On Social Roles

On Social Roles

My wife is a special education teacher, and she is truly excellent at what she does. She currently works with families with children between the age of 0 and 3 and helps teach them how to raise a child with disabilities or physical/intellectual delays. She is incredibly skilled at what she does, and performs a role for our society that I would be terrible at. I am simply not an infant person. I could learn a lot about them and become good at working with infants and their families, I am sure, but it is not something that would feel natural to me, at least not in the way that it does for my wife. Contrasting her, I am a good writer (in my own opinion at least) and I have a set of skills in working with data and information, in coalition and team building, and in speaking and communication that my wife does not have (she has worked to be good in all these areas, but again, it is more natural for me than her just as working with children with disabilities is more natural for her than me). The kinds of jobs and careers that come naturally to me would be a major challenge for my wife, just as her job would be a major challenge to me. We fill different roles within society based on our individual strengths.
I think about social roles a lot, especially how far back in our evolutionary history our varying social roles could possibly tie back to. In small hunter gatherer tribes, I can imagine people having many overlapping roles, but also many different specialized roles. It would be hard for people to bring children along on certain hunting or gathering expeditions, and that would necessitate a split in terms of social roles. It is natural then that some people who were better skilled at child rearing would watch over children at a central location while others would go off to hunt. This is the most basic presentation of the idea of social roles I can think of, and I recognize that it is probably too simplistic and vulnerable to abuse by those who want to limit women’s rights, but I think it is a helpful starting point to understand how we should think about the roles we all play within society and how our current social expectations of personal responsibility can run against our possibly evolved social roles. [I want to stress that I am not saying men are by default strong hunters and women are by default fragile childcare workers. I don’t see any reason why a spectrum of skills wouldn’t have some men be naturally more inclined to childcare work, cooking, or other typically feminine coded roles with some women more aligned toward hunting, fire fighting, or other typically masculine coded roles.]
In his book The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes, “In most cases we hold adults responsible for their own actions. But when people are too young, … or [too intellectually disabled], to be held responsible, society has to designate someone else to assume this responsibility. When people’s relatives cannot or will not play this role, society needs to create an institution to act in loco parentis.”
This quote highlights the role of personal responsibility and the conflicts between our social roles and our personal responsibility that can arise in the United States. Not all of us would be great at watching over an assisting a family member or friend who was dealing with severe depression, an addiction, or who had an intellectual disability that prevented them from working. However, for many people in our country, this responsibility is forced on them by a social system that provides minimal support to people with disabilities or who have had mental health challenges. Regardless of the role we are best suited for, sometimes we end up having to care for an elderly loved one with no other person to turn to, or for a spouse facing suicidal thoughts, or for a child dealing with a drug addiction. Not all of us are well positioned to help such individuals, and sometimes those people who need help and support find themselves on the street and on a path toward homelessness when the family around them cannot support them.
That is the warning that Liebow’s quote contains. Without solid institutions (I am not using “institutions” in the sense of a mental institution to warehouse people) we cannot provide the support that people really need. We will force everything into the personal responsibility framework that dominates our society. We force responsibility of others onto family members who may not be well suited to perform that role. The argument is that we need better social systems and structures that ensure that people who need help, whether it is counseling, healthcare treatment for addiction, or life services for those with intellectual disabilities along with assistance for their supporting families is necessary in order to reduce and potentially eliminate homelessness. We cannot solve our problem by continuing to heap greater responsibilities onto the shoulders of those who are not well suited or positioned to bear such responsibilities. Those who do manage to support people in our existing system deserve praise, but those who fail don’t fail entirely on their own. Their failure is a social failure, reflecting the over-reliance of personal responsibility in our society and the unreasonable demands such a system can place upon people who don’t have the right skills and abilities to handle such daunting challenges.
Personal Responsibility & Failure

