I’ll never forget the expression on my mother’s face when she picked up a porcelain figurine to dust underneath and its head fell off. Someone had broken it in half, then carefully placed the two pieces back together. My mother called my brothers to the living room and pointing to the figurine asked “who is responsible (i.e. to blame) for this?” Practically in unison, we answered “not me!”.
Fast forward to the time I found the vodka in my liquor cabinet had been “spiked” with water and asked my teenage boys about it. They both just stared at me as if to suggest they had the right to an attorney. Then you have the Martha Stewarts and Anthony Weiners of the world, and most recently Rush Limbaugh, who after calling Sandra Fluke a slut — said the liberal media made him do it.
The Good News About Taking Responsibility
A major dynamic in people not taking personal responsibility for their actions is that taking responsibility has come to be associated with taking blame. Break down the word “responsibility.” The ability to respond, the ability to take action. Why would we want to give that away? Well, when things don’t go well, or we make a mistake, it’s not our fault, right? What we often don’t see is that taking responsibility, even for our mistakes, is life-enhancing. We can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t take personal responsibility for them, and thus we won’t grow. Painful as it might be sometimes, taking responsibility for ourselves and for our actions gives us more power in our own lives.
Diffusion of Responsibility
Where things get complicated is when we share a collective responsibility. Kitty Genovese is a classic case. She was murdered in New York in 1964. Her cries for help were apparently heard by many people but no one took action to try to save her life. This tragic textbook example of what psychologists refer to as “diffusion of responsibility” involves being aware of an event that requires taking action, being aware that others are also aware of this, and yet not taking action because of the assumption that someone else will.
We each share some modicum of responsibility for the mortgage melt down. Some of us took out ill-advised loans because we could, others didn’t bother to read the fine print on the contract, and seemingly no one was guarding the cookie jar. Now we are all suffering the consequences of our blithe indifference. Presumably, the crisis could have been averted if we’d each acted responsibly. But the diffuseness of responsibility made us all anonymous, and thus much less likely to hold up our end of the bargain.
Let’s turn to birth control. Ostensibly, the man and woman share responsibility. And yet, it’s the woman who gets pregnant. Does a woman really want to trust in diffused responsibility when it comes to her body, her future?
If Not Me, Then Who?
That women can and do take personal responsibility for their fertility should be lauded. Instead, certain segments of of the population–who otherwise tout personal responsibility–find contraceptives frivolous, and an unnecessary drain on our over-budget health costs. A friend of mine insists that with condoms so cheap, female contraception shouldn’t be a line item on employers’ or the government’s budget.
While it may be tempting to share or even relinquish responsibility, and thus hold ourselves blameless if things should go wrong, doing so renders us helpless. No woman, or man, should give others the power to determine the course of her/his health. So ladies, the next time you go to have sex ask yourself two simple questions: 1) “if not me, then who?”; and 2) what are the short- and long-term consequences for myself and others if I do not own my personal responsibility?