Per the title, quite possibly the least meaningful question it is possible to ask about anything. We learn it early, we learn it from everything around us. We obsess over the answer, as if the answer had any significance whatsoever. Spoilers: it never does. In relationships, in business, in politics, in parenting, whether the event in question is good or bad, we ask this question constantly.
We’re also really bad at answering it, or of doing anything useful with the answer once we have it. Perhaps we can definitively assign blame, then what? Are those to blame then exiled? Social pariahs? Sometimes. Sometimes we eliminate them in a variety of ways, removing them from “positions where they can continue to do damage”. Oftentimes we seek revenge for their wrongdoings, exacting vengeance in the name of justice as if any data anywhere suggested that was effective. What all of these things do is drive a desire never to be caught, for even the tiniest mistake. Never be at fault, never be the one to blame. It is how small errors pile up until massive systems come crashing down. It is how those seeking to exploit the system find loopholes and get away with them. It is what makes it ever harder to answer the question “whose fault is this”, because we all know that it will be a Very Bad Time for whoever that person is.
What do we gain by this? Do we correct the error by identifying its source? Can we even accurately identify the source, or is that, like many things, more complicated than a simple pointed finger? Does ferreting out those responsible change the past, or adequately ensure that errors won’t happen in the future? Not really. Instead we spin our wheels unproductively, generating acrimony and paranoia to no real end. We get very worked up over the pursuit of this unknown, as if knowing it is an end unto itself.
My mother has a question that she poses whenever I or anyone else is getting worked up this way: “How would that be productive?” It’s a question that comes from a lifetime of clinical detachment, a need to separate conscious thought from emotion lest the latter overwhelm you. It can feel heartless; when I confide in her that I’m trying not to have an anxiety attack over my current stress level, she asks what having a panic attack would accomplish. Nothing, obviously, and to the wrong target that would be infuriating. For me it’s a redirection, a shift in focus and a hint at a better question. I get anxious when I ask the question “what is going to happen next?” — it’s not an answerable question and it’s possible to expend a lot of energy trying in vain to find an answer. It’s stressful to pursue unanswerable questions, but “How would that be productive?” hints at a better question: “What would be productive?” At an uncertain time, my mind works to find certainty, and I get anxious if I pursue questions that can’t be answered. Pursuing questions that CAN be answered, ones that add value and are productive, gives me something for my mind to work on and lowers my stress level.
For me, it’s a stepped process. I might not be able to answer “What happens next?” and I might not be able to answer the better “What do I do next?” I’ll take that a step deeper, if I don’t know what I should do next, I’ll ask “What can I do next?” Sometimes this isn’t enough, and the next question becomes “How do I find out what I can do next?” If I can’t answer a question, I step down until I get to a question I can answer, then work my way back up.
So, “Whose fault is this?” is really two questions. One is “How can we stop this bad thing from happening again?” and the other is “How do I stop feeling bad about this thing that has happened?” The unspoken thought process here is that finding the fault allows us to answer both at once, by “eliminating” the problem. Unfortunately, that’s not how problems are fixed, especially with people. At the very best, it brings up another question: “What do we do with this knowledge?”
There’s a different question that I’ve come to prefer: “What do we do next?” It helps us move forward productively, and helps us focus our efforts in a way that bears fruit. It skips the assignation of blame because the followup step to finding fault is inevitably “okay, now what?” which is where we’re getting to anyway. It sacrifices vengeance for forward motion– we will go on and if you are not with us, you will be left behind. It outs your actual saboteurs while allowing those who have made honest mistakes to atone. It is not forgiveness, it is efficiency. Exacting punishment requires resources that would be better spent on forward motion. We are a social species; being left behind is often punishment enough, and exceptions tend to make themselves known.
I spend a lot of time now trying to pursue only questions that have productive answers, and determining what those questions are. I want to ask actionable questions, I want to pursue trains of thought that have a tangible effect. It’s called in some circles a “bias for action”– a bias I’ll readily admit to.