Whose fault will it be if Christmas is cancelled this year: the Government’s or the people’s?
I keep seeing memes like this on social media. Trying to apportion blame for the spread of Covid 19 and its impact on our lives seems to be a national obsession. Why? Is this helpful? Or is the pervasive culture of blame making a difficult situation even worse?
I have a friend who was an exceptionally caring and conscientious children’s nurse. One day she made a mistake in the course of her duties. My friend accidentally gave the wrong drug to a child. She was horrified as soon as she realised. The drug given in error was very similar in its effects to the one prescribed and no harm was done.
But my friend knew that her mistake could have had grave consequences. She immediately reported her error as she had been taught to do. She expected a review of the circumstances in which her mistake had arisen, with the intention of reducing future risks. She was prepared to do extra training and learn from what had happened. She wanted to be a good nurse.
A Tsunami of Blame
My friend did not receive a helpful review. Instead she was subjected to a tsunami of blame. Not from the child’s parents, who were happy with his recovery, but from her colleagues and managers. My friend was castigated, bullied and scapegoated. Every aspect of her work was questioned. She was lectured, investigated and ostracised. It went on for months. The experience was so distressing that she left the profession. Forever. Another good and caring nurse lost. This is the cost of a culture of blame.
We rightly expect high standards from people in responsible roles. Errors must be investigated for everyone’s safety. Often they arise from systemic failings rather than simple individual carelessness. But my nurse friend told me the one thing she had learned from the whole experience was never to report a mistake.
Cover Up and Defensive Practice
When people are excessively blamed for getting something wrong they learn to hide and cover up problems. They also tend to become highly defensive in their behaviour, always choosing the ‘safest’ option instead of the one with the likely best outcome.
Government Inaction and Climate Change
There is widespread frustration over the lack of effective action by governments to slow and ameliorate the effects of climate change. Yet behavioural science suggests that the fear of being blamed for bad outcomes often paralyses policymakers’ will to act effectively. If you are afraid of being blamed for the consequences of your action, it may well seem better not to act at all. If the threat of blame for inaction becomes overwhelming you might try to deny the problem exists or waste energy arguing with your opponents. Perhaps you will undertake minimal action which cannot really be judged as either a success or a failure. The last thing you want to do is act decisively and irreversibly. It might go wrong. So our governments tend to follow risk averse behaviour patterns, trying to dampen our accusations by doing as little as possible[i].
Conversely fear of blame can lead to over-intervention. I saw this every day when I worked as a midwife. The evidence for many medical interventions in the essentially natural process of birth is often shaky. Continuous monitoring of the fetal heartbeat during labour has not been shown to improve outcomes as well as originally hoped[ii]. Yet we do it routinely, keeping labouring women immobilised by machines, partly so that we have a printout of evidence to help apportion the blame if anything should go wrong.
When a woman with a full-term pregnancy shows up at hospital with the slightest twinge or worry about her baby’s movements, many doctors are quick to order an induction of labour, ‘just in case’. The doctor is unlikely to be blamed for the induction, even though it is probably unnecessary and will likely result in a more painful labour for the woman and increase her chance of a caesarean section. But that doctor will be blamed if anything goes wrong and he had failed to request the induction. The doctor is arguably making the ‘right’ decision in a world which prioritises the minimisation of risks at all costs. But the woman will probably pay the price for his caution. Is this what we want?
I worry that we have created a world where someone has to be blamed for everything. Even for natural and inevitable events . Near my beach hut at Walton-on-the Naze are clay cliffs which crumble and fall after heavy rain. This has been happening for centuries immemorial. Whole villages and ancient churches are said to be lost beneath the sea.
Recently another big chunk of cliff collapsed. Immediately there where cries of, ‘Why hasn’t the Council done more to stop this?’ and ‘Central government is to blame!’. Are the cliff falls really anyone’s fault? They are only the fault of geology. These cliffs are made from two different types of rock which are unstable. They slide over one another and land is lost into the sea. This will continue. It is nobody’s fault. You could blame God if you like.
Jesus and a Blind Man
Jesus once met a man who had been blind from birth. People asked Jesus, ‘Whose fault is it that this man was born blind – his fault, or his parents’?’ It was widely believed at the time that all illness and disability must be someone’s fault. Jesus’s reply was shocking. ‘It was neither the man’s fault nor that of his parents’, he replied.
Jesus healed the blind man. The man’s miraculous recovery sparked an investigation by the authorities. Jesus was blamed for having had the audacity to heal on the wrong day of the week. The blind man’s parents were blamed for not knowing how the miracle had worked. The man himself was blamed for failing to denounce Jesus as a sinner. These people were geniuses at the art of blaming! The people of Jesus’s day would have loved trying to work out whose fault it will be if Coronavirus cancels Christmas! (Gospel of John, Chapter 9)
Why do we blame?
