My handy pocket Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary defines responsibility as the state of being responsible or accountable. When you go to check up on the meaning of the word responsible you are offered four options.
The first is for the apportioning of blame (you’re responsible for this mess); the second being able to tell right from wrong (you can make the responsible choice); the third having sufficient money to pay for ones debts; and finally the fourth being to do with accountability or obligation (you are responsible for keeping me informed of what you are doing)
If I were really pedantic I’d throw a definition of accountability at you too but obligation sums it up pretty nicely. All in all though, responsibility is a word which, dare I say it, carries a certain amount of responsibility concerning its usage.
It’s a word we hear thrown around a lot when people are talking about government, employers, and others in position of power. You also here people spouting new age speak about taking responsibility for yourself, while others wonder about who is responsible for the mess that we’re in. Of course we also have those who claim that they are responsible to a higher power as a means of excusing or explaining their behaviour.
Usually when we describe someone as being responsible we’re talking about them in terms of meeting their social obligations. They have a job, contribute to society, don’t break the laws and look after their families. Whenever someone wants to offer up a ringing endorsement of a person’s character they define them as responsible.
But what are they talking about when they say that? What are we demanding from a government or anybody for that matter when we ask for responsibility? Who are they being responsible too, what are they being held responsible for, and what standards are we judging them by to establish this responsibility?
How is it that a single person who makes lots of money and has no obligations to anyone except him or herself can be referred to as a responsible member of society and a single mother on welfare who manages to raise three children, send them to school, and keep them out of jail is looked down on? Isn’t that single mother by meeting her obligations to her children showing herself to be as responsible, if not more, than the single person earning money for themselves?
The problem is that we have taken a nebulous term; one without any self contained meaning, and turned it into a compliment on its own. You have to be responsible to someone or for something. To simply say that someone is responsible begs the question of what, mass murder, embezzlement? Do they answer to their wife, the pope, or their garbage man?
To complicate matters we also live in a society where people put down responsibility towards individuals as being ties and onerous constraints upon their personal freedoms. How many times do you hear a man refer to marriage or his wife as the ball and chain because he has to do something for her, the kids, or around the house? The teenage child resents the fact that their parent asks them to take an active part in the household, by informing one of the parents of their whereabouts and what their plans are.
All sorts of myths have grown up about people who have shirked responsibilities and gone on to live in glorious freedom. Outlaws, cowboys, and artists seem to be the ones who receive the most attention. All of them have turned their backs on society, and supposedly rejected responsibility. This is of course is just so much romanticized bullshit.
The fact of the matter is that everybody has some sort of responsibility in their lives whatever anybody may claim. Outlaws have a code of conduct that they judge each other’s behaviour against and that they are responsible to. Cowboys, while living a life of so-called freedom are responsible to the person who hired them for looking after cattle or other livestock. A genuine artist is responsible to his or her desire to create art; otherwise they will never produce anything.
The fact that these myths exist tells us what it is about responsibility that people are objecting to; they are reacting against the idea of being obligated to someone other then themselves. Being responsible has been turned into something unpleasant; something we have to do because it is expected of us. It implies that you are surrendering something of yourself for someone else.
Perhaps what we need to do is look at the word from a fresh perspective. When I look at the beginning of the word responsibility I see two other words right away: responsive and respond. The first reflects an ability to react to something, while the second is the action of reacting.
As it stands we seem to place more emphasise on the action part of responsibility. Our definition is limited to reactions and feeling like we are being forced into doing something against our will. What would happen though if we started thinking of it in the nature of being responsive?
It may sound like a very fine line but it is all a matter of perspective and in the way we think about it. Being responsive to someone else’s needs is a lot different in attitude than being obligated to respond because we are told to. When we have chosen to participate in a relationship; whether it’s in the workplace, a friendship, having children, or committing to another person, we have already made a choice about involvement.
Isn’t it only a natural extension of that choice that we are open to what makes life better for the others whom we have opted to be with no matter what the circumstances? Being responsive brings responsibility into the moment, removing preconceived notions of what is supposed to be, and bringing it back into the realm of choice.
Situations and circumstances between people are as variable as the wind and the shifting sands of the desert. How can there be rules of conduct, aside from the most general, governing how we interact. Somehow responsibility has come to be seen as a code of governance, demanding that we behave in certain ways. Instead of taking into account the incredible diversity of human nature, and our capacity for change, it tries to enforce rigidity onto something fluid.
As we grow out of a society where there have been predefined roles for men and women it is important that we also grow out of our fear of listening to each other and expressing ourselves. Responsibility has been used instead of people actually communicating with each other.
We have been hiding behind what we are supposed to do for each other for long enough now. Isn’t it time that we grew up and learnt how to have a conversation.