Two Questions for 2017

Phil Sandifer asked two excellent questions on Twitter recently, suggesting that answering these would make a good replacement for New Year’s resolutions:
“1) At what point would you consider your government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? 2) At what point does violence become an acceptable tactic for resistance? (Unless you’re a full pacifist, the answer isn’t “never.”)”
He went on to say that sharing our answers publicly would be even better. Here, therefore, are mine. Feel free to comment with yours, or post them wherever, or just write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in a drawer to look at later.
So. When is a government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? This is two separate questions. The first is when a government loses legitimacy. In my view, there are two basic functions of government: to promote the general welfare, and to act as an asshole control mechanism. The first should be fairly straightforward: keep the people safe and healthy and ensure they have space within which to be who they are. The second is an acknowledgment that, first, everyone is an asshole sometimes, and some people are assholes most or all of the time–in this case, “asshole” meaning a person who acquires and exploits power over others in order to subjugate or harm them. The second job of government is to therefore minimize opportunities to be an asshole, mitigate the damage caused by assholes, and if necessary cut off assholes’ access to whatever it is that they’re exploiting.
So, simply, a government loses legitimacy when it is no longer able to effectively exercise those two functions. The second part of the question is then fairly straightforward: if traditional democratic processes are unable to restore the ability of government to perform those functions, then the government has failed and must be replaced. This is an inevitable occurrence: the only way an asshole control mechanism can work is if it is able to wield some form of power over them, but that means that the government has power that can be wielded over people. Sooner or later the assholes will get their hands on that power. There are ways to set up internal mechanisms to control the assholes who would exploit the asshole control mechanism itself, but eventually some asshole will solve the system and start exploiting it, and once that happens, nothing can prevent its complete subversion.
This has happened. The assholes solved the system we know as capitalist liberal democracy over a century ago at the latest, as first the assholes we now call robber barons, and later the ones we call fascists, took control. Major overhauls over the next few decades–the welfare state, civil rights movements–kept it lumbering along for a while, but the revised system was clearly solved by assholes by the time Thatcher and Reagan came to power. Everything since then has been collapse and decay. It is now very, very obvious even to the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals that the U.S.’s traditional democratic processes have utterly failed to control the assholes, and in fact are now being exploited to empower them.
The question then is, if not traditional democratic processes, what? We are obviously talking about some form of resistance, but does that necessarily entail violent resistance? If so, when, where, and how?
Let me tell you a story about my father: When my father was young, mandatory prayer and corporal punishment were still both legal and commonplace in U.S. schools. He was also very often the only Jew–indeed, the only non-Christian–in his classes. As Jewish law requires, he habitually refused to take part in Christian prayers, instead just sitting quietly. One day a teacher took exception to this, and used their habitual punishment: he was ordered to place his hands on the desk so that they could be smacked with a ruler. Instead, he snatched the ruler from the teacher, broke it, and threw the pieces in her face.
I have no idea if that story’s true. My parents were both, shall we say, prone to exaggeration. But it’s not really important whether it’s true; the point was that it was held up by my parents as a model of behavior, an act of justified violence.
And that, to me, is when violence is appropriate: when it is recognized by the oppressed as the best available means of destroying the power structures underlying their oppression. There are, of course, moral considerations regarding collateral damage, harm to innocents, reprisals; but ultimately that’s what it comes down to. The only thing that can stand up to power is power, and violence is very often the cheapest and easiest form of power, making it the hardest form to strip away.
Just things to keep in mind for the coming year.

