Who Jacked the Word “Responsibility”?

Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc.  If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.

Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations.  That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.

Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me.  Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with.  If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.

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My mom’s friend Dana babysitting me and my brother at our home in Oakland in the 90’s

But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about.  I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time.  I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did.  Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet.  My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by.  It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.

The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community.  In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry.  These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others.  But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me.  I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month.  I stepped up because my family needed me.

I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility.  It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual.  Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”.  In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone.  It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail.  Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.

Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America.  But it wasn’t always this way.  On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.

YourResponsibilityNGram

“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history.  The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community.  It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII.    “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America.  Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point.  For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.

 

Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.

This didn’t happen naturally.  Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”.  Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages.  Words matter.  As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.

Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility.  I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:

But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism.  We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest.  We can, and in fact, we must.  It’s our responsibility.

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