Personal Responsibility Privilege

There’s a topic I’ve been turning over in my mind for awhile now. I’ve decided to give it a tumble on this blog to see where it lands.

I call it a “topic” but it’s really a blend of several. It may have started with my employment status (umm… let’s say “status unknown”) and the ostensible reasons behind it. Or it may have started with the rioting going on in the US and the ostensible reasons behind the riots. Or it may have started years ago when I first started hearing about “white privilege” and the typical conservative reaction. At any rate, this blend encompasses all those topics.

* * *

Among many, yet another fundamental divide between the left and the right is our disagreement over the best way to make the world a better place. I don’t think the well-intentioned on both sides disagree about the general destination. Yes, most of us would like to arrive at that better place, but we’re fighting over which road map to use to get there.

First of all, the specific destination is a source of disagreement. There is certainly disagreement about where that better world is. What does it look like?

For instance, conservatives think a better world is one in which the intact traditional family of father, mother, children is still a recognizable entity and even a majority entity. We think intact families (in the traditional sense of the word) make for a healthier society. The hard left has come to see it differently. They want to keep on with the social experiments of sexual experiments we’ve been trying since the sixties.

The right believes the better world we’re all looking for must include freedom of speech. In their utopia, the hard left wants “hate speech” (aka: any speech they hate) bans to avoid all hurt feelings.

The right wants lower taxes in their better world; the left wants to raise taxes (and so on and so forth).

But not only can we not agree on where that better world lies and what it looks like, the right and left set out in opposite directions to reach it. Much of the argument over the opposite destinations comes down to those opposite directions. The left believes in the state’s responsibility to help the individual, and the right is strong on the idea of the individual helping him or herself: “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” “God helps those who help themselves,” “the Protestant work ethic,” etc. I don’t know that it’s always been this way, but these concepts are the nearly exclusive property of conservatives these days.

Seeing my first loyalty is not to any political ideology or affiliation, I question the legitimacy of both sides’ methods for reaching their better worlds. Being that I don’t think humans can come up with ultimate truth all by their li’l, ol’ selves and we can’t create our own utopias, I like to try as best I can to run every human “truth” through the grid of the Bible’s truth. Is rugged individualism the best (or only) path to a better world according to the Bible’s truth?

Let me explain how that blend of topics I opened with ties in to the diametrical paths of individual responsibility versus state or community responsibility. I find that my experiences with mental-health struggles have some direct parallels to the mental-health struggles I see our society as a whole undergoing in recent times. The collective mental health of our culture has been steadily spiralling downward lately, and I think my own experiences can speak to some of these issues.

I’ll start with my employment status:

At the moment, I’m not working a regular job. From 2010-2018, I was not out in the workforce. From 2010 until her death in 2015, I was a full-time, live-in caregiver for my mum with Parkinson’s and dementia. Then, I took my inheritance to volunteer for a year in Mexico and then return to Canada to build a house. When the savings ran out, I returned to work in 2019 and to the resulting worsening in my state of mind that I expected from that move. I considered trying to get on disability assistance for the depression and even made some efforts to pursue that direction in 2020. Disability didn’t work out, but determined to find a way not to have to go back to work, I’m now renting out the small house I built and living in a camper on my property. And I’m doing much better than I have in years, depression-wise.

I’m glad to not need government assistance. However, I couldn’t have survived the first part of 2020 without assistance of some kind. The people in my life stepped up to bail me out time and time again. I give God the credit for getting me through that time, but I have to give His people credit, too.

I don’t believe most conservatives are dead-set against social programs of every kind, even government assistance for people who can’t work for one reason or another. But in general, most on the right would hold to the standard of 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (And this statement was in reference to “eating” from the charity of the Christian community being addressed.) Notice the wording: It’s not, “If anyone cannot work…” It’s “will not work” that’s specified.

This gets murky. Someone like myself who has come around to acknowledging that mental-health issues can be debilitating disabilities may still be conflicted when the disability is invisible. And one’s own.

Thirty years off and on in the workforce have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to me that I am much better “off” than “on.” But would it be true that I cannot work? Or just that I would drastically prefer not to?

This instruction of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 may seem to be in opposition to many, many other biblical injunctions towards charity—to care and provide for the poor and needy, the widows and orphans. However, the wording of “will not” vs. “cannot” helps clear up the confusion. (Interestingly, one of the ways the nation of Israel was commanded in Leviticus 23:22 to provide for their poor was not to harvest every bit of harvest they could harvest. They were to leave the corners of their fields for those with no other options to come along behind the harvesters and glean. The implication is that charity is a good thing, but honest work combined with the charity is an even better thing.)

