Why People Blame Themselves
Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs.
In her lead essay for the most recent Boston Review forum, “Beyond Blame,” Barbara Fried points out that the last four decades have been “boom years for blame,” with neoliberal policy increasingly holding the individual solely responsible for his fate. Freedom and dignity have become intertwined with personal responsibility—and blame is our new rallying cry. The growing fragility of our communities and families over the same time period has solidified the notion that one has only oneself to rely on. Former representative and presidential candidate Ron Paul epitomized the spirit of blame in 2011 when he passionately argued in a televised debate that the decision to forego health insurance was a fundamental right of Americans. When the moderator asked him if this would mean that someone without health insurance who was critically injured should die rather than receive government help, audience members could be heard shouting, “Yeah!” Take a risk and succeed, and you are a hero. Take a risk and fail, and you are to blame—even if it costs you your life. Risk and blame are the hallmarks of worthy personhood in contemporary American society.
Blame is clearly implicated in power and inequality, as its attribution favors the powerful. But the puzzling question is why people who do not benefit from a system of blame—that is, most Americans—cling so fiercely to its creed. Seeking an answer, I spent several years researching the American working class, the very people whose homes are underwater and whose college debt goes unpaid. I witnessed how blame was deployed in everyday life to solve problems—to anchor the self, judge worthiness, grant dignity, and make sense of failures. In short, I learned that blame is a strategy to make certain what is uncertain.
Let me share the example of Monica, a 31-year-old working-class woman from the Northeast, who draws upon the ethos of blame to ascribe meaning and progress to a life of failure, flux, and disappointment. After graduating from high school, she found her first job in a nearby toy factory, where she packed dolls for shipping. When that factory closed down, she moved to an electronics factory, where she spent eight hours a day using tweezers to install tiny springs inside of electrical switches. She has since worked as a waitress, a truck driver, a field hand, a telemarketer, and a hospital aide. In her late twenties, after yet another seemingly long-term relationship fell apart, she returned to her parents’ home to live there and to help her father in his logging business.
Monica never envisioned herself having a future. “There was no five year plan,” she told me, laughing. Then she became somber as she described turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with her anxiety and to forget her troubled family relationships. When she finally realized that her life was going nowhere, she got sober. Although she has relapsed a few times and had to stop seeing a therapist because she lost her health insurance, Monica now feels focused and optimistic for the first time in her life. She is beginning college, taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans in hopes of making a career as an artist. She challenges herself to see the positive aspect of everything that happens to her and believes that happiness is within her control: even when her bike—her sole form of transportation—was stolen last spring, she “was like, that’s all right, I needed to get rid of my mountain bike and get a road bike.” Though she is “just hanging on by a thread all the time financially” and has put relationships on hold, she has faith in her ability to follow the path to a meaningful life—just as long as she stays sober: “Because if I don’t, you know, I could drink and that would mean losing everything.”
As inequality increases in America, many are becoming Monicas. We learn not to expect loyalty from our jobs or permanence from our relationships. We take risks, often without guidance from others and with imperfect knowledge, to try to create lives that feel stable and worthy. And when we fail, we pick up the pieces on our own and start again. When jobs are short-term, families are fragile, institutions are hollow, and trust is in short supply, taking sole responsibility for one’s own fate lends a sense of control and meaning.Blame proves a vital mechanism for coping with the chaos, hopelessness, and insecurity that threatens daily to strip our lives of dignity and order. We numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by reaching for images of ourselves as masters of own fates.
Self-blame is shored up by a multi-million dollar self-help industry. But its true power lies in its promise that we can will ourselves to happy and successful lives, in its ability to make a virtue out of failure, insecurity, and uncertainty. As another young woman, Kelly, a line cook who has lived on and off in her car, explained, “Life doesn’t owe me any favors. I can have a sense of my own specialness and individuality, but that doesn’t mean that anybody else has to recognize that or help me accomplish my goals.” Those who embrace blame tend to have little empathy for those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If I have to go it alone, the logic goes, then everyone else should, too.
As Fried argues, blame is costly, both socially and politically. Blame divides potential communities of solidarity into winners and losers. Even more worrisome, the quest for personal responsibility and the eagerness to blame oneself for failure obscures the larger forces that have weakened our social safety net, our communities, and our families. Doing away with gratuitous blame—directed at others and at ourselves—requires building institutions that restore, carefully and thoughtfully, our collective supply of meaning, trust, and dignity.