Responsibility and Obligation

This piece at Front Porch Republic touches on a lot of what I have been thinking about over the last few years. Not the examples he uses of children who have “rebelled” against being raised in gay families or against having been homeschooled. But the way he handles rights language and how to think of the social order (and not just in our society). Especially this:

[O]rder evolves not as a simple compact among equals but as the complex human response to the inescapable fact of our biological and social inequality.

The author, Thomas Holgrave, lays the blame, if that’s the correct way of putting things, of rights talk on John Locke, whose concepts of “social contract” have done a great deal to confound our understanding of what it means to live as human beings together. As Holgrave writes:

But part of the individual’s sacred humanity is found not only in his self-belonging, but also in his belonging to others — in the mutual claims that he and others have upon one another.

Indeed. This belonging to others is part of how we find ourselves, and figure out who we are. So it matters what kind of claims others make upon us.

I’m not sure I deal with this as well as I’d like in my book. I spent a lot of my life in what has become clear to me as a futile quest for meaning independent of belonging to a community of people. And that I have functioned best — been my most authentic self — when I was deeply embedded in a community (among the Muslims of Logan, Utah; in seminary) and attached to others. Because it was among such people I figured out best who I was.

At the risk of making myself utterly unemployable (who am I kidding? I already am…), there are two questions employers like asking that simply I cannot answer. The first is some version of “How do people see you?”, which oddly enough, I’ve been asked a lot (also in the seminary candidacy process), and the second is “What is your greatest weakness?” I don’t know how to answer those questions. I have no idea how people see me — there were enough years in my early life when just about everyone around was calling me stupid, or incompetent, telling me they didn’t like me and that no one ever would, or threatening me with violence (or actually being violent), that I simply do not know how to conceive of ways others might see me positively. Or even “objectively,” to the extent any such thing is possible. And where do I even start with my understanding of my “weaknesses?” I heard those voices often enough I made them my own. They imprinted upon me, and they formed me. I don’t know how not to be that person.

The problem with social contract theory is that the language creates a presumption of voluntariness. Or to paraphrase the 19th century American anarchist Lysander Spooner, “I didn’t sign a social contract!” Which I didn’t. Which means, honestly, that I ought to be able to walk away. But I can’t. Short of having enough wealth to emigrate (Slovakia, here we come?), I’m stuck.

But there’s a flip side to that voluntary understanding of society. The majority can say “no” as well. Only they can mean it. They don’t need to send me far away to Uruguay or Mongolia or Nauru. They just need to see me as “useless.” They just need to treat me in a way that makes it clear I have no value to them, save maybe as a target of abuse.

Forgotten in our Lockean order are any notions of obligation and responsibility. These are somewhat discredited words, if only because conservatives focus solely on the obligations the poor (and the weak, and the “other”) have to everyone else (to work, to not be shiftless, to behave themselves so as not to be imprisoned), and liberals tend to want to amplify all of modernity’s problems by routing every obligation and responsibility we have toward one another through the state, and making the impersonal bureaucratic machinery of the state — like school — responsible for doling out care and compassion. (This is why I fear liberal solutions far more than conservative ones.)

But there are real things we owe each other. To say that I had a right to not be bullied at Citrus Elementary School in the late 1970s is to miss the point almost entirely. It certainly didn’t go far enough. The people there had an obligation and a responsibility to treat me with some kindness, some dignity, and some decency. (To say they failed utterly at this does not even begin to describe it.) We owe these things to others because without them, they cannot find themselves, cannot figure out who they are and how they fit. Or what they are called to.

Holgrave continues:

[Bertrand de] Jouvenel argues that freedom is not an abstract right but an inescapable quality of human life, even in cases where the individuals are enslaved or utterly dependent. Freedom and dependence exist in one and the same person. So also, what Jouvenel calls “solidarity” is not a compromise in order to protect man’s liberty from violence as much as possible. It is a natural human propensity, fostered from infancy, to rely and be increasingly relied upon in social connection with others.

In many ways, what I’m utterly incapable of is solidarity. I can be a friend, and while I don’t have very many friends, the friendships I have are very close and very intense. But I don’t know how to do solidarity. Maybe that’s because no one ever stood with me, and because standing with others was always expected, but never really rewarded. It may be natural, but it also has to be fostered. It matters how we treat people.

Getting back to the point I wanted to make here, we owe things — we have obligations and responsibilities — to the people we find in our midst. To love, to treat kindly, with some dignity, and to speak truth. Because only that way can they be formed in love as people God made to love, and live with, others.

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