Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Responsibility Crisis

There is a crisis in the United States (I cannot speak of other countries) of a failure to take responsibility for the impact of one’s actions on others.  This crisis occurs at all levels … the individual, family, business, government.

What lies at the core of this crisis?  The “me” syndrome.  

Man has, of course, always had a side of him which is self-centered.  Hence the exhortation of all religions and spiritual practices to think of others, not just oneself.  

But during the progressive phase of American politics, starting with Teddy Roosevelt until the Reagan years, there was societal peer pressure to consider the impact of our actions on others.  That was the basis for the government’s regulation of industry which had been rapacious, totally unconcerned with its impact on its workers or the general public.  That was the basis of the institution of the Federal income tax.  These measures did not negate self-interest, but placed on the balance scale the greater good, the interests of the average person.

When JFK was inaugurated, he asked Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  That was the very embodiment of the progressive perspective of shared social/civic responsibility.  Contrast that to what Reagan said in the 1980 Presidential debate, “Are you better of today than you were four years ago?”  This was all about “me.”  

For the “me” generations that followed Reagan, this became the perspective with which all things were viewed … “Is it good for me.”  Whether it was good for anyone else became irrelevant.  This is how, even on the Democratic side, we got stuck in identity politics.  It’s all about whether something is good for me.

Over the ensuing decades the weight on the balance scale of “me” v “others” has become ever heavier.  Politically it has gotten to the point where our country is beyond being deeply divided, where there is only rage, no compassion, towards the “other.”  And so our very democracy is threatened.  It also threatens the environment and our most basic social institution … the family.

Let me provide some examples, beyond the obvious political ones, of how this crisis pervades all aspects of our life.

1.  The individual level:  The most obvious place to look for examples here are man’s interaction with the environment.  While indigenous people have always been very aware of their interconnected relationship with the environment and have treated it with respect, that is not true of “civilized” mankind.  

In the early stages, it was only those who moved into cities and thus lost contact with the land who thought nothing of the pollution that came with civilized life.   The impact of this thoughtlessness was the Plague, which devastated Europe on and off for centuries.  

Since the industrial revolution, however, the impact has been the steady destruction of the environment … the pollution of the air and water and the cutting down of forests.  The scale of this combined with the huge growth in the world’s population due to advances in hygiene and medicine have resulted in what is being called “global warming” or “climate change” … neither of which phrase is satisfactory … which will drastically change life as we know it within several generations.

One cannot just blame industry for this.  Every individual that consumes what industry produces is an integral part of the problem. We continue to produce mountains of non-recyclable trash that get dumped into land fills.   Gas-guzzling cars, SUVs, and trucks continue to be big sellers.  Indeed, our very continuing to drive is part of the problem.  I live in New York, a city with a usually efficient and vast public transportation network, and yet the number of cars on the roads is incredible.

All of these actions are an example of people thinking only about themselves, their convenience, their comfort.   What makes their immediate life better.  Not what would be in the greater good.  Or even what is in their own and their children’s long term best interest.

2.   The family level:  As I walk around the neighborhood where I live, I pass by day-care centers where the “parking lots” are crammed full of strollers.  I see nannies everywhere (always people of color) tending to other (white) people’s children.  I see dog walkers taking care of other people’s dogs.  

Now the reader could well say, “Where’s the problem?  This shows that parents want to provide their children with good pre-school opportunities for development while they are away at work.  And they want to provide their pets with fresh air and exercise while they are away at work.”

This is no doubt true.   But our system of substitute parenting or substitute dog-walking can never take the place of the real thing.  Day-care for toddlers, or the use of a nannie, cannot take the place of the love and care and teaching of a parent.  A dog being walked with 4 others on a leash does not get the exercise that a dog gets when he’s walked by his owner, let off the leash to run, play fetch, etc.

We tell ourselves, and society fully agrees, that this is an accommodation that allows both parents to work, which is necessary for their financial well-being as well as woman’s feeling of self-worth.  It is also necessary for the constant expansion of our consumer economy and thus the profit of big business.

But all this is nothing but rationalization.  Denial.  Avoidance.  When two people decide to have a child, that should be accompanied by an acceptance of the responsibility to the child entailed by that decision.  

In my book, Raising a Happy Child, there is a chapter entitled, “To Have a Child or Not.”  It deals with the need to make a conscious decision, after deep discussion, that both parents are ready for their responsibility to the child.  In a later chapter, the specific issue of both parents working is raised.  

I put it this way in the book.  “Although the financial imperative is often inescapable, you should stop and think and discuss with your spouse/significant other how critical it really is. … There’s a difference between keeping food on the table and a roof over your head, and being able to afford discretionary niceties or maintain your career.  When you balance the welfare of your child with bringing in more money or maintaining your career trajectory, which is of greater importance?  … Remember that having a child was a choice you made; your child had no say whether to be born or not.”

Most people unfortunately make even a decision such as whether to bring a new child into the world based on what is in their interest, what is their need.  Certainly for lesser decisions, they also take little account of the need of anyone else, whether a spouse, child, or dog.  Obviously the issue of care for your dog is on a different level, but the same principle applies.  

3.  The workplace level:  It will be no surprise to anyone that the workplace is full of “me” attitude given the atmosphere of competition and vanishing job loyalty/security.  That’s not a good state of affairs, but the harm is mostly to the individuals, not the greater good.

But where the self-centered perspective does do great harm to the greater good is the attitude of big business towards their workers, their consumers, the general public, and the environment.  Through a combination of the nature of the corporate beast and the pressure on corporations by investors to constantly increase profit,  corporations today have one concern and one only … how to improve their bottom line.  

The interests of their workers, consumers, the general public, and the environment have no relevance when making corporate decisions, unless those interests can operate to increase corporate profits.   Thus the greater good and the environment are routinely violated for the sake of corporate profit.

4.  The government level:  Need I say anything here about how self-centeredness by politicians and countries, a lack of responsibility for others, damages the greater good?  Whether we look at the current Republican feeding frenzy brought about by their ascendancy to total power or whether we look at our actions in undertaking the Iraq war, these are just two of many examples of the harm done to the greater good by just thinking what is in my interest.

Nothing will turn this habit-energy around unless we as individuals and our leaders see the damage and danger in making decisions based on the “me” perspective.  That ultimately it is in every individual’s and every country’s enlightened self-interest to take responsibility for the impact of our actions on others.  

Why?  Because if we are doing well, but everyone around us is doing poorly or if the environment is degraded, then that makes the world that surrounds us uninviting if not unstable and dangerous, which in turn makes our lives constricted.  That is not the definition of freedom.

What we need is a massive re-education effort.  Basically, a return to the maxim at the core of every religion and spiritual practice:  do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It is not only important for our spiritual well-being.   It is important for our practical well-being and freedom.