One of the frustrations I have with conservative talking points is that they contain a grain of truth. Arguing against “personal responsibility” can be like trying to argue against feeding your own children.
Thinking about the phrase and what it means, the interpretation that leaps to my mind is: “People should be responsible for their own actions.” It’s hard to take issue with that. If I do something, unless someone made me do it—which, in my fortunate case, hasn’t happened since I left my parents’ home—I’m responsible for that action. What am I going to do? Blame the post office because I forgot to mail my bills on time? This is my gut reaction when I hear the phrase “personal responsibility.” And that’s exactly what modern conservatives intend.
Because they need to use my gut reaction—my gut interpretation—to manipulate my buy-in when they argue their re-constructed meaning of the phrase: “People are responsible for what happens to them.”
It’s not a completely erroneous leap, logically speaking. People are responsible for their own actions. Therefore they are responsible for the consequences of those actions. Therefore, they are responsible for what happens to to them, and to other people, as a consequence of those actions. And so, by extension, whatever situation a person finds him or herself in, he or she has no one to blame but him or herself.
With that simple reasoning exercise, conservatives get millions upon millions of people to believe that poverty is a person’s own fault, Katrina victims are responsible for their own predicament, soldiers have no right to complain about the hardships of service, and we don’t need to help other people. Under any circumstances. In other words, “personal responsibility” becomes the moral argument against compassion.
Anyone with a functioning part of the brain that separates feeling human beings from sociopaths probably feels a little uncomfortable with that paradigm. So where did our brains go wrong? Our collective cerebral cortex is buzzing with neural transmissions telling us that something is amiss here.
Because while the conservative reasoning is accessible, it is offensive—particularly on two levels: (1) it is facile, if not specious, and (2) it depends on a humanity that operates without emotion.
The logic problem is easy to expose, although difficult to sum up with a two-word talking point. While I may be responsible for my actions—and even that is highly debatable in some instances, but for the sake of argument let it be a given—I’m not always responsible for their consequences, hence the concept of “unintended consequences.” If I have two job offers, and in good faith I choose the company that one year later goes out of business, am I responsible for being unemployed? Of course not.
The consequences of our actions depend on a myriad of other actions that we have no part in. It should be a no-brainer understanding this—that the things that happen to us, that help determine our situations in life, are in large part completely unrelated to things we have set in motion with our own actions. Yet even a powerhouse like Oprah Winfrey would have it otherwise.
It’s an empowering thought, that we have complete control over our destinies, and it’s one of the reasons the “personal responsibility” meme is so appealing. It not only gives us full credit for anything we’ve accomplished, it also releases us from any responsibility to empathize with those who fall on hard times. Releases us from the responsibility to do anything about it. Releases us from the responsibility to care and to sacrifice. It is a world view that is especially appealing to those who have much material fortune.
Those emotional implications make up the second and more onerous offense that results from the “personal responsibility” mantra. Most reasonable people know that random chaos has a meaningful role to play in our lives. And most reasonable people feel for others whose random chaos has landed them in difficult circumstances. We are our brothers’ keepers. Yet, we have allowed this simple two-word phrase to remake our policy agenda for far too long. We have, in effect, given our policy makers license to behave like sociopaths because of a talking point. We have voted into office over and over again the program slashers, the war profiteers, the health care obstructionists.
Martha Stout writes the following in her book The Sociopath Next Door: “Not to have a moral sense flags an even more profound condition, as does the possession of conscience, because conscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness.” It is the genius of the modern conservative movement that they can take a fundamentally immoral idea and dress it up as a moral imperative. That they can turn such simplicity as the phrase “personal responsibility” into such destructive power. That they can convince otherwise decent people to think in very inhumane ways.
I would like to think our country is finding its humanity again and turning a deaf ear to this kind of clever manipulation of language. We elected a man who ran on the idea of hope and harmony among people. We continue to turn out of congress people who campaign on selfish and hateful ideologies. The health care debate is being driven by people with insurance as enthusiastically as people without, evidence that the punitive idea of “personal responsibility” is giving way to a more compassionate and realistic view that we bear some responsibility for the lives of others. It’s something to be proud of—and hopefully something we will hold onto for a while.