Personal Responsibility and Failure

In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes the following about one of the homeless women he met while researching his book, “Shirley found it too difficult and too painful to petition her children for assistance, not after she had spent years teaching them the importance of being self-reliant and independent.” Shirley represents a reality we often don’t think about in the United States. In our country we place a premium on personal responsibility. When we succeed we can feel great about ourselves, because we highlight the role of individual hard work, determination, and good judgment when we measure success. However, Shirley shows us the opposite side of this infatuation with personal responsibility – when you fail, it is all on you, and you are the one to blame. While success is understood to reflect personal virtues, failure is understood to reflect personal ineptitude or worse.
I like the narrative of personal responsibility. I like feeling good about the things in my life that have gone well. My dad came to the United States when he was 5, and grew up poor. My parents, and my uncles on my dad’s side, all made good decisions, have worked hard, and have avoided drugs and alcohol. Embracing the personal responsibility narrative feels good because it validates their lives and experiences, elevating their good character traits and decisions and ultimately elevating their social status. For me this is inspiring and has encouraged me to try to be as successful as they have been and follow their good examples.
But my parents and uncles are outliers and focusing on their story of individual success fails to acknowledge the ways that external forces can shape what is possible in someone’s life – theirs’s included. There is much we do not chose and much we cannot control that determines what is possible for us. Yes, we have to make good decisions and be hard working, but it is not all in our control. (For example, my dad and uncles are immigrants, but pass as white and one uncle answers ethnicity questions by lying and saying he is Italian – a tacit acknowledgement that not all of their success is entirely due to his own hard work and ingenuity.) Emphasizing personal responsibility, self-reliance, and independence fails to recognize how dependent we can be on others, and it can become crushing when we do fail or run into bad luck.
Shirley took her failure and homelessness personally, as a reflection of her character. She was too ashamed to ask for help, too ashamed to face her failure and look to family for assistance. When we highlight the individuals and downplay the systemic, structural, and social forces that influence our lives, then we put failure (not just success) on the shoulders of the individual. We become blameworthy for our failures, and for us to ask society, family, or friends for aid is to announce our personal failures and shortcomings.
Ultimately, I think our emphasis on personal responsibility can drive us to do great things, to try our hardest, and can reward us for grit and good decision-making. But I think we should also consider the flip side of the equation. When we fail, this narrative puts the failure entirely on us, without consideration of bad luck, larger economic and social forces, or other barriers and limits that we couldn’t control. We need to be aware of this and develop institutions that encourage the hard work of personal responsibility without crushing the individuals who fail, because we can’t be successful in absolutely everything we do, and some of us will have bad luck and face complete failure. We do not want people to be left in a position where they embody their failure and give up on hopes for improving themselves and their lives.
When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

Recently, my reading and writing has been critical of the idea of personal responsibility. Because we live in a society that is hyper focused on personal responsibility, because we live in an economic system where success is taken a representation of individual characteristics, and because the dominant religious views in our nation have viewed success as rewards for good individual choices and attributes, I find it necessary to push back against that narrative and look for examples of how personal responsibility can be discounted in evaluating the success or failure of another person. Perhaps living in a society that hyper devalued personal responsibility I would feel the need to highlight the role of individual responsibility in our lives, but as things are, it feels important to me is to write about the ways that structural and systemic forces can influence our lives, including the level of personal responsibility we are able to bring to individual situations and circumstances.
Trauma is one of those large structural and systemic forces that should make us re-think personal responsibility. Entrepreneurial autobiographies, self-help books, and even philosophical thinkers (like Ryan Holiday who I really find influential) talk about the importance of being able to overcome obstacles to become successful. However, a failure to adequately address and process trauma, something almost no one can (perhaps no one at all), can do on their own can prevent individuals from being able to overcome even the smallest of obstacles. Trauma can originate from incredibly early on in our lives, at a time when our brains are in their infancy and unable to even remember and recall the trauma. This doesn’t mean that trauma won’t still influence a life for decades to come. There have been lots of studies that look at childhood violence, food scarcity, and other traumatic factors and life outcomes for individuals as adults and found that those who experienced trauma have worse economic outcomes later in life.
This isn’t surprising, but somehow these findings never seem to properly make it into self-help books or our narrative around personal responsibility. Often, if past trauma is addressed in our personal responsibility culture, it is presented as another personal responsibility of the individual facing the trauma to seek out the proper help and therapy to be able to reprogram their mind.
This leaves individuals who have faced trauma in a precarious position. Their trauma is ignored and when it is recognized, it falls back onto the individual to do something to overcome it. Larger structural forces and systems don’t make an effort to understand an individual’s trauma and we don’t have larger systems and structures to provide a robust social support system to encourage and provide therapy to those who need it.
In $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer demonstrate how severe the trauma of others can be in shaping their lives and driving them into $2.00 a day poverty. Regarding one individual presented in the book they write, “surviving repeated abandonment by the adults in her life and a nearly constant exposure to danger had left Rae with underlying feelings of rage. Even at the relatively calm Parma store, Rae’s temper could flare up unexpectedly with slight provocation.”
For Rae, past trauma made it almost impossible for her to function in an individualistic and capitalistic society. Our individualism and capitalism has helped propel America to be the richest country on earth and has given us great luxury and has improved our world in many ways, but it has also left those who faced severe trauma, such as repeated abandonment as a child and physical danger, left alone with no appropriate way to cope with routine stresses and anxieties. It is no surprise that Rae had trouble holding a job, trouble connecting with other people to be a stable roommate, and  trouble containing her anger when provoked by rude customers. When living with the kind of trauma of physical abuse and abandonment that Rae experienced, self-preservation required a fierce and powerful reactions to threats, and that mindset could not simply be turned off even if Rae had read the best self-help book on the market.
We need to think of the trauma of others in our daily interactions and judgements of them. The United States does not have ample social support systems such as professional therapists, well trained mentors, or robust family networks for most people to receive the support necessary to overcome severe trauma. It is easy to dismiss someone who seems to act irrationally, as we can imagine Rae often did on the job or in her personal relationships, because we focus so intensely on the individual and personal responsibility. However, if we don’t recognize the role that trauma plays and the importance of social support for individuals who have been traumatized, then we risk pushing people to ruin, to $2.00 a day poverty, and potentially to suicide. It is not unreasonable to argue that our society needs to do more to support these people than say it is their personal responsibility to seek out the help they need on their own.
Situationists