Besides the issue of disability or ability—of “cannot” or “will not”—there’s the other murky issue of, “What is work?” On the conservative side, not many of us would insist that a woman who bows out of the traditional workforce to raise children (or even continues to bow out after the children are raised) is in the category of “will not work.” There are types of work that don’t receive a regular bi-weekly paycheque that are nonetheless legitimate types of work.

From my readings of the Bible and my own life-experience, here’s my conclusion: we need useful, productive activity of some kind to feel like useful, productive human beings and live useful, productive lives. This useful, productive activity will look different from individual to individual, and there will be different levels of ability or disability we all carry along with us in this pursuit. But except for the case of severe disability, we’ll all be able to partake in this pursuit to some degree. And we should.

After I finished my camper project and moved in, I said to myself, “You’ll need some other project right away. Start brainstorming.” I find I need projects to stay well. For me, the balance is, I don’t do well with “busy,” but I need “occupied.” For whatever reason, I know that I do very badly mental-health-wise with a regular job, but I also know that I don’t do very well mental-health-wise without some kind of useful, productive activity. (Fortunately, there is no shortage of activity I consider useful and productive if not lucrative that I can dream up to engage in.)

So, yes, I can get on-board with the general conservative outlook of individual responsibility over government handouts insofar as agreeing that all humans need to be pursuing useful, productive activity (aka: work) in some form, whether or not this useful, productive activity also produces money. That is the individual responsibility side I agree with.

I can’t get on-board the general conservative outlook on individual responsibility to the arrogant degree of believing that we are the captains of our own fates, the masters of our own destinies and that it’s pathetic weakness to need any kind of help from anyone, ever. No, we are not in ultimate control of our own lives. We are in control of our own decisions, and those decisions will certainly affect our lives, our fates, and our destinies. We have influence over our circumstances and control over our reactions to our circumstances but, very often, little control over those circumstances.

Then, I also think that while it’s good for us to be engaging in useful, productive activity of some kind, it’s also good for us to need some help from others from time to time. It’s good to offer that help when needed. It’s good to accept that help when needed. Independence is not the ideal. Interdependence is the ideal. Relationship is the ideal.

But again, there’s a tension here that needs balancing.

I started thinking a lot about this balance when I started hearing the term “white privilege” tossed around several years ago. The argument was that because of the undeniable historical evils of slavery and segregation and the debatable present evil of systemic racism, black people in the US were suffering.

I heard enough stats and enough anecdotal evidence to know that at least in inner-city, largely-black communities there were undeniable problems. Insofar as admitting these problems, I can agree with believers in “white priviIege.” I can also agree that it’s a good idea to try and understand what’s creating and perpetuating the problems.

I applaud the compassion that wants to see the world become a better place for those who are genuinely hurting, but again, there are those two opposite directions in the debate of right versus left that we would approach the question from. And again, from experience, I don’t see either approach as being perfect.

Slavery? Segregation? Systemic racism? None of these evils has any direct relation to an adolescent making the decision to try out a new drug for the first time, to the teenager who chooses to hold up a convenience store for a few bucks, to the gunman involved in a drive-by shooting, to the formation of gangs and the resulting gang violence. We can try to negate the individual responsibility in all these actions by deciding the individuals in question weren’t responsible. They were simply helpless victims to their circumstances. But regardless, however it boils down, there’s no way to demonstrate how slavery, segregation, or systemic racism had the ultimate responsibility for the decision to take the drug or rob the store or pull the trigger. These are individual decisions, individual actions, taken by individuals in individual moments.

When I first started hearing about “white privilege,” I was looking south of my border to witness the problems in the inner-city black communities in the US, but we had our own examples in Canada. I’d known for a long time that many of our native communities were also in trouble. Again, the stats and anecdotal evidence told me that we had a lot of hurting communities of our own with the same or similar problems. The narrative we’d been offered was that the problems stemmed from residential schools. Native families had been broken up and the kids carted off to boarding schools to be stripped of their language and culture besides being stripped of their parents and extended families. Plus, abuse in these schools was widespread.

