Not Responsible

The word “responsibility” only acquired its modern sense of “moral obligation” at the start of the industrial revolution. The word evolved from ancient social and religious rites (“call and response”), with the meaning of engaging oneself to do something through a ritual (usually involving drinking). In these simpler and less constrained times there was no need to oblige oneself — you did something because you wanted to, or thought it was right, or were ordered to do it. Responsibility was accepted at one’s own initiative, voluntarily, never assigned or presumed by another. Prior to the 1830s and the spread of urbanization, exploding populations, dependence on massive centralized systems, and hierarchy, there was no need for a word, or concept, that implied personal moral obligation or personal accountability. We were so much wiser then.

In our modern twisted society, the word responsibility is now invoked as a means of social coercion, as insidious manipulation to self-censor and self-criticize, to evoke feelings of guilt, and to otherwise control people’s behaviour. It permeates the sleazy business of lawyers, and the sermons of so-called religious and political ‘leaders’. To be judged irresponsible is to be charged with a grievous moral sin, and accused of being of weak character. To be “held responsible” means to be blamed, and punished.

An interesting article in yesterday’s NYT discusses the moral hazard of the US’ explosive new tool of military and political terror — the drone. In dissecting the governments’ and military forces’ enthusiastic embrace of this new technology, and their unhesitant shrugging off of responsibility for the atrocities it produces, the authors make the case that using drones as weapons of assault and intimidation is no more morally justifiable than using nuclear bombs, secret assassinations or suicide bombings. They are, simply put, weapons designed to invoke terror and destruction, and particularly susceptible of “moral hazard” — the “ends justify the means” slippery slope in which greater risks are taken by individuals who can avoid/hide the commensurate cost, than would be accepted otherwise. This is the same “moral hazard” that has conservatives railing that universal “free” health care will inevitably lead to patients abusing the system and wasting trillions of dollars, and progressives arguing that massively complicated tax laws encourage the ultra-rich to use unscrupulous lawyers to cheat the system and “legally” hide $21-32 trillion from their reported net worth and taxable income.

“We can’t trust people to act responsibly,” warn the conservatives; “they’ll take every opportunity to abuse any public system, so we should privatize everything”. “The rich and powerful need to be made to act responsibly,” echo the progressives; “we need stronger regulations to force them to do so”.

And when lonely psychopaths “go postal”, we shout “who is responsible?” and argue about whether it is the gun lobby or lax parenting.

Perhaps it’s time to relegate this word to the recycle bin, along with other terms that have been weaponized into cudgels and rendered meaningless by ideologues, moralists and manipulators (and of course, lawyers). If we extinguished the use of this word, people inclined to use it would be forced to come up with more honest terms for what they really mean:

  • Instead of saying “you’re an irresponsible parent”, you’d have to describe what you think that parent did, and should have done, or not done, specifically, with and for their child. You might even find out, as a result, what that parent actually did, or thinks s/he did, or didn’t do, and why/why not. You’d probably find the situation was more complex than you thought. Some actual understanding and appreciation might result. Same for “irresponsible child”, “irresponsible worker”, etc.
  • Instead of saying “this is X’s responsibility” (by which you mean “fault”), you’d have to understand, and say, what it is that X –“the administration”, or “the gun lobby”, or “environmentalists”, or “Shell”, or “terrorists” or “Goldman Sachs” or “China” — actually did, or didn’t do, and how that led to the result you think they are therefore guilty of producing. You’d probably discover that the system that led to what you’re upset about is very complex, and you have no idea what really caused what, if causality can be demonstrated at all. I’m talking to you, mainstream media and political fear-mongers and ideologues and op ed writers. Don’t assign “responsibility”, or ask the public for their opinion on who’s “responsible” — damned well do your job, learn that it’s complex and can’t be reduced to a dichotomy or simple cause and effect, and educate the public about complexity instead of dumbing them down. And by the way, who exactly is  this “China” or “terrorist sympathizers” or “the 1%” or “environmental radicals” you are ascribing “irresponsible” actions to? — Name individual names of people who actually did things, and insist that the people you report on do likewise, or STFU.
  • Instead of sermonizing that “we’re all responsible” for world poverty, global warming, corruption, and every other thing wrong with this world, you’d have to actually learn something about these issues, maybe even enough to understand that these are not mechanical “problems” you can fix with better technology, or regime change, or drone attacks, or global consciousness raising, or personal actions, or more or fewer guns, or new laws, or deregulation, or “freer” trade, or online petitions, or more police, or protest demonstrations, or pre-emptive wars, or tougher sentencing, or more love, or more discipline, or praying, or any other form of magical thinking or simplistic action. These are complex predicaments, they are here for a reason, and they are not going to go away. Like plagues and earthquakes, we need to learn to acknowledge their impact and adapt to them, learn to cope with them. Fewer, smaller, more resilient, local agile systems will help more than the fragile, fossilized, centralized, inflexible systems we have built up in our simplistic conservative and neo-liberal fervour in the “age of responsibility”.

