The shenanigans of 'responsibility' politics

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 11:38 AM

A media-savvy child of the new millennium, my older daughter is privy to all sorts of terms.  This includes informally coined, succinct phrases to describe complicated concepts.  These include phrases to label public conversations about tricky, politically charged issues. 

When I told her about the Moynihan Report from 1965, and gave her a thumbnail sketch, she rolled her eyes and groaned, “responsibility politics.” In case some readers are, like me, not clued in to this phrase, I will need to make a long story, well . . . long. 

Basically, the problematic idea my daughter named succinctly is the notion that social conditions for true human flourishing will come about by way of small, individually responsible changes.  Reusable grocery bags are a helpful, simple example.  There is something of a consensus that the environment matters.  But, in many circles, the way environmentalism cashes out is through composting, recycling and carrying around reusable grocery bags.  Because bags are so public, they take on disproportional importance. Plastic grocery bags are an infinitesimal part of the environmental problem.  But, remembering my bags is a daily thing.  The detrimental dumping practices of Duke Power is a giant, systemic thing.  So, I walk around with my bags and my responsibility politics.

There is also a large dose of responsibility politics going on in the United States regarding economic issues, during what many economists (and normal people) agree is the Second Great Depression.  Maybe this is a kind of mental, survival mechanism gone awry.  If I think poverty and unemployment are primarily about individual responsibility, then maybe these problems will seem less humongous and insurmountable.  Dan Ariely and Michael Norton found in a study they published in 2011 that most people in the U.S. do not explicitly approve of the radical inequality we are swimming in right now, but we are in denial about how bad things really are. 

Again, maybe this is because most of us can’t reckon with a giant mess.  (Dan Ariely highlights on his website that our situation includes “the bottom 40 percent of Americans possessing less than 0.3 percent of total wealth” and “the top 20 percent possessing 84 percent.”)  Norton and Ariely found plenty of people who call themselves Republican as well as who call themselves Democrat who think the actual economic situation must surely be better than it is, and who, when asked about their ideal scenario, prefer an economic system that is even more equal than (gasp!) Sweden. 

Media conversations seem to eschew large, structural sorts of reasons for economic struggles.  Stories reflect too often a form of responsibility politics, even when the story is ostensibly about a particular group.  For example, a whole generation of college graduates has become a curiosity as, in story after story, we hear about those quirky young adults who, strangely enough, “choose” to live with their parents while working a hard-won, part-time job for minimum wage.  Or, just recently, NPR played an ostensible human interest story about those plucky, middle-age professionals signing up for unpaid internships with the hope of new employment.  And the middle-class success stories are often individual and morally soporific.

The tendency to individualize large problems suggests, in a more subtle way than the Moynihan Report did in 1965, that patterns of human diminishment and struggle are matters of individual or cohort pathology.  If people in particular neighborhoods are drastically unemployed, then find a few heroes with moxie or discipline, recalibrate individual people’s thinking, and life will be better for the 40 percent who possess 0.3 percent of the wealth.  Or, if a generation of young adults can’t find jobs, narrate desperation as the mother of ingenuity, and christen them as resiliently “creative.”  If people nearing retirement are being let go due to corporate downsizing, then maybe each one can find a computer screen and play those nifty memory enhancement games NPR just talked about until the economy recovers. 

I think the most insidious aspect of responsibility politics is that this way of thinking divides people from one another, allowing scarcity to seem ineluctable and casting our plight as a chance to distinguish ourselves as fit.  I am holding out hope instead for abundance, and solidarity.

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.