A Culture of Individualism Without Personal Responsibility Makes for Spoiled Adult-Children
“There’s something unique about the United States, a sense of individual rights and freedoms, and a sense of social and civic responsibility that we contributed to so much of the world. We lost that mission in the 1980s and 1990s, when we entered a gilded age, and the culture of individualism became a culture of avarice.” ~George Hickenlooper
In America, we value individual freedoms and rights very highly, even passionately. I’ve seen many people on either side of a hotly contested political or cultural fence, still refuse to back a movement, idea, or law that seeks to restrain the personal freedoms of the other side. But in the last 15 years or so, it seems that America has forgotten an important part of personal freedom: Personal responsibility.
My dad has often said that a great part of the many problems in America is our cultural belief that everyone has “rights”. Not meaning the individual freedoms and inherent rights of all people for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the idea that every person has the right to do whatever they please, however it pleases them to do it, regardless of consequences.
I have a very obnoxious neighbor who likes to play rave music with a strong beat at the oddest possible hours. The houses in our neighborhood are older (1950s), fairly close together, and there happen to be a lot of them. My neighbor always chooses to play his music on random week nights, beginning at 3am.
Despite politely asking him to turn down his beat, despite agreeing to text him rather than always call police, despite the ire of other neighbors, despite plenty of phone calls to police when said text messages were ignored, despite a desperate letter in which we explained that his living room is situated next to our daughters’ bedroom and they do, in fact go to school, and my husband does in fact, work an 8-5 job, despite trying to compromise with him repeatedly, he continues to insist that in his house, he has the right to play whatever music he wishes, at whatever volume and whenever he wishes.
I don’t dispute his choice of music or timing, only the volume, and only then because it is highly disruptive to our sleep and peace. We have an equal right to not listen to his (or any) music in our house. When we finally became frustrated enough to call police, he would send lengthy, angry texts to us highlighting how he had gotten (or almost gotten) in trouble and that it was all our fault.
Back in college I worked at the campus dining hall as a cashier, swiping meal plan cards or taking cash. I was frustrated one day by some of the specific rules about how students could spend their own money for meals. These university students were limited by the computer to a certain number of swipes per day and week, a kind of way to help balance student meals for them. It was a pain if you wanted to treat a visiting friend or if you knew you were going home that weekend and wanted say, breakfast for a few days instead of the weekend meals. I asked the dining hall manager about it, and he replied they had to put the program in place because parents were calling to complain that their kids had blown through their meal money. And I had thought we were responsible adults.
When I tutor students, the first thing I tell them and their caregivers is that it is my job to teach and give tools for learning, but it is their job to study. So many students and parents do not seem to understand this. They expect and believe that if teachers can just be entertaining enough, then kids will magically internalize the necessary information. Caregivers do not always want to take responsibility for their children’s education, and as a result their children never learn to take responsibility for it either. As a further-reaching result of said lack of personal responsibility, educational standards and society overall suffer.
I could go on and on with examples of embarrassing “helicopter” parents who refuse to allow even their adult kids to fail, frivolous lawsuits, big business finger pointing, and community programs that allow abusers to manipulate the system, rather than cutting them off to save funds for people who might use the opportunities to actually better themselves. These well-intentioned parents, programs, neighbors, etc. are short-sighted. They do not or will not see that taking a stand and stopping abuse, enforcing the rules, cleaning up their own messes, or expecting others to take responsibility by facing consequences/being appropriately rewarded, results in healthier people and a healthier community.
We Are Only as Strong as Our Weakest Link
“I said to my children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Being personally responsible is an extremely important part of being an adult in an individualistic society. Taking responsibility benefits those immediately around you, as well as those much farther away in your community. When a community is healthy, you benefit too!
We have a lot of cultural and political debates going on right now: Vaccines, home education, education in general, poverty, drugs, high medical costs, the value vs. price of college, and many more. Most of these wouldn’t be such big issues except that some people want what they want, without taking responsibility for it. They want other people to pay, and no society can function for long with that mindset. If you want certain rights, you should be prepared for the possible consequences, or at least accept responsibility for them. Sometimes we make mistakes, and most people are generous and understanding and willing to help and forgive. At least be honest and own up to your mistake.
“This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself.” ― Robert G. Ingersoll, The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child
You have a right to life. You do not have a right to expect others to provide you with a life. You have a right to liberty. You do not have a right to trample the liberty of other people. You have a right to pursue happiness. You do not have a right to pursue happiness in ways that hurt others. Your rights are important, but they are not more important than your neighbor’s. America is a land of equal rights, after all.
Read also: Psychology Today: B.F. Skinner and the Hopelessness of it All
Return of Kings: What Humans Can Learn from the Mice Utopia Experiment
John Donne, No Man is An Island
David Lindner: The Death of Personal Responsibility