My father was a French professor and total Francophile. It wasn’t that he thought so highly of the French as individuals; his personality type just gravitated toward French culture’s well-known celebration of its own opinions and beliefs about the human condition. From my perspective (parental influence and my own travel experiences), the French have the most wonderful way of “nailing” a situation with an economy of words; or, silence and a raised eyebrow; or, silence and the classic Gaelic Shrug (while the lower lip turns slightly out, and down). Even miniscule changes in a French person’s body language can convey that the topic (whatever it is) is probably unworthy of serious consideration.
“J’Accuse!” (first proclaimed and penned by French author Émile Zolà, author and journalist in 1898), translates as ‘I Accuse You’, or, more colloquially, This Whole Situation is Your Fault. Over many years, “J’Accuse!” has become an enduring trope in movies, television program dramas and sitcoms, and even animated ‘adult’ cartoons. In whatever context, the exclamation’s usually shouted with an attempt at a French accent, and accompanied by a dramatically-pointed finger in the face of the wrongdoer. “J’Accuse!” came into my mind today, after a couple of major ‘This is Your Fault!’’ moments in the media (print and recorded conversations) that feel, as I mentally compiled other recent moments, like indications of a developing Tsunami of Blaming and Shaming in Western culture.
In the United States, we’re in the throes of our 2020 presidential election process. During a recent debate of hopeful candidates, verbal fireworks erupted when one accused the other of making “hurtful” (racial bias-related) comments. The verbal blast (shaming) went on for some minutes, while the accused hung his head and looked contrite. Regardless of whose side might be considered more correct or sympathetic, the spectacle was deliberate in its assignment of blame, and its effort to demolish an opponent’s credibility and worth as a potential Leader of the Free World. This “J’Accuse!” moment clearly came from a place of pain, for which there was no immediate balm. Blame, with a large dollop of Shame on the side; called-out in public, and reverberating around the world.
Just a few hours later, scanning the latest print headlines, I came across an editorial claiming to be written “on behalf of Millennials”, by a self-identified 30-something person. The title of her piece was, “The Baby Boomers Stole My Future!” The editorial began with a presentation of trends and statistics related to significant life choices being made by Millennials. But it continued in its speculation that those choices were, and are, the direct result of Millennials feeling impacted (impaired, thwarted, highjacked) by the decisions of those born between 1945 and 1964 (so-called Boomers). It was a scathing rebuke (“J’Accuse!”) of the collective (as she viewed it) greed, selfishness, disregard, and ignorance of the Children of The Greatest Generation. According to the editorial, but for the Boomer generation, the vast majority of “dysfunctional” Millennials wouldn’t be so nihilistic about their futures, so anti-social (about jobs, marriages and babies) in their commitments, or living like gypsies (or in their parents’ basements). Regardless of whether or not these accusations are accurate (read the autobiographical book “Sea Stories”, by Ret. Admiral William McRaven, for a polar opposite view of Millennials), the editorial stands – recorded for posterity — in its potency of Blame and Shame.
Most of us have felt, at some point in our lives (maybe even repeatedly), hindered by people and circumstances beyond our control. We may have been born into unloving families or raised in the midst of violence, addiction, or severe mental incapacity. One of the most poignant and angst-ridden Blues songs (all about pain) I’ve ever heard is Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”. As the songwriter says, “I’ve been down since I began to crawl; If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Sometimes simple survival in the Arena of Life can feel like a miracle in itself. Lies, betrayals, abuse & neglect, bullying, persecution, or just idiotic decisions on the part of someone else may have stunted our growth, diminished our sense of self-worth, stymied our ambitions, or kept us locked in a prison of despair.
Is there any value in assigning Blame for what others may have done to us? Is there something worthwhile to be gained through Blaming and Shaming people who’ve harmed us? Is there an expiry date for either, or both? After a while, even those with the most legitimate-seeming complaints may feel like scolds, whiners, weaklings – being told to Just Get Over It – compounding the hurt. An injured person who blames and shames usually wants acknowledgement (no guarantees there!), and often seeks some kind of justice or reparation (maybe, maybe not). Some injuries can be tended-to, even “fixed” in some way; but most can never be undone except through the decision to Forgive.
I lived my own life, for many years, in the clutches of the need to Blame: primarily, family members whose impactful behaviors ran the gamut from thoughtless and hurtful, to truly vile. I eventually realized that Blame (and its partner Shame) is like a dead-end street: you’re not going anywhere unless you turn around and re-trace your steps, back to yourself, and choose a different path.