Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do



If you want a Big Brother,
you get all
that comes with it.
Escape from Freedom

IRRESPONSIBILITY IS AS old as mankind—literally. When God asked Adam, "Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" Adam answered, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Note the dual layer of irresponsibility: Adam blames not only Eve, he also blames God for putting her with him.

Irresponsibility is as old as womankind, too. After God heard Adam's rational lies, he turned to Eve and asked, "What is this you have done?" And Eve responded, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." (Modern translation: "The devil made me do it!") It seems that the buck never stops in Eden. It's amazing that the serpent didn't blame its upbringing, claim it was high on drugs, or simply plead insanity. At the very least, the serpent could have argued that it was only following its religious beliefs. But responsible or not, God punished them all, and so here we all are today.

Did you ever notice how disarming it is when people take responsibility and how irritating it is when they blame? If people spent half as much mental energy finding a way to keep an unfortunate occurrence from happening again as they spend on finding reasons why (a) what happened wasn't so bad, or (b) "It wasn't my fault," the world would be a lot better off.

Responsibility is often confused with blame. When someone asks, "Who's responsible for this?" people often hear, "Who's to blame for this? Who can we punish?" Responsibility simply means that we are willing to accept the consequences of the choices we make. The unwillingness—and for some it appears to be a congenital inability—to accept the consequences for our choices is the definition of immaturity.

A man must pay the fiddler.
In my case it so happened that
a whole symphony orchestra
often had to be subsidized.

When children make a bet and lose, they get out of it by saying, "I had my fingers crossed!" So many of the explanations adults give to justify their behavior sound just as silly.

No sooner was the term victimless crime coined than every scalawag, rascal, and down-and-dirty crook used it out of context to justify his or her genuinely criminal behavior. Michael Milken, for example, paid a public relations agency $150,000 per month to transform him in the public eye from criminal to victim. The goal, as James Stewart explains in his book, Den of Thieves, "was to turn public opinion from outrage to neutrality to acceptance, and finally to admiration." How did the PR people do this? By claiming Milken's legion of offenses, which caused plenty of innocent people to suffer, were victimless crimes. Because he didn't use a gun or a lead pipe, the PR firm did its best to convince the public that a crime without physical violence is also a crime without innocent victims. This, of course, is nonsense, but with $150,000 a month and a few gullible journalists, you can fool some of the people some of the time.

After the concept that Milken's transgressions were victimless crimes was swallowed by enough of the press and public, the PR agency made it look as though he was the victim. (No wonder some people hate the term victimless crime.) "The campaign was remarkably effective," reported Stewart, and the Christian Science Monitor lamented, "This episode demonstrates once more how modern public relations can manipulate public opinion. Some of the press, sadly, was sucked in by the blather."

The real freedom of any individual
can always be measured
by the amount of responsibility
which he must assume
for his own welfare and security.

Responsibility also means the ability to respond: no matter what happens to us, there's always some response we can make. The response is sometimes external, sometimes internal, often both. Even when one's external options are severely limited, one can choose to respond to them internally in productive and even uplifting ways. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recounts his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Subjected to physical horrors beyond imagining, Frankl learned that although he was not responsible for where he was or what was happening around him, he was responsible for his reaction to the events around him. He discovered this was a personal freedom the Nazis could not take away.

The last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

But in our society, such courageous examples of responsibility and personal freedom are seldom discussed. We always seem to be on the lookout for who's to blame? Somehow, we think, if we can prove it's someone else's fault, it will make everything "all better." Somehow we believe that Life will comfort us in its arms, like a nurturing parent; if we can only prove we had nothing to do with our injury, we will receive extra strokes. "The tree made me fall out of it."

We have not passed that subtle line
between childhood and adulthood
until we move
from the passive voice
to the active voice—that is,
until we have stopped saying,
"It got lost,"
and say, "I lost it."

"Did the tree push you out?"

"Yes. It pushed me!"

"Oh you poor thing. That bad tree. Shall we chop it down?"

"Yes! Let's chop down that bad tree!"

Although such comments may be momentarily comforting, they do very little to teach us to climb trees better. We seem to be seeking from life a giant parental "Oh, you poor thing."

In eternally looking for someone or something outside ourselves to blame, we turn ourselves into victims. We begin to believe that we are powerless, ineffective, and helpless. "There was nothing I could do," people whine, as an affirmation of their powerlessness, rather than, "What could I have done?" or "What will I do differently next time?" This self-victimization erodes our character, our self-esteem, and our personal integrity. But we learn to whine about it so awfully well.

The idea that certain consensual activities should be crimes helps create irresponsibility. The idea behind consensual crimes is that the government—like a great, caring parent—will protect us from the bogeyman, the wicked witch, and inhospitable trees. "We have thoroughly investigated everything," the government assures us, "and you will be safe as long as you don't do these things." To make sure we don't do those things, the government locks up everyone who attempts to lead us into temptation and, as an example, puts a few bad boys and girls away, too. (A multi-year version of "Go to your room!")

