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Friday, 27 March 2009

On Sir Fred and the Blame Game

Is there a frisson of pleasure in hearing that the windows of Sir Fred Goodwin’s house and car have been vandalised ? Well, no, not really.

We have become addicted in recent years to a new sport here in the UK, the ‘blame game’, where after any disaster, or accident, or minor mishap, the first question asked (and you can hear it daily on the news) is ‘And who do you blame?’ And the answer you never hear is ‘Actually, I was responsible for what happened to me’ or even, ‘No, there is no-one to blame. It was an accident’. The acknowledgement that contingency is part of the fabric of life, that life unfolds in ways that we don’t and can’t choose, that misfortune and loss are part of the fluidity of how life is – this doesn’t make for a reassuring narrative of cause and effect, a reliable story with a narrative arc modelled on the fictional world of soaps, where someone else has to be to blame for the bad things that happen. It was her husband, or his mother, or them next door... or the bankers, or the EU, or Thatcher, or Gordon Brown, or the Muslims, or even (last resort for some, first port of call for others), the Jews.

Always someone else. Never us.

Of course this sport isn’t new. It is millennia old: the shifting of blame onto ‘the Other’ – and there is always a nearby group to carry the disowned feelings, the aggression and hatred. In the Biblical myth Adam blames Eve for his inability to follow God’s decree not to eat of the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad’. And although ‘God’ set him up, Adam’s failure initiates the ‘blame game’; and when Cain kills Abel, the texts illustrate this same propensity, the failure to take personal responsibility for what each one of us does, particularly what we do with our aggressive feelings, our envy and jealousy and hatred, our desires. The Bible’s early stories are a primer on how human beings fail – and then fail to take responsibility for their own failures. (This is why these stories are called ‘Torah’, ‘teaching’ – coz they teach us stuff. Stuff we think we know. Though we don’t. Not really.)

But I digress. (That’s the pleasure of blogs...)

So, whether it is witches to blame in the 16th century or communists in the 20th, human history contains a dismal record of the psychological difficulty of what Jungians call ‘owning the shadow’: accepting the dark, urgent wishes and desires we disown and disavow. We are never greedy – it was the bankers to blame. We never wanted to consume more than we earned – it was the advertisers that tempted us, the credit card companies that seduced us, the mortgage lenders that (as if they were the Mafia) made us offers we couldn’t refuse. Adam’s spurious defence, all over again.

This coming week London will see protests against the gathering of G20 leaders. Many people are angry, many more want someone to blame. We can understand this impulse – it is very human: ‘I feel insecure, I feel frightened, I feel helpless in the face of forces outside my control, I want you to do something to make me feel better, I’m angry that you don’t do anything to make me feel better, I’m going to shout and scream and smash things up until you pay attention TO MY PAIN...’

Incompetence and greed are never far away. But Sir Fred Goodwin has become too easy a scapegoat. We’ve all been addicted, in one way or another. We’ve forgotten the Talmud’s stark reminder: ‘When Death summons us to appear before our Maker, our money (which all of us love), cannot go with us’.

Or as the Yiddish saying puts it, more pithily, ‘Shrouds have no pockets’.

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