Rosenblum: Our society's urge to blame is a fault we must address

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 6:09 PM

The political season shifted into high gear last week, as Republican Rick Santorum's withdrawal cleared the way for a not-too-surprising race between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Not too surprising either is that the blame game has begun in earnest, with Romney faulting Obama for the nation's economic woes and Obama chastising Romney for protecting the rich.

And on and on it goes, unless we the people decide to act otherwise.

I hope we do.

We're a country gifted at blaming one another for everything from gas prices to our personal unhappiness to who left the toilet seat up. What might be surprising is that we can do better.

I have proof.

Wendy Wyatt, associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas, has spent the past two years delving into the cherished American pastime of blame. Blaming, she said, "has become an impulse. We find it difficult not to blame."

Wyatt does not believe we should stop blaming completely. Blame is warranted, for example, in assessing a Gulf oil spill or horrific revelations about a child sexual predator. "If we're going to have a system of morality, blame is an integral part of that," Wyatt said. "We have to hold people accountable."

But blame in this country, Wyatt found, is rarely legitimate, necessary or constructive. Our rush to blame is sloppy and ubiquitous, and it's tearing us apart.

A journalist specializing in ethics and philosophy, Wyatt came across an article several years back in the Economist, a British magazine. The author concluded that Western cultures have become "dominated and warped by blame," with politicians and the media among the biggest offenders.

In 2010, Wyatt set out to confirm or dispel that claim. She studied more than 70 top national stories, including Afghanistan, the economy, the midterm elections, the Gulf oil spill and the health care debate, hunting for blaming words such as "condemn," "hold responsible," "charge," "fault" and "accuse."

The Economist was on to something. Two-thirds of the articles Wyatt studied featured blame. Nobody had a monopoly or a reason to feel superior. Conservatives and liberals were both givers and receivers.

Maybe most troubling, "blameworthiness" -- the idea that the blame was based in fact -- often played a negligible role. "I don't think at times people even care about worthiness," she said. "It's become almost unconscious and automatic."

Ever an optimist, Wyatt believes we can turn things around. "People are getting to the point of being fed up," she said. "I hope it's the tipping point."

The toughest job is likely ours in the media. Working to feed a ravenous beast demanding news 24/7, we still must try at least "to slow down and control the rhetoric," Wyatt said. "If we can get blame right in the news," Wyatt said, "we have more chance to get it right beyond the news. I have a lot of faith in what journalism can do to shift public discourse."

She has even more faith in you. Between now and the November election, she encourages you to "opt in" to the news. Don't check out because of the noise. Be informed.

Diversify your news sources, so you can at least consider different points of view. Send media outlets feedback, especially when you see blame done well.

Recognize that people and the news stories they create are rarely simple. "All of us need to stop and say, 'If this person or group really is blameworthy, how do we know?'" Wyatt said. "With the economy, which is an extremely complex area, how do we know where to place blame? We need to ask the questions to be able to figure it out."

Most important, try to develop "a generosity of spirit, which means resisting the urge to tear people down," Wyatt said.

"Good blame builds society up."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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