacher when you fail a test, you’ve comforted yourself, but you’ve also made it no more likely that you’ll study for the next test. Desperate to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging our own shortcomings, we oftentimes guarantee their persistence.
We’re so good at this that we don’t even know we’re doing it. We craft narratives that save us from a hard look in the mirror. It’s a self-indulgent exercise, which is bad. And it’s self-defeating, which is worse. Self-indulgence is bad because a moment spent stroking our own egos is pure wasted effort; it’s like eating cotton candy instead of meat and vegetables for supper—you get the calories but not the nutrients. You’ve done something, but you’ve accomplished nothing.
But self-defeating behaviors are worse than mere self-indulgence because they ensure that we don’t improve, and that affects us all. It’s a cliché that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but it’s a cliché precisely because it’s true. Our neighborhood is only as strong as the individuals who comprise it. Life in a community is a team sport, and we will only be successful as a team if everyone shows up to the practices and works on holes in their game. Each person in a democracy who exempts himself or herself from the universal obligation of self-improvement weakens our herd immunity against becoming an unaccomplished, soft, frivolous, inconsequential nation.
What does this have to do with education? Everything. The beginning of education is a personal responsibility. A teacher must accept the burden of creating effectual lessons and assignments. A parent must accept the role of a guarantor of the child’s adequate efforts. And the child has the biggest responsibility—to do the work of learning.
When one of the three legs of the educational stool fails, it can no longer stand.
Modern America faces its share of challenges: obesity and poor health, high rates of incarceration, underinvestment in our infrastructure, the wiles of international rivals, and much more. The nation has always faced challenges, of course, and we have overcome much greater trials than those we face today. But still, there is plenty to fret about, and our conversations about these struggles will go nowhere if our first instinct is not to solve problems but to instead find someone else to blame them on.
Harry S Truman famously remarked that “[i]t is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” The inverse is equally correct: it is amazing what wrongs you can undo if you do not get tangled up over who should take the blame. (Notably, Truman also kept a sign on his desk that said, “The buck stops here.”)
The last stanza of the Victorian poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley reads, “It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/I am the master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.” This refrain captures a spirit we may have largely lost. A cursory examination of the speeches of our politicians or the social media posts of our regular people or the opinions of our talk show hosts and journalists reveals a tragic new mindset: today we believe that narrow gates and punishing scrolls—or whatever other challenges the world presents us—do in fact matter a great deal. They matter more than anything, we implicitly argue, and because our situation is imperfect, we are frozen in our sad estate. What can we do, as long as these others are out there holding us back? And we meet Henley’s courageous declaration that he can master his world with our own tepid cry: “they” are holding us back, “they” are the masters of our fates. “They” are the captains of our souls.
Blame is easy. Progress is hard.
Americans believe in both justice and mercy, but there’s a sliding scale in the ratio of how much of each we tend to assign to a person. The nearer we draw to ourselves through concentric circles of sanguinity and consanguinity or matched ideologies or regional sympathies or shared beliefs, we demand progressively more mercy and less justice. We want breaks and second chances for our people. But as we move further away from self, from family, and from those who look like us, talk like us, or believe like us, we demand progressively more justice and less mercy. We want consequences for them.
In my mind, a successful society does exactly the opposite. The successful society is made of women and men who are quite hard on themselves. They are uncompromising with themselves. They are internal perfectionists who demand the strongest of character traits from themselves, their children, and the people with whom they choose to associate. They expect a strong work ethic and selflessness, humility, and serious study habits—they insist on training their spirits like an athlete trains muscles, by facing trials head-on, not avoiding them, and overcoming resistance. And these character traits are not easy to develop or to possess—which is probably why, in a society that always seems to want its children to have it easier than their parents had it (to a much greater extent than it wants them to be stronger, better people than their forebears were), such traits are vanishingly rare.
But externally, the members of successful groups are grace-givers. They discipline their own children for behaviors they will generously overlook when done by a stranger’s child in the store. They model more than they lecture. They “do right and shame the devil,” as the old saying goes.
Should we be frustrated by those who don’t do their part, who make bad choices?
First off, we should work to always remember our blind spots. It’s easy to spot mistakes in people you don’t know or care about—too easy. But if we’re honest, we see that we err as often and as egregiously as they do—it’s just that we unconsciously soften our own blemishes with soft lights, mendacity, and motivated reasoning. It’s human nature.
Second, what real good comes from such frustration with others, or from nagging, or from pointing fingers? How much more effective in a practical sense of actually getting positive work done is inward personal responsibility versus impersonal, outwardly-directed blame? What does blame even accomplish? It generates the societal equivalent of Newton’s Third Law: for every act of blaming, there’s an equal and opposite blaming. The shamed party grows defensive and points out faults in the one blaming him or her, and an endless and pointless cycle ensues. Nothing gets accomplished. In the words of Shakespeare, it’s only a sound and fury, signifying nothing.
When everyone is blaming everyone, not one solitary person is fixing any problem. Blame ensures that we all feel better while leaving things exactly as they are.
The alternative is so much more beneficial. Upon embracing his annihilation, Socrates reportedly said “an unexamined life is not worth living.” If we were to embrace this dictum—understanding clearly that the life to be thoroughly examined is one’s own, and not one’s neighbor’s—how many problems would we rapidly square away? As we develop the fortitude to see ourselves as we truly are—with our flaws unminimized in our own sight—and as we evolve the wherewithal to overlook the faults of our neighbors and give them space and time to work on themselves just as we are doing—we will have begun shoring up the tattered fabric of our community, state, and nation.
Heaven knows we’ve got shoring up to do.
As things stand now, we could write a sad sequel to Henley’s call to courage and self-determination, but it would have to be called Victus, the defeated. Whose fault is that?
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