Monday, October 20, 1997

Week of 10/20/1997

What is Personal Responsibility?
It’s been blown way out of proportion
- by David Matthews 2

I recently heard an annoying radio commercial for an auto repair shop in Atlanta. The announcer was talking like he was the engine of a car, bemoaning the owner to take him for a tune-up and paint-job. Every time he ends his rants by saying "C’mon, show some RESPONSIBILITY in your life!"

I always know when something has been so blown out of proportion when Madison Avenue starts using it for advertising. And why not? After all, by the time the advertisers get hold of it, the very meaning has already been fatally bludgeoned by scriptwriters and spin doctors for their own purposes.

Take, for instance, the concept of "family values." A nice vague term used by conservatives and religious crusaders to campaign for or against anything they want. School prayer, censorship, states rights, cutting the federal government, trying to establish one religious belief over all others, fathers rights, mothers rights, abortion, sex education, adoption, foster care… you name it, they’ll wrap it up and call it "family values." And once those two words got used ad infinitum and ad nausium by the politicians, spin doctors, and crusaders, it became the tool for Madison Avenue to sell everything from detergent to law firms.

Well now the vague term is "personal responsibility." Tobacco companies, for instance, are now told they are to be responsible for the health of their customers, and will have to shell out billions of dollars to federal and state agencies. President Clinton has bastardized "personal responsibility" to mean whatever he wants it to mean, and while he wasn’t the only one to do it, nobody has done it more publicly than he has.

So what really is personal responsibility?

Well, let’s start by saying what personal responsibility is NOT, and that’s blame assessment. Personal responsibility is not about pointing fingers and saying "YOU need to do act this way" or "YOU should have done this." Too many lawyers, politicians, and well meaning but misguided social crusaders have turned personal responsibility into blame assessment, and that’s not what it’s all about.

The best way to describe what personal responsibility is rests with four simple words: "It’s up to me."

If I want a job, it’s up to me to get one. The folks in the Strive program in New York know that. That’s the secret of their success in getting people off welfare and working. If my niece or my young cousins are visiting and I don’t want them to have access to inappropriate materials, it’s up to me to make sure the safeguards are there and to know how to use them. The locks are there on the satellite dish and on my Internet browsers, and I know how to use them.

That’s what personal responsibility is really all about.

Ironically, there are folks who think that this definition is self-centered. They would much rather be contented with finger-pointing and blame assessing. After all, why be responsible for your actions when you can blame someone or something else? Why be responsible for your smoking-related health problems when you can blame it on the "evil tobacco industry"? Never mind the fact that there have been countless warnings about health problems for the past thirty years. Why be responsible for your drinking when you can blame it on the "evil alcohol industry" for advertising their services? You probably didn’t even pay too much attention to the ads, and it likely doesn’t influence your choice to get drunk, but that doesn’t matter, does it?

Saying "it’s up to me" to do something gives us a sense of empowerment, a feeling that we CAN change things. And that’s rather scary for some folks! Think about what would happen if the people en masse said "if I want money, it’s up to me to get a job." Think about the government bureaucracy that would be affected knowing that the unemployment rate would be next to zero. We have people crossing the US borders from Mexico in droves looking for work, and yet we have US citizens who go though job after job simply because they’re carrying an attitude about working. And these are the people who then turn around and blame their lack of work on everything except themselves.

Listen, it’s not always easy to say "it’s up to me" to so something. I should know. But once you realize that it really is just up to you, no excuse in the world will stop you from doing it.

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