In this case, the narrative made sense, and a direct relation between residential schools and suffering communities could be hypothesized. The residential-school generations had never learned how to parent from their parents. When they became parents, they floundered, not having the first-hand examples of parents to learn from. They felt lost without their roots. And this rootlessness withered the present-day culture on the vine. To disastrous results.

It made sense. But when I noticed the similarities between the struggling communities in my own country to those in our neighbour to the south with two quite different backstories, I wondered if there wasn’t more to it. I’d heard that black families had been strong and healthy after slavery and during segregation. I’d learned over and over from conservative pundits that the breakdown in black families took off with the creation of welfare programs which incentivized women not to have to marry in order to raise children, and all the problems sprang from the original problem of fatherlessness. While the stats on fatherlessness are staggering, I won’t pretend to know if this conservative “welfare state” narrative is as ironclad as it’s presented to be.

It struck me that there was one similarity between both groups under discussion. Neither were white.

Was there indeed such a thing as “white privilege”? I certainly hadn’t noticed any privilege resulting from my own melanin-deprived skin. (I don’t call it privilege to have to slather on 50+ spf sunscreen every time I step outside my door in summer or broil like a lobster.)

The only logical cause and effect I could see for statistically fewer problems of certain kinds among people with skin the colour of mine was that people with skin the colour of mine had never been subject to any kind of widespread oppression in my country and the one to the south. But the only link I could see between the present problems and the past oppression was what I call “personal responsibility privilege.” Or the lack thereof. People with melanin-deprivation in my country had no one to point the finger at—no one to pass the buck to—when we screwed up. We were stuck with the ownership of our own bad decisions.

And I could see the logical cause and effect in this case. I could draw a direct relation. I began to think that what passed for “white privilege” was, in reality, “personal responsibility privilege.” And this hypothesis was borne out by the fact that bearers of this kind of privilege (regardless of melanin levels) seemed to have overall better outcomes. (Please don’t hear me saying that only white people have “personal responsibility privilege.” Depending how they were raised, anyone of any melanin level may have personal responsibility privilege. It just might be more widespread among the melanin-deprived because we have no other options than to take responsibility for our own decisions. Individually, we try it on, but as a whole, we don’t have the historical evils to bear the blame for us.)

Anecdotal evidence is one kind of evidence. A collection of anecdotes equals a statistic. As I was thinking through my “personal responsibility privilege” hypothesis, I remembered having recently watched a movie on the life story of Ben Carson. Hopefully, you know who Ben Carson is so I don’t need to repeat his life story in full here, but let’s just say this is a man who succeeded and succeeded wildly against all odds. He had every card in the deck stacked against him that I’ve been discussing in this post. Every card except for one.

Ben Carson was a young black man being raised in the inner city in desperate poverty and a troubled environment by a single mother. However, this single mother knew a thing or two about personal responsibility. Ben was naturally stumbling into the patterns of the crime and violence that he was surrounded by in his neighbourhood and school. But his mother wasn’t having it. Excuses held no sway with her.

She brought her son up short by expecting—in fact, demanding—the best of him. He would stay out of trouble and succeed or she’d know the reasons why!

And succeed he did. Wildly. Of course, he turned out to have exceptional gifts that most of us simply don’t have. That didn’t hurt his case. But those gifts would have stayed dormant and never been exposed if Ben hadn’t been handed the most inestimable gift by his mother—personal responsibility privilege.

From personal experience, I’ve seen what a necessary privilege this privilege is. If one is told, “It’s not your fault. You had nothing to do with your bad decisions. You’re just a victim. It’s someone else’s fault,” then one will never take any steps to change course. What would be the use if one is simply a helpless victim? There’s nothing left to do except be angry at the ones whose fault one believes one’s own bad decisions to be.

Without taking responsibility for one’s own actions, no positive change in behaviour is possible. This is the basis for many of the programs that are actually effective in combating problems like addiction. However, these programs also keep this privilege in balance by the equal and opposite truth that we are helpless to fix all our own problems. We do need some outside help. We have to take the responsibility for our own mess-ups. But then we have to reach out to get some support in fixing them.

What this looks like practically in setting our feet on the path to the better world we all long for, I don’t know. I just see that this biblical balance—interdependence alongside individual responsibility—has been one key in seeing some improvement in my own struggles.

Along the lines of my personal responsibility in my mental-health struggles that has a parallel in those of our society is my most basic privilege. Without exercising this privilege, I will only go on sinking deeper and deeper into mental-ill-health. This is the privilege of believing the truth. It’s my personal responsibility to seek out truth.

