In response to a myriad of problems confronting people today, there is a widespread and insidious tendency to blame others. The tendency to fan the flames of blame is so pervasive that it directly and indirectly affects everyone who is a member of the veterinary profession.
Consider the following examples of titles of articles written for our profession:
Herein lies part of the problem. By assigning blame, the terminology chosen by journalists often fosters faulty reasoning about cause-and-effect relationships. However, the problem does not rest with journalists.
Isn't it true that many of us blame newspaper and magazine journalists by accusing them of printing half-truths and quoting statements out of context?
For example, we blame them for careless and inaccurate reporting of new medical developments that result in false hope of miraculous cures at one extreme and unwarranted fears about public health hazards on the other. The examples of blame related to the veterinary profession mirror those that people encounter every day on television, the Internet, radio, in newspapers and magazines.
For example, on Sept. 4, 2006, a Google Internet search for the word "blame" resulted in more than 138 million hits, including:
What is blame?
Webster's Dictionary defines blame as "to put the responsibility of an error, fault, etc. on someone or something."6 Blame is derived from the Latin root word "blasphemare" meaning "to speak evil of." Blame is not a synonym for shame (meaning dishonor or disgrace), although these two terms are often linked. Likewise, blame is not a synonym for accountability or responsibility. Both of these words contain the suffix "ability." The word accountability literally means to stand forth and be counted, and implies personal acceptance of responsibility for one's actions.
Further, responsibility is defined by Webster's as "able to distinguish between right and wrong and to think and act rationally, and hence accountable for one's behavior."6 The word responsibility connotes that ability is required to consider available options in order to respond in a constructive way. In contrast, blameful responses are often more destructive than the original problem.
Although destructive criticism is closely linked to blame, according to Webster's Dictionary, the word criticism originally meant discernment or separation based on fair and sound judgment.6 Thus, constructive criticism is not a synonym for blame, censure or condemnation.
It is apparent that blaming is usually a reactive, judgmental response to perceived wrongdoing. Blame is a negative force in that it tends to polarize opinions. By blaming others, we often convey the impression that "I'm right; you're wrong!"
In this context, it is not surprising that blame often becomes a major component of arguments. When individuals or groups blame each other for an undesirable event, the outcome is often accompanied by a desire for retribution. "Blamers" often want "blamees" to suffer consequences as a result of an alleged error.
Responding to problems by blaming others rarely provides effective long-term solutions. Why not? The reason is that blaming is often based on a faulty premise that getting others to change their behavior or getting others to change situations to meet our desires will resolve problems.
In my experiences at the University of Minnesota, my desire that others change in accord with my expectations often does not occur. When I hold fast to a blaming mode of response, I'm denying the fact that by doing so, I may be personally perpetuating the problem. In this situation, blaming may be an excuse for my not contributing to a constructive solution. In essence, rather than taking action to improve the situation, I prefer to live with the past and blame somebody else for my anger.
Blamosis, blamomas and blamoblastomas
Who doesn't make mistakes? Isn't it true that all of us frequently err in our daily interactions with others? Yet, how do we often respond when the consequences of someone else's error adversely affect us?
As emphasized in the news headlines, the initial response is to fix blame on others. In contrast, how do we often respond when someone else blames us for problems that we have caused? Have you ever responded to being blamed by saying, "Hey, it's not my fault; I'm not to blame;" or "Nobody told me!" How often do we weigh our clients' and associates' shortcomings with the same scale that we use for ourselves?
Why is it we often blame others for their mistakes but tend to be lenient with ourselves when we make the same mistakes? I submit that one major reason behind our tendency to blame other people or events for problems is our desire to avoid our own accountability for the cause and consequences of the problems.
"Now look at what you made me do" is a classic cliché used to shift blame. Some youths blame the adversity they have created in their lives on their parents' genes or how their parents raised them. Some veterinary students blame their teachers' impatience and strict expectations for their poor performance in school. Some hospital staff point at a critical boss as an excuse for their lack of work ethic.
Based on astrological writings found in daily horoscopes, some blame the stars or their date of birth for their adverse circumstances. Others go so far as to blame God, as exemplified by effects of natural disasters being called "acts of God." In veterinary medicine, accusations of negligence and malpractice are often rooted in a culture of blame.
When we blame others for problems with the intent of holding them unilaterally accountable, we may be denying our own accountability for how we respond to the problems. If we do not recognize the root causes of blame with the goal of taking corrective action, a psychological dysfunctional disorder symbolically called "blamosis" may develop in which the "blame-reflex" becomes a habit.
If blamosis persists unchecked by behavioral norms, it can progress to a state analogous to neoplasia in which "blamomas" develop and grow. If blame is sensationalized by gossip, benign blamomas may progress to malignant "blamoblastomas" characterized by metastasis of popular themes of blame to groups, such as those comprising hospital staff or even members of veterinary organizations.
Because none of us is perfect (eg, we are not blameless), various degrees and combinations of blamosis occur in all of us, as expressed by our thoughts, speech and actions. Blamosis has multiple, and sometimes interacting, causes associated with a variety of risk and protective factors. However, the good news is that blamosis, blamomas and blamoblastomas are potentially reversible and even preventable.
How can we respond to blame?
The fundamental answer to this question is not difficult. It is to make wise choices based on the knowledge that each of us has the freedom to accept or deny personal accountability for our actions. We can choose whether or not to blame others. Likewise, we can choose to accept or deny blame placed on us by others. But, we cannot always choose the consequences of our actions, especially if our initial responses to problems are negatively couched in blame.
How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?
Consider two aspects of blame related to: 1) errors made by others, and 2) our own errors. In the next part of this three-part series, we will summarize how we can choose our responses to the errors of others. In the last article, we will discuss how we can choose our responses when others blame us. (This essay is based on a commentary in the Nov. 1, 2000, issue of JAVMA titled, "Responding to blame by blamectomy and blamotomy," Vol. 217, pages 1295-1299 by Dr. Carl A. Osborne).
Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.
1. Dog's vision impaired; client blames Dr. Y. In: Professional Liability-AVMA PLIT. Chicago: AVMA PLIT, 1999; 18:4.
2. Cobb DV: Who's to blame for inappropriate use of drugs? JAVMA 213, 1998; 213: 338-339.
3. Why are veterinarians taking the blame (for misuse of antibiotics)? DVM Newsmagazine 1999; 30:26.
4. Loring M: Liability for animal bites and attacks: Who's to blame? Modern Veterinary Practice 1988; 69: 116-117.
5. California man busted for transporting firearms; blames veterinarian for dog's death. DVM Newsmagazine 1999; 30:8.
6. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language. 2nd ed. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1970; 148, 336, 1211.