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Who's Responsible? Who's To Blame?

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There’s a big difference between responsibility and blame, even though we often use them interchangeably.

When GM CEO Mary Barra stood up before congress and accepted responsibility for her company’s faulty ignition switches, what she got was blame. Her attempt, it seems, was genuine: she was trying to express the idea that, unlike past GM officials, she was willing to admit that wrong had been done and something was going to be done about it.

As any Midwesterner knows, you can take responsibility for a problem by stepping up and acting on it.

Conceptually, this is not the same as taking blame for it. Does an ailing neighbor need his crop brought in? Helping harvest it does not mean you take blame for his illness. Is there an overgrown lot on your block? Mowing it does not mean you accept blame for its abandonment. Tornado damage need to be cleared? Cleaning it up does not mean you take the blame for nature’s wrath.

I think we’re quick to conflate responsibility with blame for a couple of reasons. First, blaming puts us in a power position over the person blamed. It takes the blamer outside of the situation by assuming a place of judgment. Second, it absolves the blamer of responsibility by shoving both sides of the problem—its cause and its resolution—off onto another party.

In short, responsibility is about what we do to make things better. Blame is often what we do to avoid having to take responsibility. They both involve how we relate to a problem. But only one involves the courage to move forward into the frightening realm beyond judgment and shame.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.