RE: Blame vs. Responsibility

Subject: RE: Blame vs. Responsibility
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- ca -dot- stilo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2003 14:34:07 -0400

Andrew Plato wrote

> To clarify one last time for the people who adamantly refuse to
> understand this
> concept:
> "The SME didn't give me enough information so I couldn't produce
> quality work."
> subtext: I am not responsible for my work.
> "Yes, I see that is wrong. I will go about fixing that right
> away. Thank you
> for pointing that out."
> subtext: While somebody else may be at fault, I am responsible
> for the docs and
> will take care of it.


The word "responsibility" has two meanings (actually more, but two that are
relevant to this discussion). One is "duty": It is the writer's
responsibility to deliver a correct document. The other is "blame": It is/is
not the writer's responsibility that the document contains errors.

Duty and blame are certainly different concepts. I am to blame if I fail in
my duty, but my blame may be mitigated wholly or in part by circumstance
beyond my control. The ambiguity between the two meanings of the word
"responsibility" must be resolved based on the context in which it occurs.
It is, in practice, pretty easy to make this distinction, and any reasonably
sensitive reader should make it with ease.

Now if we return to the original article to which you objected, we find that
the author wrote:

"Because I am a technical writer, I understand that inaccuracies are not
necessarily the fault of the writer, or even the editor. This book was
produced before the final version of the software came out."

Now the author here is clearly talking about blame. He uses the word
"fault", not "responsibility".

You replied:

> Inaccuracies are 100% the direct fault of the author(s) and editors.

Clearly still talking about blame. Then you used "responsibility" in the
sense of "blame":

> I just fixed a mistake in a white paper I wrote today.
> It was a dumb mistake, but as the author of the document,
> I am wholly responsible for that error.

You then morphed into using "responsibility" in the sense of "duty":

> But this doesn't change the fact that the people responsible for
> the content are solely the writers.

So, the responsibility (blame) for confusing these two concepts rests
squarely on your own shoulders.

You seem, over time, to have shifted you position to the far more defensible
position of saying that the writer has a duty to deliver accurate
documentation but may not, in fact, be to blame for all errors. (If that's
not your point, I'm not sure why you are now insisting so adamantly on the
distinction between blame and duty.)

It is a good thing that you have moderated your views in this way (if you
have), but I think it is a little much to lambaste the list for the failure
to make a distinction you yourself failed to make in your original diatribe.

Frankly, this whole discussion has me worried. If writers of the caliber we
are always claiming to be cannot recognize and process contextual ambiguity
of this kind, no wonder we get no respect.
Mark Baker
Senior Technical Writer
Stilo Corporation
1900 City Park Drive, Suite 504 , Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1J 1A3
Phone: 613-745-4242, Fax: 613-745-5560
Email mbaker -at- ca -dot- stilo -dot- com

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Blame vs. Responsibility: From: Andrew Plato

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