At times, the dissonance, ignorance, and audacity of Americans is a marvel to behold. Sure, this applies to both political and social issues that I often talk about. But what I’m speaking of this time around is our propensity to perpetuate America as a blame-oriented society. The latest ballsy—and utterly irrational—high-profile event to cement this sad aspect of our country’s thinking is last month’s $23 billion dollar trial court judgment in favor of the widow of a 20-year smoker who died at the age of 36 from lung cancer. According to reports, Michael Johnson Sr. died in 1996, 20 years after he had started smoking as a 13-year old. If my math is right, that would have him starting smoking around 1976—long after it was established that smoking was a health hazard. Now I remember being in elementary school during the 1970s, and I also remember being taught how bad smoking was in school. But there is some part of me that wonders how is it that the parents of a 13-year old boy missed the obvious signs of such a high-profile habit—particularly in the 70's when parents were considerably more responsible than they are today? Johnson knew the health risks of smoking, even after he could grasp them as an adult—they were printed right on each pack of the cigarettes he’d purchased. And since apparently he was a chain smoker, that means hr had to have read the Surgeon Generals’ warnings at least once a day for 20 years. His widow had to have known this too. Yet, she initiated what amounts to a frivolous lawsuit against the tobacco company, ignoring her ex-husband’s free will decision.
At any rate, what this episode reveals is our continual obsession with the need to blame something or someone—anyone—for misfortunes that befall us (or our loved ones). Someone must be at fault whenever bad things happen. We’ve grown too quick to not only assign blame for our misfortunes or personal decisions, but we love to sue, as if to punctuate who we assign blame to. We have to blame someone or something other than ourselves. We blame teachers because our children aren’t learning, as we seek to further overburden them with even more duties and responsibilities—with none of the authority. Or if our kids don’t learn, we blame some imaginary malady or invent some new alphabet soup “syndrome" to explain away their “inability” to learn. We blame the politicians we elect for non-functioning government—but insist that they be beholden to our partisan beliefs, which causes the gridlock we see. If someone takes a gun and shoots up a school full of children, it must be the fault of greedy gun makers…or some “mental disorder” that “told” the shooter to do so (except if you’re black…then it’s just a genetic predisposition to engage in criminal activity). If our cars crash, it must have been some manufacturing defect (admittedly, in some cases this is true). If someone says something that “hurts” our widdle-bitty feelings, we sue for slander, libel, or whatever imaginary slight that the law recognizes as a “remedy” for such “offenses.”
The social and economic consequence for our “need” to find fault and place blame for misfortunes is a society that simply cannot function at optimal capacity. Disruptive children in already crowded classrooms are allowed to rob their fellow students of environments conducive to learning, as schools systems, teachers, and officials fear being sue by their parents (because somehow, it would ‘violate” the “rights” of disruptive students to be held accountable for their misbehaviors or removed for the greater good). Parent’s therefore do not parent to the best of their ability, knowing they can always take [their] children to a clinician and have them designated as somehow “impaired” (rather than accept that parents are the ones who tend to be impaired…in their ability to parent productively).
We now have a generation of young people who have no appreciation for life, or seemingly a major understanding of how serious the consequences are for taking a life. These youngsters are reckless, thoughtless, and impulsive. In fact, both children and adults in America are prone to doing impulsive things; and why not? We can always place the blame on the company that produced the item that we decided to use unsafely and/or irresponsibly. And that is why manufacturers have to put warning labels on everything, alerting customers to the obvious hazards in order to avoid the inevitable lawsuit meant to assign blame to their products rather than the users. And liability insurance that companies are forced to counter the threat of a lawsuit drives up prices for the products we use.
And we dare not look to our politicians for any kid of remedy for “irresponsible companies” that make “shoddy” products. They are too busy tugged and pulled in one direction or another by a fickle voting electorate that is too busy pointing fingers of blame at opposing political parties, ethnic/minority groups, and ideologies for why the country is in such a sad state of affairs.
Blaming others is why someone can win a declarative court judgment for spilling hot coffee on themselves and get away with blaming the preparer for “making it too hot” (rather than simply waiting until it cooled in an attempt to drink it). Or why 23 billion dollars can be awarded to the widow of an adult who chose to engage in an unhealthy behavior—that has been widely known to be a potential threat to health and/or life for going on 50 years.
This country will not get better until people—adults, youngsters, black, white, male and female—begin ownership of their decisions and the consequences. We need to learn that not every event is foreseeable, or is worthy of blame. We have gotten away from a certain level of fatalism --that often, bad things happen to good people (and vice-versa) that keeps us grounded in reality. We cannot control everything, but we also need to accept that we are responsible for our own actions. Attempting to find and/or place blame for the calamities that befall robs of the understanding that we are mortal, and that our time here on this mortal coil is limited. Some things that happen to us are of our own design, while others are an act of God (or fate). Some of us make sound financial decisions, while others make financially irresponsible decisions--both of which impact our lives for better or worse. When we drive on the nation's highways, we are taking the same chance as we do when we walk out in the rain during a storm. Lightning strikes some, and ignores others it's the same with smoking or anything else--you take your chances, and you accept the consequences, not blame others for them.
See also: "What Suing Subway Reveals About Us"