The Primacy Of Personal Responsibility

Subject: The Primacy Of Personal Responsibility
Date: Fri 05 Jun 1998 - 12:57:21 BST

We talk here about the people who have power over our lives. It often puts me
in the mind of Eleanor Roosevelt saying "No one can make you feel inferior
without your consent." Why do we consent to what we do? If we really believe
we are being oppressed, why do we consent?

I suspect it's because if we stop consenting, we end up with the
responsibility to determine the course of our own lives, the obligation to
take responsibility for our own choices. Personal freedom comes with personal
responsibility, the same as any freedom comes with responsibility.

It's so much easier to leave the choice, the responsibility, with other
people, and then complain that they are doing it wrong. "The system must
change to better deal with people like me," is asking the system to change in
some undefined way to better satisfy you.

The problem is, of course, that the only thing any human can change is their
own choices. Through those choices they can affect the choices of others, and
through affecting the choices of others they can affact the choices of
systems, organizations, but the only thing that any of us can directly change
is our own choices.

When we want change, do we talk first about how we have to change, or do we
talk first about they have to change? If we want them to change, to better
handle the responsibility we gave them for our lives, we are surrendering our
agency, freedom and responsibility to them. It's the difference between
choosing to buy a new bed, figuring out how to get it home and how to pay for
it, and a child whining at their parents that they need a new bed, without any
sense of what the costs of a new bed are, without any engagement in the

I do believe that this release of personal responsibility is rampant in this
culture. We teach kids to be consumers and to be workers, not to be owners of
their own life. We tell them that if they follow the rules they will be
rewarded, and much of the bitterness of life is when they don't get what they
expect they should for following the rules.

It's not drones who make new things happen, no matter how much American
schools think that is a good plan, it's owners who make their own rules, who
negotiate laws, social responsibility, personal responsibility and the
challenge of convincing others to work with them, to purchase their goods and
services that make new things happen. We are at a time where everyone now has
some ownership in their life -- money to invest, decisions on carreers and so
on -- as the old paternal "life employment" model falls apart. Yet, the
people who have to take this ownership were not raised to be owners.

The power in a health-care system, for example, goes to those who pay the
bills. If we have enough money to pay for what we want, we can get anything
we want. To get that money, though, we have to take personal responsibility
and own our lives.

Is there a social responsibility, a responsibility to make sure that the least
of us are treated fairly and with dignity? Sure. But the only people who can
make that social responsibility come to pass are the people who take personal
responsibility for their lives, who build new things, become owners and though
that personal power make social changes, along with giving the resources to
pay for them.

Demanding better parenting from the culture, demanding that they get better
and take care of us in a better way is such an appealing notion, especially
for those of us who never got the kind of caring we craved as children. I
have to admit that the thought of being a bottom to a powerful, sensible,
loving and strong top is always a good fantasy, but the truth is that very few
of us ever meet tops that we would surrender our agency to, who can really
take care of us the way we want to be. And even if we did, how would we do
what we need to do, follow our calling rather than just be a cog in the works?

For me, discussion about people who want a magic bullet is discussion about
people who want to give up their responsibility to others, but in that move,
they give up their freedom and their power. This is the essential limiting
thing about old models of transgender, because as we get our benefits we also
have to accede to the demands of normativity, surrendering our own primacy in
our lives to get benefits.

Yet, if we want control, agency & freedom, we must also take responsibility to
pay the costs, and the more freedom we want, the more costs there are. It was
ever thus.

"People always get what they want. But there is a price for everything.
Failures are either those who do not know what they want or are not prepared
to pay the price asked them. The price varies from individual to individual.
Some get things at bargain-sale prices, others only at famine prices. But it
is no use grumbling. Whatever price you are asked, you must pay."
W. H. Auden, poet, Smith College Commencement, 1940

I believe in the primacy of personal responsibility, that we must take
ownership of our own lives before we can make any changes. The luxury of
surrendering resposnnibility has the cost of surrendering freedom, and as much
as we want to have both, to be able to surrender our responsibility to that
system and then have that system give us all the freedom we crave, I suspect
that is a canard, an impossible goal.

You pays your money, you takes your chances.

How do we start speaking up for personal responsibility rather than whining,
carping and complaining that "they" -- the people we have assigned as our
parents, given consent to make us feel inferior -- aren't doing it right?



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