Nathanael Garrett Novosel, March 13 2024

Responsibility vs. Fault

You read a lot about “blaming the victim” in modern times, usually when someone tells another person how to change their behavior to get a different result. The most famous one (because people seem to scream it all the time) is, “I shouldn’t have to dress more modestly; men shouldn’t rape!” But, to take a less controversial one, Office Space has the famous interaction between Michael and Samir over the former’s name, Michael Bolton:

Samir: “Why don’t you just go by Mike?”

Michael: “Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks!”

Of course, later Michael can’t handle the hundredth conversation he had about Michael Bolton’s music and says, “You can just call me ‘Mike’,” much to the dismay of the Bobs (two consultants who are conducting downsizing) who love the musician’s work. It is a great example of actions and their social consequences.

In the movie, Michael and Samir end up losing their jobs and working for another company (hilariously named, “Penetrode”). Would Michael not going by ‘Mike” have possibly saved his job? It’s fictional, so we’ll never know, but we can surmise that it likely wouldn’t have changed Michael’s fortunes around.

So what does this have to do with responsibility vs. fault? Michael Bolton’s name was given to him by his parents, as was the musician’s name. Neither of them were “to blame” for having that name. The tech Michael also wasn’t at fault for his namesake’s rise to musical stardom, and the musician required a lot of help to get there. When it was all said and done, it was just a coincidence that they had the same name, but now tech Michael Bolton had a decision to make: go by Michael, go by Mike, or even tell people, “Yes, like the musician—I’ve heard that 100 times.” He had many things he could do about the situation to avoid the social annoyances associated to meeting new people who were learning his name for the first time. (I’ve had a similar situation, where when people learn my birthday in numerical form, they say, “Over and out!”—yes, I say, “October” instead of “10” to avoid this)

And thus the responsibility lies with tech Michael Bolton to handle people’s reaction to his name, such as calling his namesake a “no-talent ass clown” like he does in the movie or just saying that it’s a coincidence. Is it his fault that his name is the same? No. Yet he did get very defensive when Samir offered a positive suggestion on how to avoid the annoying interaction by not bringing up his full name. Michael dismissed it, took it one time, and then (presumably) went back to Michael.

This is the lesson for anyone who gets mad that the world isn’t the way it “should be” in life: just because it’s your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility. Going back to more controversial topics, no one believes that someone “deserves” to be robbed, sexually assaulted, or taken advantage of. But if you walk down a dangerous neighborhood flaunting expensive things, wear provocative clothing and drink a lot of alcohol, or seem desperate, other people—whose fault it will be if they do something bad—will exploit the situation and possibly harm you. Is it your fault? No. Is it your responsibility to avoid putting yourself in that situation? Absolutely. Is it fair? It doesn’t matter.

These situations happen to a variety of people, and yet only the people who (are allowed to) complain the most voice their opinions. It is very possible that there are a lot of wealthy men either getting taken advantage of or being falsely accused of crimes for money by women, and no one would put up with their complaints. After all, everyone knows that it’s their responsibility to “not put themselves in those situations” as you hear them recite in the media (likely due to extensive media training). It’s not the small business’s fault if they are robbed, but it’s their responsibility to install security measures to prevent it. In fact, we are very close to a world where it is near-impossible to rob a store, as employees only have the right to accept payment or refund money electronically via credit systems or crypto and have no ability to provide that money to a thief—even at gunpoint. Whose fault is it? The robbers. Whose responsibility is it? The vendor’s. It’s not “fair” or “right”; it just is.

So, in your life, you should remind yourself of this difference when you blame outside factors for your life situation (known as having an “external locus of control” in psychology). Is it your fault that you are too tall, too short, bald, not as attractive as you wish you were, that the store decided to close early that day so you can’t mail that package, or that someone else hurt you in some way? No, it’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility to do what you can do to move forward in your life. This is why people feel bad for a criminal who was abused as a child but still have to convict once that criminal pays forward that abuse by harming others. It’s not fair or the criminal’s fault that he or she was abused, but it is his or her responsibility to not harm others.

This is your friendly reminder to take responsibility for your life, regardless of whose fault it was that you are in the situation that you are now. You can’t change the past; you can’t always get justice or revenge on the people who harmed you. All you can do is move forward and do what’s next in your life to make it better for yourself and the people you care about. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for whatever bad thing happened to you that was outside of your control—I deal with my own demons of abandonment, exploitation, and social awkwardness. You and I didn’t ask for any of that, but what happened happened. And it’s up to us to do something about our lives from here.

One final point: to maximize what you can control in your life, check to make sure that it was, indeed, not your fault. Acknowledging that something wasn’t your fault is great for people who harbor guilt over something bad that happened to them when there was nothing that they could do, but note that it can also backfire if there was something they could’ve done and they ignored it. Popular examples include your weight, your grades, a performance review, a lost job opportunity, and a variety of other complex situations that combine both controllable and uncontrollable factors. Yes, it could be a thyroid issue, your teacher hating you, a bad boss, or a nepotistic hire. But it could also be that you could eat a little less (or treat the thyroid issue), study a little more, meet your job’s expectations a little better, or increase your qualifications or fix your résumé. If there is a combination of factors and you dismiss all of the controllable ones for the uncontrollable ones, then you miss out on the opportunity to better your life.

The harsh truth is that it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, your life is your responsibility. But the nicer way to say that is that it might not be your fault that your life isn’t the way that you want it, but you have the power to change it for the better no matter what. Phrase it however you like so that it clicks for you, and make sure to remind yourself of this insight if you ever need to motivate yourself into constructive action.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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