An open letter to white people

I worked a bit late on Friday. I’d ducked out early a couple of times earlier in the week, and I needed to make the time up, so it was almost seven by the time I got on the train. They started hooting as soon as I got on the train, four or five black teenage boys, all about 15 or 16 years old. They started shouting things like “Cracker alert!” and “Uh-oh, white people on the train! Behave!” I ignored them and remained focused on my phone, ignoring people on the train being what my phone and headphones are for.
I sat down, and they clustered around me, shouting and trying to get in my face, demanding to know if I was looking at porn, calling me “cracker” and “fat fuck,” yelling that my ancestors had enslaved their ancestors. I continued to ignore them, and two stops later changed trains, as I always do. They also went from the red line platform to the green/yellow line platform, like I did, and then they were gone.
It was frightening. Triggering, actually; being surrounded and targeted by teen bullies is not an experience I expected to have again at 34. It was deeply hurtful and upsetting. It was also the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I might be in danger because I’m white, and the first time in decades I felt targeted because of my ethnicity. (Previous times were because I’m Jewish, not because I’m white.)
And if I were a self-centered child who doesn’t understand the difference between anecdote and data, between incident and systemic problem, I might well use meaningless terms like “reverse racism” or “anti-white racism” to describe this incident.
But here’s the thing. I’m 34 years old, 31 of those years in the U.S., and that was the first time in my entire life I was targeted for being white. I can virtually guarantee you that there are no 34-year-old black people who grew up in the U.S. and were never targeted for their race. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you that anyone who is 34 years old, grew up in the U.S., and has never been targeted for their race? Is white.
And yeah, they’re wrong that my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were too busy living in Eastern European ghettos and being targeted by pogroms. But that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from the legacy of slavery. Every white person in the U.S. does, whether they want to or not, because the entire system is tilted.
I’m not saying that surrounding and screaming at white commuters is justified. But the anger behind that act? The anger is completely justified. There is very, very good reason for black people, as a group, to be angry at white people, as a group. The reverse is not true. That’s why “reverse racism” isn’t a thing; racism is unjustified anger at an entire group of people. (Or hatred, or indifference. But they’re all related, and the same arguments hold.) But all white people, without exception, benefit from the legacy of slavery. (Though, obviously, in different degrees.) Doesn’t matter that none of us were there, that none of us had a choice about benefiting from it, or that our society is so stacked against so many people in so many different ways that for most of us that benefit wasn’t remotely enough to get by on. We still benefited, and it is therefore on us to acknowledge that and fix it. And, therefore, anger against us, for failing to use our power to fix the systemic biases that benefit us, often to refuse to acknowledge even that those biases exist? That anger is entirely justified.
That doesn’t mean the behavior of those teenagers was okay. It wasn’t. In that train car, they were five tall, fit teenagers picking on a lone, short, fat man. They were teenage boys trying to show off for each other, prove their dominance and shore up their fragile masculinity by trying to bully someone who, in that specific moment, was weaker than them, and who could serve as a synecdoche for the culture that tries constantly to make them feel weak and inferior.
But it wasn’t racism, and incidents like it aren’t evidence that racism against whites exists or is a problem in the U.S. Quite the opposite; their rarity is proof of how strong the cultural bias is in our favor. And, in turn, how obligatory it is for us to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.

Why I’m Turning Off Anonymous Comments

Because they’re worthless.

Now let’s back up a second. I am not, I should be very clear, referring to the content of anonymous comments–I have had a number of very insightful comments which happened not to be made by someone who gave their name. These comments are valuable and I’m glad to have received them.

And I have not been inundated by anon hate the way some blogs I follow have been, so it’s not really about that–although the possibility of that occurring is a factor in the decision, definitely.

No, the issue is twofold. First, anonymity is entirely unnecessary here. The only reason a person might need to be anonymous is if some kind of negative consequence were going to befall them either for what they say, or for being here at all. But I’m fairly confident that none of my commenters is living under an authoritarian regime likely to arrest, torture, or murder them for expressing an opinion on a blog, nor do I suspect that any of you are engaged in some kind of undercover operation or secret agents or otherwise subject to the sort of scrutiny that makes connecting to the Internet a risky endeavor–and if you are, what are you doing risking coming here? No, for anyone actually commenting here making a Google account on a fake name is surely protection enough, and if you’re really paranoid you can even do it through an anonymizing proxy of some sort.

And since none of you need an anonymous posting option, I’m under no obligation to provide it–and anonymity works against what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog.

I want, ultimately, to do three things with this blog. The first is to get my ideas and words out into the world. Having or not having anonymous comments makes no difference to this purpose.

The second is to provoke and participate in discussion. Anonymity makes this difficult, because I have no way of telling if multiple anonymous comments in a thread are by the same person or not.

