The pot calling the kettle black

These days, one of the things many businesses experience more of, often in response to a service failure, is a strongly worded attack on social media where the Chief Executive or Chairman is accused of running a shabby ship.

I find such Tweet-attacks quite upsetting, especially when uncritically retweeted by all and sundry who love to pile in when they see a fight happening. The attacks are rarely based on fact: unfair and untrue assumptions are made and scandalous motives are apportioned. The perspective is inevitably one-sided, the accusers are invariably anonymous and the messages are crudely designed to whip up sentiment – all in just 140 characters!

However, this strong desire to blame someone when something goes wrong is ingrained in all of us. When something goes wrong I know that my first annoyed and emotional reaction will always be to blame someone else. If it rains on holiday I tend to blame my husband for booking the wrong destination, or the wrong week, conveniently forgetting I had agreed to a staying in Gloucestershire in June.

When I step on a Stickle Brick, I blame the child for not clearing up rather than myself for forgetting my slippers. In order to feel OK about ourselves, we just project the fault onto others. If the mistake is someone else’s, our anger is turned out and on to them rather than on ourselves. Our own responsibility is invisible to us.

I remember very clearly my first experience in a coroner’s court when an older man had died in a fire in his bed in a sheltered scheme I was responsible for. The resident was a heavy smoker and he smoked in bed. The manager knew it was a risk and, from time to time, she warned him of the dangers. He died in terrible circumstances with a member of staff trying to put out the fire.

The family were, understandably, distraught. They immediately blamed the landlord and the staff members for allowing their relative to smoke. Who gave him a lighter? They suggested that smoking should be banned in sheltered schemes and that their relative should have been prevented from having cigarettes and matches in his possession. 

As you can imagine we would never try to restrict an older person from smoking in their own flat. It’s their right to smoke and do whatever they like – we don’t run a prison. We don’t have powers to confiscate their smoking paraphernalia, nor would we wish to restrict people’s choices. In older age, some things pose greater risk, e.g. living alone, smoking, drinking, walking in icy conditions, catching flu, etc. We felt that there was a risk associated with smoking in bed, but that the tenant was free to make his own choice.

In court the coroner listened carefully, took all the evidence into account then said that the old gentleman enjoyed a fag and no one had the right to stop him smoking, even though it raised the risk of harm. He concluded that the death was “a tragic accident”. I thought he got it right. Clearly the death was tragic, but the circumstances were accidental – no one was to blame.

Yet I absolutely understood why the family wanted to blame us. It may have been that they felt some level of guilt themselves, even though they equally couldn’t stop the resident from smoking if he wished, and it’s human nature to ask what could have stopped bad things from happening.

Personally, when blame is being chucked around, I find it easier to deal with if I can understand the very human instincts that leads to the “name, blame, shame” approach. The old saying that notes how “the pot calls the kettle black” is so true. If we see someone getting very angry with the Council or the police or social services, we need to ask why.

Very often bad things happen because we let them happen. We like to blame politicians, but we need democratic representatives to work for us. All of us in society bear some responsibility both for the things that go well and the things that we don’t like. None of us is uniformly good, nor completely bad and wrong.

To continually blame and undermine “them” is so much easier than doing something about the problem. Those who know me well will understand how, a long time ago, I decided rather than criticising others for not producing enough affordable housing I would do something about it. I find this very much more rewarding than blaming others for not doing enough.

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.