You can get Dozie Doodles
without a prescription.
They can't do you any harm.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
If we accept the view that government is the Great Protector, then it logically follows that whatever the government does not prohibit is okay. As we all know, this is not the case.
Each of us is unique. We have our own set of needs, wants, tolerances, reactions, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Some people are deathly allergic to wheat, while others can chew double-edged razor blades. (I saw it on a newsreel once. Eeeeee!) Few people fit within the "norm" on absolutely everything. To be perfectly normal is abnormal.
Government-set standards for personal behavior are based on the average. By making the norm the law, the government encourages us not to explore our own strengths and limitations, but to adapt and fit in as best we can to the norm. The strength and power of the diversity within us are never fully explored. Our depths are never plumbed and our heights are never scaled. We are not taught to learn from our mistakes, only to blame others for our failures. We don't discover what responses we are able to make; therefore, we never become responsible.
This limitation creates a double danger: we may avoid the currently illegal consensual activities that could be, for us, a component of our health, happiness, and well-being (non-FDA-approved medications, for example). On the other hand, we may blithely indulge in perfectly legal consensual activities that cause us great harm (smoking is the most obvious example). At the very least, this double jeopardy is unsatisfying. At worst, it's deadly.
Once we realize things aren't going so well, we either wake up and start exploring our response options (which can be difficult, because there's little in our cultural programming to support such action), or we decide we aren't playing society's game fully enough and try to find satisfaction by "toeing the mark" ever more vigorously.
The holier-than-thou activists who blame the population for not spending more money on their personal crusades are worse than aggravating. They encourage the repudiation of personal responsibility by spreading the lie that support of a government program fulfills individual moral duty.
USA Today

Some people become professional victims. They complain and sue their way to riches. "I saw a little lawyer on the tube," sings Joni Mitchell, "He said, `It's so easy now, anyone can sue. Let me show you how your petty aggravations can profit you.'" In Framingham, Massachusetts, a man stole a car from a parking lot and was killed in a subsequent traffic accident. His estate sued the parking lot owner, claiming he should have done more to keep cars from being stolen. Does one smell a RAT (Run-of-the-mill Attorney Transaction)?

If people leave your house drunk and become involved in an accident, you can be held responsible, even if they insisted on leaving. If people are drunk and leaving your house, what are you supposed to do? Tackle them? Mace them and grab their keys? Shoot them, for their own protection and the protection of others?

In his book, A Nation of Victims, Charles J. Sykes gives more examples:

An FBI agent embezzles two thousand dollars from the government and then loses all of it in an afternoon of gambling in Atlantic City. He is fired but wins reinstatement after a court rules that his affinity for gambling with other people's money is a "handicap" and thus protected under federal law.

Fired for consistently showing up late at work, a former school district employee sues his former employers, arguing that he is a victim of what his lawyer calls, "chronic lateness syndrome."

Include me out.

On the other extreme, another group of people use their well-honed victim-finding mechanism to help other (often unwilling) people discover how they are screwing up their lives. "The busybodies have begun to infect American society with a nasty intolerance—a zeal to police the private lives of others and hammer them into standard forms," wrote Lance Morrow in his Time essay, "A Nation of Finger Pointers." He continues,

Zealotry of either kind—the puritan's need to regiment others or the victim's passion for blaming everyone except himself—tends to produce a depressing civic stupidity. Each trait has about it the immobility of addiction. Victims become addicted to being victims: they derive identity, innocence and a kind of devious power from sheer, defaulting helplessness. On the other side, the candlesnuffers of behavioral and political correctness enact their paradox, accomplishing intolerance in the name of tolerance, regimentation in the name of betterment.

The irony is not lost on our British brethren across the sea, from whom, two-hundred-and-some years ago, we broke in the name of liberty. "[There is] a decadent puritanism within America:" the Economist reports, "an odd combination of ducking responsibility and telling everyone else what to do." Britain—that suppresser of liberty—is, ironically, far freer with regard to consensual activities than the we're-going-to-have-a-revolution-for-freedom United States.

Two of the basic common-sense rules of personal behavior are: (1) Make sufficient investigation before taking part in anything and (2) If you consent to do something, you are responsible for the outcome. Laws against consensual activities undermine both rules.

Great spirits
have always encountered
violent opposition
from mediocre minds.

The situation is unfortunate but, hey, let's be responsible about it. We can't spend too much time blaming consensual crimes for irresponsible attitudes. "I'd be a responsible person if it weren't for consensual crimes!" That's irresponsible.That's Irresponsible! Each week people appear and tell their victim stories. The most irresponsible victim is named the winner (by some genuinely unfair process) and gets to choose from among three prizes. Whichever prize is chosen, the contestant gets a different one. The prize, of course, is shipped so that it arrives broken.> Whatever degree of irresponsibility we may have, let's be responsible for it.

The existence of consensual crimes is a problem to which we are able to respond. Let's work to change the laws, and, until then, in the words of Sergeant Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there."


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