Passing Blame: On Doubt and Being an Activist

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with other activists where we’ve voiced our experiences in persistent doubt, especially when it comes to our judgement of others. It seems that many of us have a (metaphorical) voice in our heads constantly asking ‘Are you sure?’ ‘What if you’re wrong?’ etc. etc.

Needless to say, while constant questioning has its merits, doubting yourself in the middle of a meeting with a high-ranking official can be a little problematic. In a closed room where you’re the one with the least power, the last thing you want to do is look hesitant or uncertain. But uncertainty is useful: how else are we to be open to new information? To remain well-informed?

Situations like these have led me to unofficially declare my motto as “Question with Confidence,” meaning, act with certainty based on the evidence you have while always looking for information that could discredit your beliefs. And, while this hasn’t made me more comfortable in passing judgement on others, I’ve gained more confidence by reminding myself that I’m fallible — but so is everyone else.

What does this have to do with blame? I’ve struggled for a long time with blaming anyone for anything, as it’s difficult, at least for me, to reconcile the fact that plenty of people do horrible things and yet remain, fundamentally, people with the same desires and fears as my friends and me. More difficult, though, is the idea that people can do horrible things and believe, truly truly believe, that their actions are in the best interests of all involved.

An example: A friend once relayed to me an (unverified) anecdote about Shell oil, in which activists angry about the destruction of land and displacement of people met with the CEO, who told them that because people were still buying oil, obviously his actions were supported and therefore justifiable. Ultimately, the CEO maintained, he wasn’t the one responsible — the people purchasing his product were, as he was only serving them.

We see this displacement of blame in plenty of situations, whether it’s politicians blaming the other parties in Congress or us defending our purchases of iPhones made of conflict minerals. In every situation, it’s the other person who’s at fault. I’d like to posit that, in fact, we’re all at fault. Yes, some of us are more to blame than others, but recognizing that we’re all people and all fallible has its merits.

First, approaching *everyone* as a person means that we place ourselves on equal footing. By refusing to cast anyone as an emotionless villain, it’s easier to put ourselves in his or her shoes. (Yes, there are psychopaths out there, but for the case of this argument I’m assuming that we’re not dealing with them at the moment).

Second, recognizing our own fallibility helps us make our arguments stronger, because we’re constantly looking for loopholes and checking to see if our logic is airtight.

And, third, it allows us to take personal responsibility for changing what we can change while appealing to those in power to change what they can as well. There’s less passing off of responsibility and more personal accountability. If we’re doing everything we can, well, then don’t our representatives and CEOs have the obligation to do the same?

I have a feeling that what I’ve just argued for won’t sit well with a lot of people. We like to have our heros and villains and our quests for vengeance and justice. Of course, my argument leaves some room for villains: people are afforded blame if they can act and don’t, if they pass off their responsibility to others.

I’d love to hear what you think about my thoughts above. Who do you think we ought to blame? Do you blame yourself? Consistently doubt? Or are you happy with what you’re doing and comfortable with everything you decide?