The third is to create community, and anonymity makes this impossible. Anonymous commenters are a faceless, amorphous mass. Because I do not know which comments are by different people and which are by the same people, it is impossible to build a sense of who anyone is. Identities become impossible to discern, and without individual identities there can be no relationships and therefore no community.

And, frankly, I am disgusted by the culture of the Internet, and much of that disgust is provoked by the rampant abuse of anonymity as a shield from behind which cowards can bully and harass, express bigotry without exposing themselves to the social consequences, or maliciously and sadistically hurt others to make themselves feel big. Even putting aside trolls, it encourages a dehumanizing and depersonalizing sense of power and distance, a hyper-rationalist form of discourse in which having an identity is an exploitable personal flaw and expressing emotions is a signifier of weakness and inferiority.

That is not what I want my blog to be. I don’t want people to just make provocative statements, I want them to defend those statements with the passion that only comes when your reputation depends on it. I want continuity between discussions, so that something a person says in one thread can be brought up in a later one to ask them to explain an apparent contradiction or hypocrisy. I want people to own what they say, so that they put a little thought into it before they say it. And most of all, I want the opportunity to get to know the people I interact with here, which requires that they be people and not faceless ciphers.

A brief thought on privilege

I was hoping to have another fundamentals post today, on privilege, but it’s going to take more brainmeats than I can spare at the moment, as well as more forks/spoons/culinary-implements-as-signifiers-of-mental-health of your choice.

So instead just one brief spot, inspired by a chart I keep seeing floating around Tumblr which purports to assign numeric scores to various forms of privilege: that is not how privilege works. Privilege is not some kind of score, it is a list, of rules which don’t apply equally to everyone. Everyone has privilege in some form or another, and while it is easy to say to some privileges are pretty obviously worth more than others (the white privilege of “if someone shoots you, it is relatively hard for them to get off on a self-defense plea” as opposed to the trivial black privilege of “can get away with using the n-word in mixed company”), there are other privileges much harder to compare (say, the male privilege of “significantly less likely to be raped” as opposed to the cis privilege of “significantly less likely to be murdered”).

But it’s actually more complicated than that, because not only are privileges a list of rules that apply differently to different people, but they apply at different times and in different circumstances. There are scenarios in which being white is a disadvantage–say, the only white kid at an otherwise all-black middle school–it’s just that society’s overall racism means there are fewer of them and they are less impactful than the scenarios in which being black is a disadvantage. This is unlikely to matter on the level of individual experience, however, because of course one’s own privilege is hard to see.

Again, this is not to say that there aren’t groups which are systemically privileged over other groups. There is, generally speaking, one clearly privileged group in each demographic category, which in the U.S. sums up broadly to wealthy white English-speaking Christian heterosexual cis men. In the overwhelming majority of circumstances, members of these groups have massive privilege over others–but it’s entirely pointless to fight over whether, for example, Jews or asexual people are more privileged. (And they both are, because everyone is privileged.) That serves only to divide us, when we should all be working together to destroy the systems underlying privilege.

The point of privilege is not to rank people according to how oppressed they are. That is an impossible and self-defeating activity. The point, is instead, to note that everyone has blind spots which make them unaware of how unfair our society is to others. And again, it’s not that blacks should be sympathetic to whites because they have privileges whites don’t–blacks do have privileges that whites don’t, but they’re bullshit compared to the massive privileges whites have that blacks don’t. Instead, it’s to note that a black Christian may be blind to the injustices faced by a white pagan, or a straight woman blind to the injustices faced by a gay man, and so on. All of us are blind to our own privilege, and the only way to see it is to believe someone else when that someone else tells us they don’t have it.

When is violence an appropriate response?

I don’t know.

I honestly don’t.

I do know this. I know that when I was 17 and got stopped going 94 miles an hour, I reached for my coat in the passenger seat because my license was in it, and the cop who stopped me pulled his gun. It was frightening enough, but in hindsight I realize, if I were black he’d have shot me in the head until the gun ran out of bullets, because that is what cops do to black people.

