It's not the person's fault who overdosed or is an alcoholic, because it's a disease. It's not their fault they destroy their body with pills because they have mental health issues (also not their fault) and the doctors shouldn't have prescribed them. It's not their fault they defaulted on their loan because they didn't understand the terms and financial institutions take advantage of that. It's not their fault they were ignorant. It's not their fault they didn't seek to understand or educate themselves further because they didn't know any better. It's not their fault they racked up credit card debt because they didn't know how to manage their money, or had a controlling spouse.
On and on and on. So where does personal accountability lie anymore? Is it dead?
Pondering: No, it isn’t dead. At least, not of the phenomenon you’re talking about.
For accountability to work, it has to be accurate. Otherwise it’s just some form of finger-pointing or shunning or shaming, all of which are blunt instruments and therefore less productive as remedies — and often make things worse. Blame can be the social equivalent of the remedy that sounds good even though it’s ineffective, like antibiotics for a virus — or the one that’s mindlessly punitive, like a life sentence for stealing hedge clippers.
What works is understanding a problem, and problems have nuance. Which addict has a better shot at proper treatment and recovery: the one written off as weak, stupid or irresponsible, or the one understood to be affected by multiple contributing factors, including nature, nurture, happenstance, social currents and maybe some unethical marketing? Either way an addict is on the hook for all the hard work of recovery — all of it — but the one permitted nuance will understand the work better and receive better treatment and support.
It can still be someone’s “fault” when we understand the fault to be complicated and multifaceted, and it can still be someone’s “fault” after the facts move us to feel more compassion than anger.
And we can still feel compassion while also holding someone responsible for hurting us.
It’s just that complexity can be harder to manage emotionally than writing someone off. Saying, “You cheated because you’re a bad person and I never want to see you again,” can feel a lot simpler and more satisfying than, for example, “You cheated because emotionally you’re kind of stuck in adolescence and not good at saying what you need, and I stopped paying attention enough to pick up on your signals, and your impulse control is weak enough that you jumped on a tempting offer to feel temporarily better about yourself.”
You can still decide, fully nuance-aware, never to see that person again. You can still feel justifiably angry.
Of course. Cheating is cheating and your boundaries are yours.
But a better understanding fuels better decisions, better support, better breakups even, and, in the aggregate, a stronger and more compassionate society. The changes you describe stem from awareness that, when anger and blame are in charge, consequences for misbehavior tend to be arbitrary, dehumanizing and often more costly to us all than the misbehavior itself.
Last pitch: A society that embraces nuance would have better supports in place for people like your beloved parent, allowing fewer such catastrophes and cushioning the few that do happen. Your “holding the bag” is a rotten vestige of the old ways, of just letting people fall, and if they don’t have family or someone whose conscience insists on holding that bag for them, then, oh well!
It’s not a good look for supposedly civilized people — and we’re all accountable for that.
Dear Carolyn: My child is a college freshman, very far away from home. I am so excited for her and hope she has an amazing experience! She chose a beautiful town and a small university with supportive staff.
However, she barely scraped by in high school and I’d like to communicate to her that I am happy to pay for college as long as she is passing her classes. I am worried it’s going to come out wrong. I don’t want to discourage her. Should I say something, or not?
— Proud Mom
Proud Mom: When will you have the other “talk” — when she’s in her third trimester?
Yours is a totally reasonable expectation. But this is months past the reasonable time to express it. She’s there and you paid, so now you just let it play out. I recommend trust in your own capable child rearing and an absorbing diversion or three.