We Are Responsible For Our Own Actions

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Photo by left-hand, via Flickr

If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m no fan of the “blaming the victim” argument. In my experience, any time someone invokes that phrase, it shuts down discussion, just when discussion is what is most desperately needed. I think accusing people of “blaming the victim” leads to digging in at the extremes and not paying attention to the larger issues—whether it’s race, sexual assault, or anything else–which are always more complex and nuanced than the sound bites to which we reduce them.

On the other hand, I have had a song inflicted upon me repeatedly in the past year at Jazzercise which includes these lyrics:

‘Cause you’re too sexy, beautiful
And everybody wants to taste
That’s why I still get jealous.

This song makes me want to throw things. (Preferably, throw them at that annoying-falsetto-voiced singer.) Modern English includes a sentence structure that boils down something like this: Because you (insert character trait), I am thus incapable of controlling my reactions. By extension, then, clearly my actions are your fault.

It’s pretty blatant in this song, but I’ve taken people in my life to task for less. My kids are terrible. I’ll say, “Why did you hit your brother/take his toy/yell at him?” The answer is, of course, “Because he’s annoying me!” (Oh, obviously. Silly me. Clearly, he brought it upon himself, right? If he wasn’t so inherently annoying, you wouldn’t be irresistibly compelled to haul off and smack him.)

I have to fight it myself, too. When the kids say, “Stop chewing on me!”, for instance, my first impulse is to tell them if they weren’t so chewable I wouldn’t find it so hard to stop.

But in the end, it all boils down to this: we all have to take responsibility for our own actions and choices. We’re always going to be tempted to violate other people’s human dignity because something about them either bugs us or attracts us. But the responsibility for that violation is still on us–not on the person who tempted us.

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The Blame Game

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Every time something bad happens, the biggest topic of (cough-cough) “discussion” is: whose fault is it?

It may be a natural human tendency, but it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. Trying to boil everything down to whose fault it is leads to an all-or-nothing approach to complex problems. That ensures one thing: that nothing will ever be solved. Because as long as we are focused on how it’s someone ELSE’s problem, it absolves us of any responsibility to address the larger issues. And whether we want to admit it or not, there are always larger issues at play whenever a hot button topic comes up. But too often, attempts to open up those larger issues devolves into accusations of “blaming the victim.”

Photo via Pixabay

Photo via Pixabay

And that’s a shame, because the biggest, most important issues the human race faces do not exist in a vacuum. People’s choices and behaviors are influenced by a complex series of factors that include their personal experiences, their racial/communal memory, their philosophical and/or religious convictions (or lack thereof), the tone and bias of the news and commentary they encounter, and the society-wide messaging–which frequently pits very contradictory values against each other (i.e.: violence is bad, but violence in entertainment is good. Women are to be respected, except when showing them as sex objects will separate you from your money for a truck, a value meal, or a can of beer).

When we start talking about appropriate or inappropriate use of police force or about sexual assault, to name two, we cannot pretend these other factors do not have an impact. Violations to human dignity are everywhere, from the big and sensational to the way we entertain ourselves and even to the way we interact in comboxes and on Facebook. The problems are systemic, and they often go unacknowledged until they manifest in sensational (i.e. horrific) ways. But sensational or systemic and unseen, the problems are all tied together. If we are ever to make a difference, we have to address the larger context in which the individual violations occur. And the more time we waste hurling accusations about whose “fault” it is, the more ingrained those violations become.

When there are society-wide issues, the solutions have to be society-wide. But when we assign a problem to a macro level, we tend to forget that macro solutions involve a micro level, too. Big violations feel beyond our control, but big violations are built upon billions of little ones, and some of those happen in our schools and communities and even in our own hearts. And those, we can do something about. We have to have the tough conversations with our kids, because if we don’t, their attitudes will be formed by that conglomerate, in de facto ways, instead of deliberately, by those of us who love them. We have to examine our consciences for the ways we could act and don’t, or the ways in which we do act and shouldn’t.

When it comes to the societal problems that outrage us in the news, we all have a responsibility. That doesn’t mean it’s our fault. It means we have the power to impact the world for the better in some small way by the way we speak and the choices we make.

It’s time to stop playing the blame game and look for solutions.