Justin Li


Personal Responsibility

2011-02-02

Author's note: I know this is pretty bad writing, but I've been struggling to put this idea down in words and this is the best I could do.

On the bus today I overheard a conversation about someone only taking 12 credits, then saying "but it's not my fault I'm only taking 12 credits." That got me angry, I've been thinking about the idea of personal responsibility for the past month - and trying to write about it , unsuccessfully - and that kind of excuse is the last thing I want to hear. The main idea is that people are responsible for themselves no matter the circumstance. In psychology we recently read Neil Postman, who wrote that TV and newspaper are destroying people's capacity to understand longer pieces of language, which was more common before when people listed to 7 hour speeches and debates (which is also where Lincoln-Douglas debates came from). But it's not the case that books don't exist anymore, just that TV and newspaper, with its short, out-of-global-context pieces, are much more attention grabbing and much less attention requiring. If people want they can still choose to read, but they don't. To blame the media for this is to take the responsibility away from the individual, over what the individual could control but chose not to. Either you accept you made the choice and live with it, or you get out.. To say you didn't have the choice is to say you're not in charge of your life - and in that case, you deserve all the misery you feel.

I don't know when I acquired this sense of individual responsibility - there are traces of my high school existentialism class in this - but recent news events made me think about it more often. There was the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable leak, where I believe the intelligence officer Bradley Manning should be court-martialed but that WikiLeaks is crime free The justification is that Manning signed a contract/swore an oath to keep data confidential, and leaking the cable constitutes violating that contract and taking back his word. WikiLeaks made no such promise, and their actions are at worst inappropriate or distasteful., but in no way illegal. There was the case of two people who used a bug in casino video poker machines and used it to win jackpots. They are being sued by the casino for fraud - but, I assume, the developers are not suffering any consequences. This case is particularly egregious because at a casino you're expected to try and win. You may be thrown out or barred for counting cards- again, legal because casinos are private property (although look at Atlantic City) - but courting cards is not against the law. How is exploiting a bug in video poker any different? It is the developer of the machine who are ultimately responsible. If there was no way to load poker in the house's favor, casino's wouldn't be playing it, except in this case the poker machine is faulty.

There's the case of a stalker using information from Facebook to guess people's security questions on email accounts, then blackmailing them with explicit photos from there. I'm not saying the stalker is guilt free, for he is in violation of the law- and he chose to blackmail these people. But the victims are also naive to use such easily answerable security questions, not to mention taking and keeping explicit photos of themselves.

In my mind I extend this responsibility of choice to a person's entire life course. To think that people didn't know dropping out of school will result in a hard life is absurd. It's not that dropouts always end up nowhere - look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - but its that people chose that course and later complain about it, or blame the circumstances for their suffering without considering their complicity in ending there in the first place. There are things we have no control over - one could be born with AIDS, or into war, or be abused - and even then the circumstance should not be blamed for all the failures of the victim. Being forced to immigrate by your parents due to bankruptcy does not justify spending romance novels all day and only ever working server positions.

Let me be clear on this part, in case you haven't gotten it yet. I don't think it's bad to read novels all day and serve as a waitress for the rest of your life. If that has been your greatest desire since kindergarten, I think it's wonderful you have achieved your ultimate - if perhaps small - life goal. My problem is when you find that situation is not to your liking, and your refuse to accept responsibility for being in
that situation nor take initiative in changing it. It's your fucking life, fucking live up to it.

PS. I am aware that there are gray areas in the above philosophy. There are circumstances that, although preventable, would have required inhuman foresight. Flood insurance may have made life easier, but if you live where floods are unlikely, then it's potentially excusable. It comes down to what "common sense" dictates, which is debatable. But the big idea here is not to prevent all negative experiences, but to not use that as a crutch preventing happiness.

PPS. Related reading: The Rise of the New Global Elite.

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