From my understanding of it, this privilege is the foundation of cognitive behaviour therapy that a lot of people find helpful with their mental-health issues. Anyone can spiral into a mental-health crisis when the individual feeds his or her mind on falsehood. Examining one’s thinking to spot the falsehoods and restore balance is the goal of cognitive behaviour therapy.

We’re all capable of believing falsehoods if we don’t seek out truth for ourselves. The origin of the mental-health crisis may be imaginary problems, but the problems the original imaginary problems create become all too real.

As I write, the US is a country going up in flames. Too literally. The country has spiralled into crisis. But for what?

We’ve been told by those enacting them that the riots, looting, and burning are justified because there’s an epidemic in the US of racist white cops killing black people for no reason other than their blackness. The hysterical cry is that black people are being hunted every time they step out of their doors. ( Is this really the case?

The stats would indicate, rather, that there’s a very low chance for anyone to be done to death by cops, especially if one isn’t in the act of committing a crime and then resisting arrest. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t matter if a criminal resisting arrest dies. It does matter. What I am suggesting is that when the situation is fully examined, often another side of the picture emerges. When there is a police-involved death, almost always the case can be made that the death was not intentional or that the police in the situation likely did have some reason to believe their own lives were in danger. I often see these incidents as wild overreaction on the part of the police, and I often wonder why handcuffs weren’t the first go-to in some of these cases. I think more training and more funding would be more helpful than abolishment and defunding.

But it’s easy to offer arm-chair solutions. What I’ve seen after seeking out the truth for myself (watching the full video footage of the incidents under discussion) is very little evidence for the prevailing narrative of widespread, racially-motivated police-killings. While I certainly can’t deny that there always has been and always will be racist attitudes and actions among people of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions (including cops. And BLM supporters), these have to be read into the incidents that have blown up in the media the past few years.

I can’t help seeing behind most of the recent unrest simply the love of power or the love of chaos and destruction or the love of excitement or the love of Nikes and Gucci products that the schoolyard bully or the senseless vandal or the common thief exhibits, but I’ll extend the benefit of the doubt to at least some of those involved to accept that they believe the falsehoods they’re spouting. But those falsehoods are helping to degenerate our society into greater and greater depths of madness.

I’ve avoided the subject of my views on Trump so far on this blog, but with the US election upon us in another couple of months, I’m unavoidably seeing much of the chaos as the run-up to the election. While I’m no Trumpite for many reasons (one of which being that I’m Canadian and occasionally believe in minding my own business and letting American citizens vote for whomever they choose, however puzzling I may happen to find their choice), I’ve seen the mainstream media and its believers become sicker with every passing day. Those on the right have diagnosed them with “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It has all the earmarks of an obsessive/compulsive condition. I’m not denying that Trump revs every situation up to a hundred, running his mouth with the pedal to the metal, but I’ve certainly seen the media and its parrots accuse Trump of everything under the sun with zero to slight to misleading to dishonest evidence (when I search out the truth for myself). And the cold civil war in the US of the past four years looks like it’s heating up to boiling point from the flames of a thousand actual fires that the falsehoods are fanning.

It’s up to all of us to search out the truth for ourselves on issues that may be important (and with the effects these issues are having on all of our lives, I’d say it’s important). It’s up to all of us to listen to the other side, do the research, and judge for ourselves where the truth lies. Then, I also think it can be helpful to pass it around.

I see the rhetoric on both sides ramping up to an unhealthy degree with many (I’m willing to believe) well-intentioned on both sides of any issue firmly believing their side alone is standing on truth, shouting down the opposition and drowning out any dissenting voices. This isn’t the kind of truth-telling that I think is helpful. Listening and learning before speaking is a necessary start. But speaking out because we care and we want to help is a necessary second step. We are interdependent, after all. Personal responsibility privilege is balanced by responsibility-to-others privilege.

I don’t have any fixes for the messes we find ourselves in. And we’re all in this together—black, white, native, etc. American, Canadian, European, etc. Like the old illustration of the body being many members but one body, when one part of the body that is the human race is hurting, we’re all affected.

All I can do is do my little bit. And that’s all you can do, too. But we can do that much. Whatever that little bit is.

Whatever it is, I believe it will start with taking advantage of the personal responsibility privilege we can all access. And that starts with truth-seeking.

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