Nobody Wins the Blame Game

On the heels of the havoc brought by Hurricane Katrina, accusations are flying about responsibility for the human failures in responding to this catastrophe. Cooler heads counsel that the “blame game” won’t help the victims of Katrina and that the important thing is to help those in need. In any event, we’re told, there’s “plenty of blame to go around.”

There’s no denying that truism, and investigations already have been launched into who did and didn’t act decisively in the crisis, at the local, state and federal levels. But it’s time to take a step back and consider whether the blame game itself played a role in producing the failures to act decisively in dealing with the Katrina crisis _ even before the hurricane hit.

The culture of governance in America today has, as many have observed, turned adversarial to a degree that most of us cannot remember in our lifetimes. Maybe this is the effect of our post-Watergate suspicion of all public officials; maybe it is the effect of a polity increasingly divided along partisan lines.

Regardless of the explanation this “culture of blame” has perverse and dangerous consequences.

One of the worst consequences is that any public decision maker must imagine, before taking any important step, the firestorms of criticism that will ignite if it fails: What will my critics make of this decision? How will they use it to impugn my competence, my motives, my integrity? I’d better go through this exercise in pre-emptive self-justification, because I can be absolutely certain that if anything goes wrong, the blame game will follow.

In short, the certainty that the blame game will be played afterward almost guarantees beforehand that mistakes will be made _ out of the hesitation and timidity bred by the fear of being blamed later on.

We will not have an accurate picture for some time of how decisions were made _ and avoided _ in the days before and after Katrina. But isn’t it possible that New Orleans’s mayor, Ray Nagin, might have hesitated to order forced evacuations because he feared later criticism of “hysterical overreaction?” Or that the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, might have delayed before declaring martial law and ordering in the National Guard because she foresaw being pilloried afterward if an innocent citizen were shot in a moment of confrontation? Or that President Bush held back from declaring a national emergency and taking control because his advisers warned that he’d be attacked for usurping local and state authority in a shocking display of the arrogance of power?

In fact, each of these steps might well have been the proper response from the mayor, governor or president. Each of them might have helped avoid some of the death, suffering and loss. But no matter what step was best, that step was less likely to be taken promptly and decisively, precisely because of the fear of how the blame game would play out afterward.

It is no answer to say that public officials should act courageously and without fear of criticism. That may be the ideal, but the reality is that we are all human beings, even our public officials. And for any human being, the fear of attack _ not constructive criticism, but adversarial attack _ breeds the impulse to act cautiously and defensively.

Unfortunately, when crisis strikes, caution and defensiveness can have tragic and deadly consequences. In the investigations of the response to Katrina, we should not limit the discussion to the specific decisions made by different parties. We should at least begin to question the whole culture of blame that surrounds and is the context for official decision making today. That culture is itself, in our view, partly to blame for whatever mistakes were made in responding to this massive crisis.

And that culture can and must be changed.

For several decades, people dedicated to the transformation of conflict have worked to develop alternatives to the culture of blame, across different sectors of our social life. Those alternatives lie in processes based on cooperation, partnership and communication. They encourage open-minded consultation before decisions are made, without strategic game playing.

They encourage the practice of giving people the benefit of the doubt when mistakes seem to have been made, instead of assuming the worst and rushing to assign blame. They encourage constructive criticism, and discourage adversarial attack and blaming.

We all know from our personal lives that communication and partnership work better than blame _ in our families, our workplaces, our friendships.

It is no different in our governance and public discourse. If we continue to allow the blame game to be played after the fact, then we will continue to suffer the destructive effects that are caused by the fear that the blame game breeds.

There is plenty of wisdom around today about how to replace the blame game with a far more effective pursuit: a culture of governance and public discourse founded on cooperation and constructive communication. We must demand of our leaders and our media that they study this wisdom and make it part of their “reform” in the post-Katrina world.

If we as citizens voice this clear demand, then those involved in public discourse will eventually put an end to the blame game, and the destruction it inevitably causes.

(Robert A. Baruch Bush is a professor at Hofstra University Law School in Hempstead, N.Y. Joseph P. Folger is a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. The second edition of their book, “The Promise of Mediation,” has been published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.)