Attributing Blame

Can there be a more socially painful experience than getting burned toasting the Queen of England?

Well, yeah. There was that time in eighth grade when I crashed my ten-speed in front of Sally Maxwell’s house, in front of Sally Maxwell.

But who can blame a pubescent boy for losing gross motor control when he is smitten? At least Sally was one person, not a roomful of dignitaries at a state dinner.

Predictably, cyberspace was crackling after President Obama inadvertently kicked off his toast with the cue for the band to begin the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Obama powered through his prepared remarks while the Queen and the rest of the room stood at attention, as Americans do during “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then his “To the Queen!” finish was met with Her Majesty’s rather serious I’m-kinda-in-the-middle-of-something look. Obama caught on, tabled his glass, and stood politely until the end of the song, after which he and the Queen raised their glasses with the rest of the dinner guests.

One can only imagine how embarrassed the president felt -- not to mention the queen -- to be caught in the fauxest of faux pas. But is blame necessary?

The president had been briefed on etiquette and protocol, of course, as had the queen. The band began on cue. Guests did what they were supposed to. The whole deal was scripted.

Why, then, was Obama crucified on the Internet as if he had committed a grievous crime? Why was Queen Elizabeth caustically chastised for not making Obama comfortable by returning his kind toast during her eponymous anthem? Even the nameless staff on both sides of the pond were zinged for not having thought through how a traditional toast introduction (“To Her Majesty, The Queen”) would inadvertently cue the one toast-incompatible number in the royal orchestra’s repertoire.

Apparently, it’s in our nature to blame. As if there were some Newtonian relationship between mistakes and responsibility. There couldn’t be a screw-up this bad without a guilty perp, right?

Wrong. Consider the possibility of a circumstantial blunder, where everyone does what they were told or were taught to do, but the consequence is nevertheless terrible. Would we all be satisfied to say, “Hey, that didn’t work out … at all. But no individual is to blame.”

That kind of humane appraisal may not satisfy some people’s need for blood, er, justice, but it is reality. It’s also the kind of appraisal that prevents misunderstandings from escalating into violence.

What about reserving blame for heads of state who fail to toast their host at all or who haze, bully or roast their host? Go ahead and cast aspersions if President Obama ever says, “She’s one chilly tart” or if Queen Elizabeth ever says, “He’s one unrefined home boy.”

Until then, favor forgiveness, both at camp and in your personal life. We are not our best selves when we want mercy for our mistakes, but demand punishment for others’ missteps.

A little perspective on the source of slip-ups and the spirit of friendship is in order, even if that order seems a little, um, out of order.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at