The first step of cleaning up our messes is admitting responsibility for them. This is a tough one because our society seems satisfied to fix blame rather than problems. And we are products of our society.
So there is an antecedent action required before we clean up our own messes. We must identify and own our personal values, regardless of society’s.
Until we do, our first impulse is to automatically project blame for our messes onto other variables. On the other hand, we tend to claim responsibility for successes that involve other people. Remember the saying, “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan?”
Many years ago I struggled through a book about the role of heuristics in human decision processes. The point I remember most was that our brains are not naturally sensitive to statistical relationships. If you’ve ever studied multiple linear regression analysis, you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. We see causal relationships where they don’t exist and we don’t see them where they do. This probably has to with our genetic tendency to see patterns whether they exist or not.
Therefore, it’s an easy mistake to make, i.e., taking credit for successes and blaming our failures or something or someone else.
So blaming is not always intentionally malicious. It’s a weaknesses in our thinking processes. To admit error, own the mess and clean it up takes a good deal of discernment on our part, but it is possible.
Then we need to overcome another natural human tendency: The negative emotions connected to taking blame for our own actions. Admitting our failures is a tough call. No one likes to feel bad about himself. In fact, it’s quite the contrary, we have a natural bias to focus on the facts we like and disregard the ones we don’t like.
It’s called motivated reasoning. A while ago, I read a paper about faults in human thinking. In this paper by Sociologist, Steven Hoffman, at the University of Buffalo, he said that we actually seek out information that confirms what we already believe. This leads to what he calls confirmation and disconfirmation biases. We sift through the facts and confirm what we believe and disconfirm what we don’t believe.
All of our thoughts have related emotions such as, “I like it or I don’t like it”. And we tend to like what we already believe and dislike what we don’t. This makes perfect sense. What we like, confirms our existing point of view of the world. What we don’t like, disconfirms it.
Most “normal” people like success and don’t like failure. So we are motivated to reason in our own favor.
Given these two explanations for our difficulty in fixing the messes we create, why do it? Why try so hard to admit our responsibility for our messes and clean them up? Is there some payoff?
Yes, I think there is a significant payoff. It’s called living in integrity in a society that loses more and more of it every day.
Our society is ill and I don’t want to be well-adjusted to a sick society. Think about the fact that the economic failure brought on by the major financial institutions has not had a single “father” be held accountable. Or think about the budget deficits and the loss of lives in wars we were led into by lies from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell, none of whom are held accountable.
This is an illness in our way of life and it is grounded in our society’s willingness to allow people to pass the costs of their messes onto the rest of us.
Now you might ask, what can I do about these big issues? You can start by owning up to your own messes and clean them up. Because it is only by doing so that you can claim the higher moral ground needed to hold others responsible for theirs.
You see, as long as we ignore responsibility for our own actions, we can’t honestly hold others responsible for theirs. We must like it that way. It permeates our culture.
From fixing blame for gun violence on our mental health failures to fixing blame for being poor on character flaws, we are a society of blame layers, laying blame on each other’s doorsteps and hoping no one notices ours.
This results in a society full of blameless people, collapsing under the weight of its own messes, that no one caused.
Robert De Filippis