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Responsibility: an essential American tension

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-8de69274-30a0-a421-9d49-ebefd1ea1511">Remember how much it seemed like the news exploded in 2012, when President Obama was caught with the soundbite “you didn’t build that” while stumping for his reelection? Talking about government’s place in our lives, particularly with businesses, he made the case that every venture undertaken was not without a governmental role. In other words, nobody ever succeeds in business alone; rather it is also because “we do things together,” as Obama later said following that infamous line. His “explosive” comment is an understatement compared to today’s election season fare, but back then the Mitt Romney campaign took the soundbite and ran with it to discredit Obama as an insincere anti-business, big-government type.

One of the issues that the memory of that campaign has brought to the forefront for me lately in this election season is the question of responsibility. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the question goes along the lines of, “who is responsible for my successes?” and “who is responsible for my failures?” The question is better asked as “who and what is responsible for what I can do and have done?” In fact, this question is a foundational question – and an essential tension – of how we are to function as a society and as a species. Ideally, we consider responsibility ultimately as an individual matter with local consequences, a very reasonable argument. Within our families, for example, we have the chores to do at home. We will have done our part after washing the dishes so that dinner goes on smoothly. But when we don’t do them in time for dinner, leaving nothing to eat with, it is our own fault in failing to do so if we were distracted checking messages on our phones. We are responsible for our actions.

I find many answers to the question of responsibility very American, in that they often emphasize an individual’s responsibility. We live in a nation where “pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps” is ingrained in our collective vocabulary, where we feel so much pride for successes, and shame for our failures that may have been “preventable.” Personal responsibility is emphasized so much that, taken to extremes, it rigidly forms our relationships with each other. Wisconsin talk radio host Charles J. Sykes, an inveterate social critic, listed as rule #34 in his book 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School: “Winners have a philosophy of life. So do losers.” He describes a winner’s philosophy as one of perseverance, one who takes responsibility of their losses, one who is self-reliant. This is in opposition to his framework of the loser’s philosophy, of those who make excuses as to why they lost, who accept being a loser. The winner-loser dichotomy seems oddly familiar.

Many of Sykes’ fifty rules expound more themes of personal responsibility, with notions of responsibility so pervasive in our national culture. It dovetails nicely with our American spirit of individualism, our greatest attribute in supposedly molding us to be flint-faced against life’s hardships. This same spirit is also our most formidable social obstacle in the structuring of our society. It should be unsurprising that countless factors contribute to someone’s abilities and options in life, whether be it financial, academic, professional, hereditary, physical or familial. These factors go beyond the local, involving broad aspects of our culture and society. In many ways, our elevation of personal responsibility lets us turn a blind eye to a sense of collective responsibility to ourselves and our 319 million neighbors. These questions of collective responsibility include environmental moral responsibilities to responsibilities to correct latent racism.

It is no truer today that we are divided on the question of responsibility, as with many  differences on display as open wounds, festering while we worry if those wounds have begun to heal. Fascinatingly and perilously, we are divided on the nature of responsibility, collective and personal, as it pertains to the kind of nation we want to live in. As reported in The New York Times last Friday, a recent survey found a national division between a white social elite that skews Democrat, and a less affluent, “disinherited” group of whites that skews Republican. One of the stark contrasts between the groups was their response to the statement, “Most Americans who live in poverty are there because of their own bad habits and choices.” The social elite highly disagreed 81% to 19%, while the disinherited were split, with 47.2% agreeing and 52.8% disagreeing. It is not unlikely that a good number in the disinherited group may be more inclined to blame themselves for their economic situation, although we know too well that many want answers from their government on these matters. This is not to forget the other issues intersecting with the needs of the disinherited. Yet I cannot help but imagine that our stubborn obsession with a toxic kind of personal responsibility is debilitating, for those blaming themselves for their adversity, and for those opposing necessary collective actions that can ensure economic security for all. If we’re going to be responsible as members of the nation, it wouldn’t hurt to keep collective responsibilities in mind, too.

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