Situationists

“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.
Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

Complex and Conflicting Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

I’m really hesitant to criticize others for not taking sufficient personal responsibility for the ways they live and the outcomes of their lives. A lot of factors influence whether you are economically successful or whether you are fit and healthy. Some things we seem to have a lot of control over, but many things are matters of chance and circumstance. Placing too much blame on the individual doesn’t seem fair, yet at the same time, there is clearly an element of personal responsibility involved. I’m not sure where I land on how we should think about this division.

 

What is clear, however, is that there can be negative consequences when we take away people’s agency in their decision-making and life outcomes, and when we erode the authority of those who are reasonably critical of negative lifestyles and ways of thinking and being, we can put ourselves and societies in vulnerable positions.

 

Sam Quinones writes about these tensions in his book Dreamland and he highlights how patient responsibility and physician authority devolved between the 1980’s and twenty-teens as a quick fix, there’s-a-drug-for-that mindset took hold of the American healthcare system. He writes, “…patients were getting used to demanding drugs for treatment. They did not, however, have to accept the idea that they might, say, eat better and exercise more, and that this might help them lose weight and feel better. Doctors, of course, couldn’t insist. As the defenestration of the physician’s authority and clinical experience was under way, patients didn’t have to take accountability for their own behavior.”

 

I’m usually hesitant to say that the problem is people’s lack of accountability, because how often do we really control how much exercise we can get when many of us live in places where walking is difficult because our streets are not safe, or are not well designed for pedestrian use, or because half the year it is dark early and we get lots of snowfall? How often do we not know what kinds of exercises we should do, and how often do we have people who are only critical of our current state rather than supportive and encouraging? How often have we had a bad break and poor advice on how to get back, only leading to a further defeat, deflating our sense of self worth? In addition to all this, how often have we seen people use the personal responsibility argument in bad faith? To justify not helping others or to rationalize their greed or excessive self-aggrandizement?

 

But at the same time, as Quinones shows, responsibility is important. We need to think about what we can and should be doing to help improve our own lives, without hoping for an easy fix in the form of a miracle pill. We can’t just throw out the opinions of experts and devalue their authority because they are willing to say things that are discomforting for us, but are likely correct in terms of how we can make our lives better. Somehow we need to work together to build a society that recognizes the barriers and challenges that we face toward becoming the successful and healthy people that we want to be, but encourages us to still work hard and overcome obstacles by taking responsibility for our actions and (at least some percentage of) our outcomes. I don’t know what this looks like exactly, and I’m not sure where the line falls between personal responsibility and outside factors, but I am willing to have an honest discussion about it and about what it all means for how we relate to each other.

Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.

Personal Responsibility

How we think about personal responsibility seems to be a driving factor in the decisions we make about society. We are a group of individuals working in our own best interest, but with our interests moderated through a social union to ensure that as we pursue our best interest, we do not unreasonably impede others or damage their health, resources, or wellbeing. For many, our success is seen as a result of our own effort, attitude, and determinism, and without taking responsibility for our individual actions we can never reach our full potential, and we will never uphold our end of societal success.

Senator Cory Booker addresses the role that personal responsibility has played in his life in his book United, detailing the lessons learned from his parents. He writes, “My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day” (emphasis in original).

Booker continues to give examples of his mother teaching him about excellence and how he learned the importance of always doing our best work, because someone was always counting on us to do our best. His family provided him lessons with actors from the Civil Rights Movement as models, giving Booker a powerful message to endure challenges and struggles and to take personal responsibility for actions and decisions because it is in the best interest of society.

The quote above, in Booker’s emphasized section on attitude, reflects stoic principles outlined by Marcus Aurelius in his writing, Meditations. Aurelius wrote about the ways in which our attitude changes our constitution and our demeanor for the day. If we choose to leave the comfort of our bed knowing that we will meet people who do not hold our standards, but that we ourselves are not lessened by those who do not hold to our ideals, then we can move forward with an attitude that lifts all. If we reflect on our perception we can identify the challenges we face, and turn our obstacles into pathways toward success, bearing nobly that which others see as poor fortune.

Recognizing that societal growth and progress requires our best is a powerful motivator for us to strive toward greatness. Our full potential is the only thing that can carry forward others, open new doors for ourselves, and lay the stones to create paths for other. When we choose to see this, we have a reason to contribute to society rather than to expect society to provide for us. Reflecting on our attitude and deciding that we will approach each day and each decision in a positive light will help us advance and grow for the betterment of all.