Why are we so quick to point the finger? There seems to be a human need to assign blame when something goes wrong. There are several reasons for this. We tend to feel safer if we think we are in control of events. It is hard to come to terms with a world where disaster can be random and unavoidable. When something bad happens we look for someone to blame. If the event is the result of human error or greed, then by correcting these tendencies we may avoid future problems. But we tend to respond by blaming even when no one is at fault.
There is also a defensive need to deflect blame onto others if we worry that we might be accused ourselves. The most toxic work environments arise where everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else. Blame breeds more blame[iii].
Sometimes the problem is economic. When a person is disabled as the result of an accident, often the only way to raise enough funds for their care is to sue someone for damages. While this might sometimes encourage more responsible behaviour, it also leads to scapegoating, witch hunts and excessively defensive practice. Sweden and New Zealand both follow ‘no fault’ systems for compensating accident victims. In these countries payment comes from the state rather than as a result of legal action to apportion blame. These approaches are controversial because of worries that medical professionals will take less care if they are not punished for their errors. However the absence of a culture of suing promotes a kinder atmosphere for developing professionalism. It also results in much faster and more efficient payments to injured people[iv].
People have a reasonable desire to ensure that others act responsibly and behave in ways that benefit the whole community. High standards are crucial for everyone’s safety. We must have ways of dealing effectively with selfish or irresponsible behaviours that threaten others. But the real challenge is to find ways of improving outcomes without indulging in blame. Because blame is an incredibly ineffective way of bringing about positive change.
A Disabled Child
I spent a lot of time thinking about blame after my youngest daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome. Even though I knew this is a genetic condition, I found myself asking if I had done anything wrong to cause my baby’s disability. Had I been wrong to try to get pregnant when I did? Did I eat the wrong things during the pregnancy? Was this some sort of punishment? Could I blame God, or anybody else? Why had this happened to us?
I spent well over a year pondering these problems. I thought about other families with children with more severe disabilities. I wondered why people have terrible accidents or illnesses. Why do these awful things happen? My brain wanted answers, but in the end there were none. And eventually I found I could accept this silence. I could even find peace in it. Sometimes there is no one to blame. Sometimes bad things just happen, for reasons we cannot fathom. Sometimes it is a mystery.
A Broken World
In the end my Christian faith led me to the conclusion that God does not explain suffering, but rather joins us in it. We live in a broken world. It is no one’s fault – and maybe everyone’s fault too. We are all in this together. It is utterly beyond my comprehension. And I will let it rest there.
Letting go of the need to blame can become a path to healing. I began to heal from my grief over my daughter’s disability on the day I began to be grateful for her life. And over the years I have realised that her diagnosis is not such a disaster after all. In fact our beautiful child is one of our greatest blessings. And she is a blessing I could only receive once I stopped trying to blame someone.
Covid 19 and Blame
The Covid 19 situation is complicated. Human behaviour clearly makes a difference to the spread of the disease. Governments have incredibly difficult choices to make about how to manage our lives at this time of uncertainty, loss and danger. But let’s not forget that, at the heart of things, this virus is no one’s fault. It is a naturally evolving pathogen. It is part of our broken world.
At the beginning everyone tried to blame China. Was the disease manufactured in a lab? Were the Chinese authorities culpable for not containing the spread sooner? Possibly. But pandemics happen. They always have done and probably always will. Ebola, Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, the Spanish flu, AIDS – humanity has been scourged by infectious diseases from time immemorial. We have in fact been remarkably fortunate recently to have survived many decades relatively free of the terror of infection – in richer developed countries at least. In the normal course of things, every couple of generations is visited by a sweeping disease that paralyses normal life and kills many[v].
Nature does this. Sadly, pandemics are part of the normal course of events on our planet. It is easy to point the finger at the neighbours’ barbeque, the street demonstration, the young people desperate to see their friends. It is tempting to rage at the latest political decision for being either too strict or not strict enough. We all feel frustrated at the curtailments to our lives. We are all anxious about our loved ones and our future. But let’s remember that this pandemic is first and foremost a natural disaster.
A virus mutated. It happens to be remarkably good at spreading by stealth through the human population. That is nobody’s fault. It is a bad thing that happened. You can blame God if you like. But let’s try not to blame one another. Trying to determine who is to blame will most likely divert our attention from more worthwhile efforts to look for effective solutions. Everyone is struggling right now. Let’s be compassionate to one another. Let’s build a culture of kindness instead of a culture of blame.
Karen Lawrence is a writer, mother and yoga teacher living in Billericay, Essex, UK. You can see more of her writing at https://karenlawrenceauthor.com/
[v] https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-complete-history-of-pandemics/ –