Final Word

Politicians perfected, but did not invent, the ‘blame game’


During the recent municipal elections, the governing African National Congress blamed everyone and everything but themselves for the bad results it received at the polls.(Read more)

The party was widely accused of playing the ‘blame game’, instead of accepting responsibility for being the architects of their own misfortunes. In fact, many are accusing them of, like politicians across the world, having perfected the ‘blame game’.

What is the blame game?  

Dictionary definitions for the blame game differ slightly – from “a situation in which people try to blame each other for something bad that has happened,” to “... a readiness or tendency to assign responsibility for a misdeed”.

Politicians seem to have made the blame their own – to the extent that the Safire Political Dictionary, published by the Oxford University Press in 2008, went to the trouble of tracing the history of the expression.

But, truth be told, people often use politicians in an attempt to wash their hands of unsavoury situations that originated with them. One of the better known examples of this came from the Russian Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the most lethal assault rifle of all times, the AK 47.

He once said: “People often ask me how I feel about my invention being used to kill people every day and the AK being a common weapon of ethnic conflicts. I want to make it clear that I created my assault rifle to protect my country. You can blame politicians for its spreading out of control on a global scale.”

Blame in psychology

To dish out blame, in various ways, is such a common human trait that it has received some serious research attention from the social science of psychology. In 2015 the website Psychology Today published a list of five reasons why people play the blame game – commenting that it’s won by those who dish it out.

The reasons listed are:

  • Blame is an excellent defence mechanism. Whether you call it projection, denial, or displacement, blame helps you preserve your sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of your own flaws or failings;
  • Blame is a tool we use when we’re in attack mode. Falling into the category of a destructive conflict resolution method, blame is a way to try to hurt our partners; We’re not very good at figuring out the causes of other people’s behaviour, or even our own. The attributions we make, whether to luck or ability, can be distorted by our tendency to make illogical judgements. And we're just as bad at making judgements involving the blameworthiness of actions in terms of intent vs. outcome;
  • It’s easier to blame someone else than to accept responsibility. There’s less effort involved in recognising your contributions to a bad situation than in accepting the fact that you’re actually at fault, and changing so you don’t do it again;
  • People lie. As my colleague, Robert Feldman, discovered: “Everybody lies.” It’s pretty easy just to lie and blame someone else even though you know you’re at fault. You may figure that no one will know it was really you who spilled coffee all over the break room, so you just blame someone else who’s not there (and hope that person never finds out); and
  • Unlike other games, the more often you play the blame game, the more you lose. Learning to tell when you need to own up to your role in a bad situation will help you grow from your experiences, and ultimately help you achieve more fulfilling relationships.

Much of this is summarised in the words of Walter Kirn, who once said: “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it’s someone else’s witch being hunted.”

Final word

Although this human trait of avoiding accepting responsibility by blaming others, only fairly recently got to be called ‘the blame game’ it really goes back to the beginning of humankind.

In Genesis 3:12 to 3:19 we read how Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent.

And the leaders of the ANC, in fact all politicians, so adept at playing the blame game, should note that in that very first round of this game, every one of those involved got kicked out of Paradise.

by Piet Coetzer

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