Conflict Resolution|Teaching

Birth of a Dispute: "Name, Blame and Claim"

Fellow blogger Victoria Pynchon has been kind enough to send me a copy of her new book — made extra-collectible by her handwritten inscription inside!  She has unfortunately used a vulgarity in naming the volume, but the subtitle, The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution, gives a good sense of its structure and its tone.

A is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution

Her very first chapter articulates a psychological phenomenon that I have often witnessed (and, I confess, have too often experienced): “Name, Blame and Claim.”

Pynchon hypothesizes a competition for a parking place in a crowded lot, and she labels the apparently aggressive tactics of one driver an instance of “perceived relative deprivation.”  (My novelist daughter probably would rephrase that as “somebody touching your stuff.”)

Pynchon says that one might “call this spark the ‘injurious event’ that permits us to name someone else as the source of our deprivation; blame that person for taking from us that which is rightfully ours; and claim recompense for our loss.”

I find this phenomenon refreshingly familiar, and its dissection useful.  Also culturally depressing. 

The concept of “possession” — in the sense of the authority to exclude others — is problematic in many cultures (such as among traditional Native Americans) and the prospective “possession” of an as yet unrealized expectation such as an open parking place is fraught with ego, hubris and projection.  That one would feel “deprived” by the frustration of one’s expectations is not uncommon, but troubling nonetheless.

That we are then provoked to name the person responsible for our deprivation is also common, and also worrisome.  We do not name the rain as the thing that caused us to be wet when caught in a shower; why to we name our mothers for the cause of our various social dysfunctions?

The reason we name them is to blame them.  The distinction, I suggest, is a leap of causality:  Not only was it my boss who created this problem; the problem would not have happened but for the boss’ incompetence.  Blaming the person named completes the process of self-victimization, and relieves us of any suggestion that either (a) life is inherently unfair, or (b) we ourselves need to take responsibility for our own condition.

The third stage is archetypically American.  Having identified the person who was responsible for the harm that has befallen us, we state a claim for redress.  All the wisdom of all of history notwithstanding, to many of us there is no harm that is not susceptible of recompense.  From Eccesiastes to the Buddha, from Jesus to Tao, we have been reminded that the sun shines on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.  But not for Americans, nosirree.  Sue the bastards.

Thanks Ms. Pynchon for the book and for the thoughts!  By way of reciprocity, in your next edition please check page 112: Jerome Robbins was the guy who choreographed West Side Story; Jerome Kern was the guy who wrote All the Things You Are.  (If we see each other in Denver in April I’ll tell you about the harmonic structure of that song — a mind-blow!)


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