One meaning is the acceptance of responsibility for something you’ve done. Politicians have to face up to this from time to time, often for activities bordering on the criminal or for dalliances with a person not a mate. All too often they at first deny wrongdoing, claiming the accused offense never happened and the attacks are political, until solid proof suddenly brings out the remorse they should have shown immediately.
Two examples illustrate the extremes of such actions in the political arena. A local leader, coming off victory in the recent primary, discovered her campaign had inadvertently sent promotional material to people on an email list that should not have been used. Upon realizing this, the leader immediately contacted the election ethics committee explaining what had happened and how the mistake occurred. This leader went on to say she didn’t believe she had violated any rules but that it was up to the ethics committee to decide definitively. She further indicated she was prepared to pay any fine. Even if it was unintentional, this person’s campaign did make a mistake and she owned up to it. She took responsibility.
At the way, way, way other end of the political responsibility spectrum is our former president. There are so many actions he has taken that are morally if not legally wrong. He never takes responsibility. He thinks it’s a weakness to do so.
When I was brought up, taking responsibility was considered a positive attribute and failing to do so earned scorn. So it comes as a shock to me, one of a long list of shocks about the current state of the Republican party, that so many cling to the belief that the former president has done no wrong. How can they live with themselves?
I was motivated to pursue this topic by recent events at a local art museum. In an amazing display of ill-conceived decisions by the museum’s Board chair, it was decided to show recently discovered works, presumably by a well-respected deceased artist. Despite the museum having been subpoenaed by the FBI months earlier about the works. Despite one of the works being on cardboard whose opposite side sported a Fedex logo that had been used only after the artist’s death. The FBI eventually raided the museum and seized the apparently fake art.
While the story is interesting, what is relevant here is the chair of the Board wrote an op-ed saying how the Board had been taken in by the assurance of the museum’s director and input from experts. This was disingenuous. It turns out the board members knew nothing about what was going on behind the scene, including knowledge of the FBI subpoena. The chair took no personal responsibility, assigning blame to others. Not as bad as the former president, but of the same flavor.
I’ve also been struggling with the recent student loan forgiveness policy, and it brings up a related but seemingly somewhat different meaning of responsibility.
If I were a student drowning in debt, I would be ecstatic to receive this assistance. I am coming down in favor of the policy because many students were cheated by the schools they thought were a ticket to a better life and others have been stunned by the ever-increasing costs of tuition, books, and housing. But I also have sympathy for the anger expressed by those who sacrificed to pay off the loans they incurred. On the other hand, life isn’t fair. When I quit teaching, new hires came in earning almost what I had achieved after decades. Sometimes you just have to forget about the inequities and realize there probably were times when you had an unfair advantage.
But it does seem to raise a responsibility issue. The person taking out the loan agreed to repay it. If repaying was going to be beyond reasonable expectations, one has to learn to say no. If that means putting education on hold while building up a cash reserve, that’s the responsible thing. Now I know college students are young, inexperienced, and overly optimistic. So cutting them some slack is okay by me. However, when do they become responsible?
The loan situation reminds me of discussions I had while teaching. There was a push to take attendance, part of a larger goal of improving student success. This was at the college level. I was not in favor of it and I never did it. The students were pushing adulthood and I asked my colleagues when they would learn to be responsible and, in fact, when would they ever learn if we kept trying to save them from their bad decisions. I found I rarely had a problem with attendance, and, when there was one, the student almost always recognized he had created the difficulty for himself. I felt that his taking that responsibility was probably more important for his future than anything he could have learned in class.
There are other situations where a definition of responsibility plays a role. A team leader shows true leadership when she takes responsibility for a problem caused by the team, even if she had no part in causing it. A person shows responsibility by being dependable, doing what is promised in a timely manner.
Wouldn’t it be a better world if responsibility was respected more than it seems to be these days?