The Death of Personal Responsibility

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I thought it was just Twitter, but apparently there is nothing you can post on Facebook that isn’t subject to provoking someone’s existential angst. People will make it all about themselves, use it as an opportunity to “educate” you about some non-issue, invite you to check your privilege, suggest you’re not being nice, police your tone, or flat-out tell you you’re wrong. Trolls and gatekeepers don’t care about starting productive dialogues, they just want to be right, even at the expense of making things worse instead of better. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, of course, but words have consequences and we need to be aware of just what it is we’re saying, and what kind of messages we are sending to society at large.

I just don’t understand people’s need to shame some of their peers, and choose to die on some random, unimportant hill for others. I’m referring to a rash—no, an epidemic—of people sticking up for virtual strangers no matter what they’ve done. Today, I saw two different posts in local Facebook groups that I follow. In the first, a woman posted a photo of a motor vehicle (no license plate) with the information that the driver had raced right past a school bus that was stopped, with its lights flashing and stop sign fully extended, loading children. She suggested that if anyone knew the driver, they might remind her that her behavior was reckless, dangerous, and selfish. Many people reacted to the post with the angry or sad emojis, but there was more than one person who immediately leaped to the driver’s defense. It’s always the same: you don’t know what that person is going through.

Really? That is a valid and legitimate excuse?

Of course people have issues. People have problems. People have cares and worries and fears, often beyond anything we can imagine. So we try to be understanding. We try to be kind and tolerant. We try to be patient. To have empathy.

But there is no excuse whatsoever for putting the lives of children at risk. You are running late? Leave earlier, or just be late. You’re distracted? Don’t drive. Personal issues don’t trump the law and every person who gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle has an obligation and a responsibility to operate it safely.

It’s kind to suggest we should offer grace. It’s wise to suggest we should consider what someone else’s life might be like on any given day. When someone deliberately bumps my cart in the grocery store, or yells at a service provider, or cuts in line, it’s okay to let it go. It’s wonderful to practice grace and assume the best. But when it comes to automobile versus human, there are no do-overs. It’s not okay to say, “whoops,” and move on. The possible outcomes are too severe, and they are permanent.

In the second post, someone related that they had narrowly missed hitting a dog that darted into traffic. Several steps behind the dog, was an owner, leash in hand. The law in our community is that dogs must be leashed. This is for their safety as well as the safety of others. Immediately, other people began to clamor that the original poster did not know the whole story. Maybe the dog slipped out of the house, or jumped a fence, or any number of other, more innocent possibilities. These could all be true. But why the dog was off leash would not change the outcome if the driver had hit the dog. Calling attention to these issues is not necessarily “judgy,” as someone rather judgily suggested. If we are going to continue to push the you don’t know what other people are going through scenario, then we shouldn’t assume we know why a person makes a particular post. ‘The dog was off the leash accidentally’ is believable and true, but the original poster just wanting to call attention to a safety issue is not believable or true? Her only motivation was to shame and judge? Nope. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to insist on extending grace to one person, then you must extend it to all people.

A few months ago, I posted an anecdote where a woman literally shoved past my child on the way to the (one-person, and only) restroom in a store, slamming the door in my child’s face. My only reason for posting the story was that it was so incredible and I thought I might see some solidarity from others who might empathize and believe that it is bad behavior to take advantage of a child that way. Most people agreed that the woman’s actions were in poor taste. But I got plenty of the you don’t know what she’s going through variety of responses. Maybe she had a medical condition. Maybe she really, really had to go. No one considered that my child might have a medical condition (she doesn’t). No one considered that my child really, really had to go. (She did). And she got there first.

All these knee-jerk reactions online are essentially people blaming the victim. We are seeing the death of personal responsibility, not just by the perpetrators who think their time and their feelings and their physical needs are more important than those of others, but a whole group of other people out there who agree with them and their behavior. That is what is most disturbing to me. The person who takes a handicap parking spot may have forgotten to display their permit. The man who parks in the fire lane to drop off library books or dry cleaning might have mobility issues. The woman who darts around a school bus might be running late. The person who takes up two parking spaces at the grocery store might be a teenager learning to drive. I can have empathy for others without being stupid, because none of these things matter. We have rules and laws and yellow lines painted on pavements for a reason.

This problem is even more insidious when it comes to victims of crime. How dare a man operate a motor vehicle while being black? What did that woman do to make her husband hit her? Why didn’t the young man in his own apartment not respond to verbal commands by a police officer? What was that rape victim wearing or drinking? Why was that young woman jogging by herself?

We are asking the wrong questions, and creating sympathy for the wrong parties. We are normalizing bad behavior and blaming victims for things that are no one’s fault but the perpetrator’s.

When everyone blames the victim, and everyone comes up with excuses for the guilty, we have an awful lot of people who begin to believe that any excuse for wrongdoing is a good one, and that no one will be held accountable. Even our president is not being held to any standards of decency or personal responsibility. If he can’t or won’t govern his own words and actions, why would anyone else feel the need to behave appropriately?

God forgives us and calls on us to forgive others. But he has given us commandments to follow, too. No commandment that begins with Thou shalt not continues with the word unless. No caveats, no excuses, no wiggle room.

Empathy is great. Kindness is so important. Trying to understand the struggles of others is a wonderful exercise. But we can do all these things without excusing bad behavior. We live in a civilized society. It is still up to us to say: No. This is wrong. This will not happen here. It’s okay to be annoyed. It’s okay to be angry. And it is vital to speak up. Our safety, security, and well-being depend on it