Saturday, November 24, 2007

What do conservatives mean by "personal responsibility"?

What do conservatives really mean by "personal responsibiity"?

Most of the time when they use the phrase, they're attempting to shift blame from something done by corporations or large, conservative groups to that of regular folks. I'll give you three examples:

1) Some conservatives have attempted to shift the blame for the Catholic Church's absolutely disgraceful conduct wrt to the African aids epidemic (claiming condoms don't prevent AIDS and other irresponsible crap) by claiming the Africans should take personal responsibility for their sexual conduct.

2) Various conservatives have tried to shift attention away from the credit card companies' usurious rates and bad lending practices (the real reason for the bankruptcy bill passed in Congress a few years ago) by saying that people who are guilty of poor financial decision-making should take personal responsibility for their financial affairs.

3) In the case of abortion, social conservatives say that women should take personal responsibility for their sexual behavior, ignoring the fact that having an abortion might be one form of taking personal responsibility.

In each and every case the implication seems to be that if you take any consideration of the influence of social, political or economic forces on a person, you're absolving them of all personal responsibility for their situation.

And the implication ALSO seems to be that, having assigned personal responsibility for a problem to people, we need no longer be concerned with their welfare, and can leave them at the mercy of predatory corporations, large, uncaring organizations and religious zealots with a clear conscience.

Now, my concept of personal responsibility is somewhat different, so I thought I'd explain it, since I don't get anything LIKE the same meaning out of "personal responsibility" that conservatives do.

Let's say I overeat and sit around a lot and get overweight (weight is another topic that brings out the "personal responsibility" birds). It's my personal responsibility to do what I have to do to get that weight off if I want to enjoy the health benefits associated with weight loss. No one else can do it for me.

Or let's say I have money problems. It's my responsibility to deal with them, to the extent that I am able. (Obviously if I am having money problems because I am paralyzed from the neck down, my responsibility to deal with those problems is not there because of diminished capacity.) But if I'm having problems because I've lost my job, it's my responsibility to go out and knock over a few convenience stores (or, alternatively, find another job). If I'm having problems because I don't know how to manage my money, it's my responsibility to get better at managing my money.

If I go out and have sex with lots of people, it's my responsibility to make sure that I don't get or give anybody any sexually-transmitted diseases. And that I don't get or make anyone pregnant unintentionally. If I DO get a disease, it's my responsibility to deal with it as best I can. Same with pregnancy.

I suspect that most conservatives are with me on these views, but here is where I believe I part company with them.

I do NOT believe that just because people have to be personally responsible for taking care of themselves, that every scum-sucking corporate greedhead, every fiery-eyed, hateful religious zealot, every uncaring plutocrat is therefore absolved of all responsibility for the actions of their organizations, corporations and minions on society.

I think it is perfectly acceptable and all right to examine ways in which society can be organized so that human suffering is minimized and human growth and opportunity are maximized.

I don't think letting greedy credit card corporations make it harder for regular folks to declare bankruptcy in a time when the credit card companies are making record profits is a good idea. Negotiating the economic minefield is your personal responsibility, but that doesn't mean we should go crazy in letting corporations lay out the mines.

I don't think restricting a woman's freedom to choose how to deal with pregnancy is society's provenance. It's a woman's personal responsibility to deal with pregnancy, let her be the ones to choose the options, not religious zealots.

I think it is an overweight person's responsiblity to lose weight or deal with the consequences of being overweight, but I have no problem with considering the factors that might make them overweight, other than overeating and lack of exercise. I have no problem with looking at things that might make it easier for them to lose weight, other than condemning them as lazy and piggish. If there were a pill that could allow people to lose weight without effort, I'd have no problem with it.

(In fact, I think the main reasons Americans are overweight as a group is not some tremendous lack of energy and self-control, but the fact that we all drive to work rather than walking or cycling there, and while we're there we park our butts in chairs all day, and we eat lots of food. We COULD exercise at the end of the workday, and some of us do, but asking people to put in a hard workout at the end of the workday is actually a pretty extraordinary thing to ask people to do, especially people with families, and most don't do it.)

I think conservatives and libertarians don't share these notions, otherwise they wouldn't be constantly crying "personal responsibility" whenever some attempt is made to curtail the efforts of some vile corporation or group, or when people otherwise try to make society work better for people.

I could be wrong, though. For example, I think many conservatives and libertarians think I don't believe in any concept of personal responsibility. I hope I have made it clear that I do. I just think there's such a thing as social responsibility, and organizational responsibility, too. I get the impression that conservatives think that by invoking "personal responsibility" they absolve society of all need for social and organizational responsibility. I hereby put conservatives on notice: that flag won't fly around here.

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