And I know that if you are constantly subject to violence and the fear of violence, if the courts encourage violence against you by punishing it less often and less severely, if the people whose job is supposedly to protect you instead treat you as a threat, then it is not my place to tell you that you can’t use violence in response.

And I know this, too: in communities around America, the police act like an occupying army, carry the equipment of an occupying army, speak and think like an occupying army, which makes them, guess what, an occupying army.

And this as well: if you put on the uniform of an occupying army and walk out onto the battlefield, it doesn’t matter if your soul is as pure and sinless as the driven snow, you are a legitimate target.

“Some people,” says the voice of wisdom in a well-acted but otherwise terrible and reactionary film, “just want to watch the world burn.” Given what this world does to them, I can’t blame them.

It may be that violence will just give them the excuse to clamp down harder. Or it may be that violence is the only hope of tearing down a system designed to prevent any kind of meaningful change. It’s not my place to make that decision–only to lend my voice in support of the people who do have that right.

And one other thing I know: I know that when you have the power–a weapon in your hand, armor on your chest, an entire power structure designed to protect you from accountability–then violence is definitely not appropriate.

Well this should be a popular opinion…

Fuck Veterans Day.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not unreasonable at all to have a day of remembrance and mourning for the people who have sacrificed their lives and safety in order to protect their homes. It’s just that we already have a day for that, Memorial Day.

Also, the last time the U.S. military actually did any of that was World War II. Every other military conflict of the last 150 years or so, and quite a few of the ones before that, were pure imperialist assertions of power. Even World War II was mostly an assertion that the islands of the Pacific were our imperial protectorates, not Japan’s; that the alliance of empires on the other side were rather a lot more horrific than the alliance of empires on our side is mostly a happy coincidence. (Well, happy for the Allies, not so much for the people who lived in those empires. Or for Japanese-Americans. Or… well, you get the point.)

And, I mean, being a soldier is one of the few ways in which a working class or lower middle class American can get a decently paying job or an education. We should be at least as sympathetic toward them as we are toward the young people pushed into gangs by similar social pressures. Admittedly, gangs have done a lot less harm in the world than the U.S. military, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which tend to villify the former and laud the latter. It’s really not their fault.

No, the problem is that Veterans Day isn’t about mourning sacrifices or solemnly pondering necessary evils, it’s about a jingoistic celebration of authoritarian, imperialist might. It’s about speeches where our leaders try to one-up one another in their over-the-top declarations of how utterly fantabulous it is that a significant percentage of our society and economy is dedicated to the pursuit of slaughter and destruction in foreign lands. It’s about the lie that spreading chaos and death makes us safer, that “we fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here,” as if there would be a “them” if we weren’t fighting there.

So yeah. Fuck it. Have a Peace Day instead. Or move Election Day to November 11 so we can all have that off. Better yet, make it the second Monday in November or something, because holidays that don’t create three-day weekends are stupid.

But that won’t happen any time soon, because the U.S. is a highly aggressive imperial power, and we now exist in a state of perpetual war that our leaders have no interest in ending. But that doesn’t mean we have to celebrate it.

Support for, concerns about #HeForShe

Edit: So as universalperson points out in the comments, Hugo Schwyzer is seriously awful an referring to him as a feminist ally is pretty inaccurate. On the other hand, I still stand by saying that he’s the strongest one Good Man Project had–he talked the talk while acting horribly in private, as opposed to actively attacking feminism and feminists. 

So, you may have heard about a speech Emma Watson gave at the UN recently, in which she went out of her way to emphasize the ways in which patriarchy hurts men and invite men into the feminist movement. Part of the purpose of the speech was to announce the launch of a new UN campaign, #HeForShe, encouraging men to pledge to speak out against instances of sexism and misogyny in their communities.

And this is, net, probably a good thing, which is why I have signed the pledge. Plus, you know, I was doing it already, and, as I said on Twitter, if Emma Watson and Lauren Faust are telling you to do something, it is probably worth at least checking out.

But at the same time, I’m a little cautious. I remember when the Good Man Project sounded like a great idea, a way to help repair the very real damage patriarchy and kyriarchy do to men and, in the process, help gain men as allies against the kyriarchy.

