Some concepts are so close in meaning, it’s easy to see how they might be confused. Take the words responsibility and blame for example. Common usage of the two puts them in the very same expressions both often and interchangeably. For example, how often have you heard the terms, “shoulder the blame, or conversely, “shoulder the responsibility?” Likewise, there’s “take responsibility” and “take the blame.” Most likely, you ascribed the exact same meaning to each term upon hearing such expressions. Who could blame you?
In point of fact, looking at the dictionary may not help much.
Let’s assume you’ve noted this tendency of speakers to use responsibility and blame interchangeably. So you trot out your dictionary. Having done so, you discover that the most generally accepted version of the word responsible cites the term as meaning, one who is ” answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control or management.”
“Great,” you say. “What about blame?”
Alas, this is where it may get confusing. For example, should you cyber-trot on over to Dictionary.com, you may then read that blame means: “to hold responsible; find fault with; censure.”
“What now?,” you wail. It seems that even the dictionary finds it acceptable to use one term to define the other. How can ordinary folk hope to separate two ideas that seem so joined at the hip?
Clearly, a different tack is required. Perhaps by removing the the two terms from their oft-frequented arena of popular speech and focusing instead on their use inside a real-world venue it might, at last, be possible to discern a real difference.
Consider the rehab clinic. Most would agree that the ideas of responsibility and blame are key concepts for those living, however temporarily, in such an environment.
Envision a circle of rehab patients. It’s therapy time. The patients are sharing their feelings. One speaker tells a story of blame. In doing so, he points the finger at himself. Likewise, he expresses shame for his actions. Next, another different speaker tells a story. This second speaker also tells a story of self-blame. Yet, he also makes use of the word responsibility.
At last, there emerges an important difference as the second speaker spends little time pointing the finger or even expressing shame. However, it would seem he feels no less sorry than the previous speaker for what he’s done. This second speaker radiates a sense of dignity, a quiet pride, as he cites those actions he intends to take to mitigate his prior and negative actions.
One can easily see how both speakers are “shouldering blame” when it comes to whatever it was that landed them in rehab.
Yet, in the case of the “blame” only speaker such shouldering is passive. The essence of his story is simply: I did a bad thing. I’m sorry for it and I feel bad. No particular action is taken, other than that of feeling bad.
In the case of the second speaker, the one making use of the term responsibility, there is a difference. While he may feel no less “bad,” he’s made a different choice from that of the first speaker. He’s chosen to do something about his bad feelings.
At last, we have a perceivable difference. Clearly, both responsibility and blame infer a sense of accountability.
However, in the real world setting of the rehab clinic blame implies a passive state. Yes, there’s awareness of one’s transgressions, likewise one’s implied accountability. Yet, such knowledge does not necessarily imply further action. Responsibility, on the other hand, implies a positive step taken in answering for one’s transgressions.
There’s another way in which blame might be inferred as a more passive state, whereas responsibility might be viewed as more active. Again, by removing the words from the land of casual speaking and putting them in the real world, one might assume that taking the blame and taking responsibility are real and possible actions. Yes, one can actually take the blame, just as one might take on a responsibility. Yet, at what specific time does one take them? It is in this specific difference that the passivity of one and the activity of the other become apparent.
Let’s take a real-world example, a party. You’ve just given one. Alas, it was a smashing snore and everyone left early. You may well take blame for your party’s lack of success. However, you could not take it before the event.
On the other hand, had you taken responsibility to ensure your party’s success beforehand such would have implied a proactive stance against party-failure. Clearly, one state is positive and proactive, while the other is merely reactive and so ultimately passive.
In the end, it would seem that the seemingly twin states of blame and responsibility are rather like Janus. The Roman God was pictured as looking both forwards and backwards, thereby symbolizing not merely transitions, but also both positive and negative outcomes.
Blame might be viewed as the backwards-looking side of the Janus pair, the one that instigates all the guilt and personal browbeating. Meanwhile, the forward-looking Janus side of the two concepts, the responsibility side, looks to a future of correction and of mending past misdeeds.