We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.

 

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Acceptance as Accepting Responsibility

Featured image is In Love, by Marcus Stone.

Last year, while struggling to come to terms with some ugliness close to home, I wrote about acceptance.

Of its opposite, rejection, I said this:

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

And on acceptance:

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

Recently I came across a discussion by Charles Taylor of Dostoyevsky on this very topic, in the former’s terrific book Sources of the Self. I find I’m unable to get it out of my head.

Dostoyevsky’s vision of rejection is something that people who have the highest moral sensibilities are the most vulnerable to, precisely because they are most sensitive to the ugliness in the world.

Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. And from this can only come acts of hate and destruction. Moreover, these radiate out from one in a chain, a kind of negative apostolic succession, as one inspires others through this loathing to loathe in their turn.

He continues:

Dostoyevsky’s rejectors arc “schismatics” (raskolniki), cut off from the world and hence grace. They cannot but wreak destruction. The noblest wreak it only on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of the evil; we want to raise ourselves above it, away from the blame for it. The outward projection of the terrorist is the most violent manifestation of this common motive.

But acceptance is the only way to heal from the wounds inflicted by an ugly world:

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility. Just as ‘no one is to blame’ is the slogan of the materialist revolutionaries, so ‘we are all to blame’ is of Dostoyevsky’s healing figures. Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession is a grace-dispensing one[.]

Acceptance means accepting responsibility.

The idea that greater transparency will make the world a better place is pretty popular these days. And yet it seems that massively expanded access to information has largely turned public discourse more vitriolic, and less forgiving.

Rather than shining a light on the darkness, it seems to me instead that we have closed ourselves off, afraid of allowing the darkness in. Yet there is already darkness within, and to close ourselves off is to leave ourselves alone with it.

To be exposed to so much of the ugliness of the world would be challenging in any time. But I think our current situation makes us particularly vulnerable. We are ideologically inclined to let “failure set the agenda,” and we lack a shared framework to justify wholeheartedly loving the world.

Growing up is a process of moving from earnest naiveté to accepting responsibility for being a part of the world. Few of us get to the wholehearted loving of the world, ugliness and all, that Dostoyevsky’s most saintly characters manage to achieve. And all of us feel the pull of rejection when we are faced by the world’s ugliness.

But each of us is capable of accepting the world, with its wonders and its horrors.