It didn’t work out that way. The year after its founding, the Good Man Project posted a series of anti-feminist articles by one of its founders, leading to the resignation of the strongest feminist ally among its regular contributors and resulting in its present state, a site where an article about the pain of being in “the friend zone” can share front page space with an article about using the pain of losing a friend to make one a better CEO, parenting and dating tips, but not a trace of politics, not a mention of, say, the behavior of men in creating #GamerGate or the moral obligation to not touch stolen nude pictures of celebrities or, I don’t know, the launch of #HeForShe? The entire site is predicated on the notion that it is possible to be a “good man” in isolation, that men’s issues can be separated from gender issues–that, in short, one can become a better man without thinking about women. And that’s when it’s not just being the watered-down diet version of the Men’s Rights movement.

Because that’s the thing: Yes, the patriarchy hurts men too. Hegemonic masculinity pressures men to avoid cultivating emotional intelligence, makes it difficult for them to form close friendships or seek help when in need. Male rape victims suffer the consequences of rape culture just as women do. Because the kyriarchy constructs masculinity as being about power, and particularly power over women, trans men are falsely seen as “starting as women” and barred from accessing that power or asserting masculinity; gay men are seen as unmasculine and threatening; men who do not particularly relish displays of power are seen as unmasculine and dispensable. Men are poisoned with false narratives and expectations about relationships, their place in the world, the source of their identity, and the nature of gender.

But all of this is collateral damage.

Supporting feminism because kyriarchy hurts men is like getting upset over a terrorist bombing because the resulting traffic jam made you late for work. Yes, that’s a negative effect, but focusing on it is self-centered and narcissistic.

Women are the targets of misogyny and sexism. They are the ones who face it day in and out, who see all of it, not just the bits that happen to men. They are the ones who can see the enemy, who know the enemy, who have no choice about being in this fight, because they are the ones being directly attacked.

We men are necessarily on the sidelines. So we can help. We can support. We can take action, discuss theory, even, if invited to do so, offer advice. But it must be women that lead, because a feminism that forefronts men’s concerns makes as much sense as a movement for racial equality that focuses on making whites feel better or a labor movement that emphasizes keeping managers happy; it’s inherently self-defeating.

If you want to see what a movement looks like that primarily focuses on the ways in which patriarchy hurts men, look no further than the Red Pill on Reddit, if you can stomach it. Men feel as if they’ve been robbed of something they’re entitled to, powerless, lost, purposeless, isolated because they’ve been taught by the patriarchy that their role is to exercise power, that certain emotions are “unmanly,” that women are their property and birthright. They feel powerless because they expect power, lost, purposeless, and isolated because they are emotionally stunted and unable to form healthy relationships, and robbed because they’ve been lied to about what they’re entitled to.

These are all problems that feminism can solve, because they’re all collateral damage of the war on women: all stem from a system of gender relations that defines “man” as “wielder of power over women.” But focusing on these problems puts the emphasis on the feelings of powerlessness and loss, pushing toward a “solution” of seeking to give men still more power over women. The result is to make the feeling being robbed worse, to stoke anger and resentment and hate. The result is MRAs and PUAs and, ultimately, rapes and mass shootings.

The focus, instead, needs to be on the underlying causes. Where feminism focuses on helping men, it needs to be about tough love–about helping men shed their entitlement, their expectations of power. Where feminism focuses on recruiting men, it should be about encouraging self-policing, about teaching men to teach men to be less entitled and to reduce unrealistic expectations of power. Then and only then can men work on healing the damage of patriarchy, after they’ve worked helping take it down.

And most importantly of all, men need to learn to help, not save. This is a theme I’ve hammered again and again in my analyses this past year, because it’s important. There’s a reason there’s a degree of controversy over whether men should even call themselves feminists, whether it might not be better to refer to themselves as feminist allies, and it’s because of the savior problem. Far too many men walk into feminist spaces because they want to Save the Women, imposing their own ideas–necessarily based on incomplete information, because no man experiences the entire reality of sexism as experienced by women–of what needs to be done, all in service of their own ego and self-image as a Good Person who will Rescue Those Poor People. It is a profoundly self-centered approach that infantilizes and dehumanizes the people one is seeking to save.

