On Personal Responsibility
How do we gracefully continue to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice by demanding that we all act in ways that are more civil and inclusive while, at the same time, take personal responsibility for our own experiences? This is the paradox of our time. And like anything complex, it requires more complex thinking.
We live in interesting times. We are witnessing a tectonic shift in attitudes surrounding issues of social injustice. Perhaps we are on the steep part of the arc of the moral universe, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us always bends to justice. At the same time, we see examples of Orwellian overreach. Trigger warnings in universities that stifle academic debate. The canceling of individuals who unintentionally choose a “wrong” word. Leaders who have lost the nerve to lead decisively as they walk on eggshells in an attempt to be more inclusive and to not offend. It is no surprise that the country is polarized over this issue – one side exhorting us to remedy issues of social injustice no matter what the cost and the other fiercely defending the rights of individuals to express themselves freely.
This is what happens with complex phenomena. We see the issue at hand as a problem to be solved where there is one right, independent answer. And we fail to see it for what it really is – a paradox where there are two interdependent, opposite answers, both of which are right. This is certainly true today. Take the example of an individual who writes or says something deemed offensive by someone else. On the one hand, people should be held accountable for the content and impact of their expressions. Such accountability creates the conditions for people of different ideas to feel included and to engage in civil discourse with each other. On the other hand, people must take responsibility for their own feelings and reactions.
When I take responsibility for my own experience, I give up the right to blame someone else and see that I am the only person capable of offending me. The key is the ability to hold both of these seemingly mutually exclusive points of views – holding others accountable AND taking personal responsibility – as true at the same time. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
What we're witnessing today is the over-preferencing of holding others accountable at the expense of taking personal responsibility. Whenever this happens – whenever one pole in a polarity gets preferenced – we get the benefits of that preferenced pole (in this case, holding others accountable) – but we also get the downside. Thus, we see much needed and overdue social justice progress at the same time as we experience the unfortunate chilling of free expression and the sometimes absurd canceling of voices that we need to hear from, even (or particularly) those with which we vehemently disagree. Worse yet, we get none of the benefits of the neglected pole (in this case, taking personal responsibility). As a result, we are on the verge of producing a generation of young people who are admirable champions of good in the world but are woefully lacking in the critical virtue of taking personal responsibility for their own psychological experience. The answer is not to swing to the other pole – personal responsibility – but to recognize that we need both. We must learn how to gracefully continue to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice by demanding that we all act in ways that are more civil and inclusive while, at the same time, take personal responsibility for our own experiences. This is the paradox of our time. And like anything complex, it requires more complex thinking. “We cannot solve our problems,” Albert Einstein reminded us, “with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It’s time to upgrade our thinking.
For a truly extraordinary example of applying polarity thinking to social justice issues, I highly recommend reading Chapter 7 of Barry Johnson’s excellent book And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma.
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