Perhaps most of all, part of what I call Liberation from Civilization is just refusing to accept “responsibility” foisted upon us by those who would choose to control us through intimidation or guilt-tripping (that’s anyone with power or influence over us, however achieved — bosses, landlords, neighbourhood bullies, abusive family members, preachers and cult leaders, pundits, advertisers, lawyers, bankers, doctors, and many others. Things are the way they are for a reason. No one is in control. You are not “responsible” for your poverty, your addiction, your unhappiness, your illness, your failure to make others happy, the failure (or success) of your organization, others’ failure (or success) or unhappiness, your perilous financial situation, or even your own erratic behaviour — as tragic as these things may be. You are not “responsible” for your community’s failures or society’s problems or the fact that the combined effect of the 100 billion humans who have lived on this planet is the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, now accelerating and unstoppable. No one is “responsible” for this. No one is to blame. There is no need for, and no hope of, “salvation”.

Our modern culture has so successfully indoctrinated us with this need for personal responsibility that we quickly learn to turn it inward on ourselves, to colonize our own minds with feelings of guilt for “irresponsible” behaviours and feelings and outcomes that we or others we care about deem or might consider inappropriate or damaging.

Our culture isn’t “responsible” for the terrible state of our planet and most of its inhabitants today. The brutal subjugation of humans and animals has been an evolutionarily successful strategy for humans. Alas, it’s not a sustainable one, but our species, like most, is preoccupied with the needs of the moment and by its nature is not capable of complex or long-term thinking. And the desolation of the Earth is an unintended consequence of that subjugation and the related culture of disconnection. Likewise, our culture is not responsible for relentlessly holding us responsible, and trying to control us accordingly — that’s part of the evolutionary subjugation strategy.

But at least we can recognize that strategy, and refuse that subjugation and the imposed “responsibilities” that come with it. You can call me insensitive, or inarticulate, or even insane. But don’t call me responsible, or irresponsible. I won’t be responsible for what I might do if you do.

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3 Responses to Not Responsible

  1. The question that comes to mind is if not drone attacks then what?

    Would it be more moral to send in ground troops? Or start an offical war with another country?

    Should the attacks never take place?

    In an ideal world, if the location of a terrorist (real or suspected) was located their location would be passed along and delt with by the proper authorities who of course would monitor the suspect to prove his guilt or innocence before hand.

    But in our world almost none of that takes place, so what can you do?

    I would argue we have no business being over their any more, but we are so we’re stuck with bad, awful and terrible options to choose from.

  2. John Graham says:

    Really important topic to bring up. Thanks for the history lesson, too.

    I would add that the original sense survives, and is understood with more or less skill in various places, sometimes ‘recovery’-type movements. Stephen Covey I guess did the most to popularise the re-spelling “response-ability”, which is a good step in the right direction.

    One option, yes, is to try and eliminate the word. We could talk much more in terms of, say, initiative, if that hasn’t been hijacked already.

    Another, possibly more valuable way is to undertake the mental discipline of disambiguation, as you’ve started to do, and really start to peel away, as you have, what doesn’t belong to the ‘true’ sense.

    Thing is, it’s not just this word. You wrote:
    “In our modern twisted society, the word responsibility is now invoked as a means of social coercion, as insidious manipulation to self-censor and self-criticize, to evoke feelings of guilt, and to otherwise control people’s behaviour.”

    … I realised that, for example, the same could be said of the phrase “I’m disappointed”, which usually carries overtones of parental disapproval “I’m disappointed with you”. But it turns out that disappointment is an incredibly helpful word in helping my three-year-old nephew make sense of his experience. Losing that word would be a huge loss, and the exercise of using it without the usual parental baggage is revealing.

    Okay, fine, in your final sentence, you’re up front with making it clear you’re not taking responsibility for your responses to what I might say to you. I can’t make you take it. But, at least some of the time, I can choose to take responsibility for at least some of my responses to you. (That’s the highly hedged version – in practice it’s rather useful to live under the impression that I can take responsibility for rather a lot of my actions, and that this capacity grows with use)

    An underlying problem, from my point of view, is that we are all struggling to some extent with an ‘addiction’ to various attempts at coercion of self and others. That’s not just about the words.
    I really like Carl Semmelroth’s work on ‘voluntary living’, I can recommend The Anger Habit and I look forward to reading his new book with Will Crichton

  3. john says:

    Is happiness “knowing who to blame?”……….ie blame the “ideologues, moralists and manipulators” …….our “modern twisted society”…… or blame those that teach us to blame ourselves? . How about a reframing as in: “I am not to blame, BUT/AND I am responsible”. Any recovering addict knows this perspektive change and the invitation to be 100%……….that is absolutely 100% responsible for every thing every thing in our lives. Deep Integrity includes Service, Trust, Humility, Authenticity, & Responsibility. Whats my ability to RESPOND? How do I evolve that ability to more goodness truth beauty?

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