No, the proper role of men in a feminist movement is as helpers–our job is to say “What do you need?” and then either provide what’s asked for or get out of the way. Not because of any fundamental difference between men and women, but because that is the moral way and only really workable way to get involved in another person’s problems: to offer one’s resources and then allow the person in need to decide how to use them.

And helping isn’t easy. Trying to help is harder than trying to save. It means surrendering power and control, opening oneself up to rejection, and putting one’s own feelings and wants and ideas about what’s helpful second to the expressed needs of another person. Which is why, ultimately, I worry about #HeForShe in the long term. Getting involved in someone else’s equality movement to benefit oneself seems like very much the wrong reasons. A man who supports feminism to help himself, or to feel better, or to get praised, is pretty much guaranteed to be doing it wrong–and an entire international movement of people doing it wrong could do real damage.

So yes, I signed the #HeForShe pledge. And yes, I do encourage other men to do it as well. But I also encourage you to focus on the ForShe part. This isn’t HeForHe, isn’t about our egos and our needs. To return to my rather strained earlier metaphor, this isn’t about stopping traffic jams, it’s about stopping bombings. If the traffic jam is what it takes to get you involved, so be it–but the traffic jams cannot be priority one. They cannot be a priority at all; you’re just going to have to trust that the side effects will naturally fade as we tackle the core problem.

I don’t normally do this, but I feel this is an important conversation that needs to happen as part of #HeForShe, so: Please consider reblogging, sharing, and linking to this post.

Fundamentals: Criticism and Social Justice

The world in which we live is deeply, horrifyingly unfair.

Some of that unfairness is inescapable, a consequence of the terrifying randomness and even more terrifying determinism of the universe. Our friends and loved ones are as likely to be hit by buses as our enemies. Babies who haven’t even figured out that other people exist yet, let alone tried to hurt them, get diseases that cause horrible lifelong suffering. Market forces tend to amplify initial small disparities in wealth. Trashy reality shows are more profitable than well-written and acted dramas, even though hardly anyone actually watches them.

But a lot of that unfairness was invented by humans, and is entirely under human control. This kind of unfairness can be divided into two categories, which is an entire article on its own, but we’re interested today in only one of them, systemic injustice: all of the ways in which the systems and power relations that comprise our society are structurally unfair, even in the absence of deliberate action by any one individual. In other words, for this particular topic we’re less interested in unfairness that arises from people cheating, and more interested in unfairness that arises from the rules themselves.

That’s where social justice comes in. The idea is simple, its execution hard: create a society in which as much systemic injustice as possible is eliminated or corrected for. More fundamentally, social justice is simply the idea that fixing systemic injustice wherever possible is a major moral imperative. That one is not personally responsible for any particular unfair act is irrelevant; systemic injustice is a problem of a community, rather than individuals, and therefore a matter of communal, rather than personal, responsibility.

Which brings us to the role of criticism in all this, and in particular a specific family of critical schools including the feminist, queer, and postcolonial schools, among others. The common thread is a particular function of critical analysis, namely the identification of ways in which the text expresses, reflects, encourages, or perpetuates systemic injustices. From a social justice perspective, this is an extremely important activity. Texts, after all, are a major component of a culture, and a community’s culture is the primary means by which it influences the behavior of individuals within the community. In other words, it is by means of culture that systemic injustices perpetuate themselves, and therefore it is in the realm of culture that they must be met, identified, and combatted.

The primary function of criticism in general, if such a thing exists, could be said to think about culture and engage with it more mindfully. The function of social justice criticism, then, is to engage with culture while being mindful of systemic injustices. Note that this is not necessarily the same thing as criticizing a particular culture; particularly when dealing with works that originate outside one’s own community, it’s important not to project one’s own community’s issues onto that other community. That said, the interpretation of a text is as much an expression of culture as the creation of the text, so it is entirely legitimate to look at how a text from one culture might read in one’s own culture, as part of a critique of one’s own culture.

Ultimately, the goal of this is not to say, for example, “This movie is racist and therefore bad.” (Though, of course, there are movies which are bad and racist, including ones where the racism is what makes them bad. But racism doesn’t automatically make a work bad, it makes it racist.) The goal is not to attack individual works or creators–though sometimes that is necessary, because one of the ways in which systemic injustice functions is by making it easy to ignore individual acts of injustice–but rather to, as a member of the community, participate in one’s communal responsibility to help identify and mitigate systemic unfairness.

The key point here is that social justice criticism is emphatically not about attacking another, because it’s not about the Other at all. It’s about confronting the darkness in the extended Self, one’s own communities and cultures, and exposing it to light so that it can be dealt with. It’s about embracing one’s own culpability in communal responsibility for the state of the culture, and choosing to be mindful of that responsibility as a first step toward performing it.

Fundamentals: Community, Culture, and Responsibility

“Fundamentals” is an irregular series in which I write about certain basic ideas underlying my work on this site.

No human being exists in isolation. Each and every one of us is a member of multiple communities, some joined by choice (e.g., fandoms), others thrust upon us as a consequence of birth or upbringing (e.g., family, ethnicity), as a consequence of other choices (e.g., coworkers), or external circumstances and pressures; some are permanent, others temporary. And every community has a culture: collective rules and values, stories, material products, and so on. We are shaped by the cultures of the communities to which we belong, and they in turn emerge from the actions of each individual within the community. This does not deny individual choice, free will, or any of that; rather, it simply notes the plain fact that we are neither mindless drones nor completely autonomous actors unaffected by our environments and interactions with others. We are both individuals and members of communities, and it is equally a mistake to overemphasize either.

Which brings us to a rather critical point about responsibility. There is a tendency among some, I think, to assume that responsibility is exclusive and zero sum–in other words, that there are a finite number of responsibility points for any given occurrence, and if I take them all then no one else gets any. In other words, if Bob does something bad, to suggest that Bob was influenced by the surrounding culture is to deny, at least in part, that Bob was responsible for his actions.

This is nonsense. Take it as given that an individual is totally responsible for their actions and the consequences thereof. Culture emerges from the aggregate actions of all members of a community, and therefore all members of a community are responsible for their actions that contribute to that culture. All members of the community are shaped by that culture, and therefore their actions are influenced by–in other words, partial consequences of–the culture, which is to say the aggregate actions of all members of the community.

Thus, consider Alice, who shares a community and culture with Bob. Alice’s actions help shape the culture of that community, and therefore also Bob’s actions. Thus, Alice is partially responsible for the actions of Bob.

If we are totally responsible for our own actions and the consequences thereof, in other words, it follows that we are also responsible for the cultures we create and the ways in which they shape our own and others’ actions. Personal responsibility necessarily implies cultural and communal responsibility.

Which, let’s be clear on some things before anybody accuses me of saying something I’m not:

  • This does not mean that anything anyone does is the responsibility of every community to which they belong. Rather, it is necessary to first show how a particular culture influenced the person’s actions, and only then is it possible to assign responsibility to the community.
  • This does not apply only to “bad” actions and influences. Culture can have lots of positive influences, in which case every member of the community has some responsibility for that, too.
  • As I already said, this does not negate personal responsibility, but follows logically from it. A person is still entirely responsible for their own actions, it is simply also the case that there is communal responsibility. Like most seeming contradictions, this only appears to be one because of an unstated assumption, that responsibility is zero-sum and exclusive. Reject that notion, and it is completely possible for two people to be completely responsible for the same event, let alone one person completely responsible and another partially responsible.
  • Personal and social responsibility are not qualitatively the same. Personal responsibility, generally, is much more direct and concentrated; social responsibility tends to be diffuse by its very nature, spread thinly across many people. There are, of course, exceptions: for example, when a prominent community leader deliberately creates a culture of hatred and fear, for example, they carry a much larger and more concentrated portion of the responsibility for members of the community who lash out than the rank and file do, though again that does not negate the responsibility of the rest of the community for accepting and perpetrating the culture.