Way back in the mid-20th century, it used to be a given among most people that the things they did would have outcomes for which they were responsible. If they made a mistake, they dealt with the fallout. If they were careless, they paid the price; maybe they grumbled, but they paid. Now, of course, the very wealthy have always been able to buy their way out of consequences, but the rest of the population was stuck. Parents knew that fact of life from experience and tried to teach it to their offspring. Even some of the wealthy felt obligations to right wrongs.
In recent decades, the trend seems to have moved toward escaping consequences whenever possible, across the board. We occasionally see politicians who, when backed into a corner, will take responsibility for errors or wrongdoing, but only as calculated PR moves. After all, the famous sign on Truman’s desk appeared in the Oval Office 75 years ago, and since that time, Presidents have been reluctant to put that motto front and center. From the highest station to the lowest, it’s just easier to shift the blame or duck out altogether on facing the music. Bosses want to take credit for successes, but when a project tanks, it’s the team’s fault. Upper managers dump on mid-level personnel, and on down the line. In pro team sports, the head coach usually ultimately takes the hit, but not before the defense or the pitchers or the foul line shooters bear the brunt.
It’s my contention that “responsibility” has become an ugly word since the dawn of the ’80s. Part of the “me” generation was a desire to skate when it came to shouldering accountability and obligation. For instance, I’ve closely observed a family I know, from great-grandmother to great-grandchildren, and as the succeeding families have grown up and begun life, the patterns are unmistakable. The great-grandmother wanted to make life better for her daughter, so her daughter and spouse never had to pay a mortgage or worry about money. The daughter, in turn, gave her children everything, with no conditions or restrictions. Those children, generation 3, knew that their mother and grandmother would always step in and clean up their messes, so they grew up completely irresponsible and selfish. Car loans were paid off by Grandma when a grandson didn’t feel like having a job. When one generation 3 daughter made a string of abysmal choices in significant others, her generation 2 mother was always there with a rent-free place to live, and money to cover debts. The generation 4 grandson wrecked his car through sheer carelessness, so his mother, another generation 3 daughter, swooped in and handed him a new car, no strings attached. The generation 4 granddaughters have both made mistakes (“life choices”) that ended their college careers and have essentially ruined their chances at having decent jobs, but their mother and grandmother are standing by with checkbooks in hand.
My point through this long recitation is that when people are able to avoid the consequences of their actions, they learn no lessons. They continue to make the same mistakes over and over, and they gain no hard-earned wisdom. Neither do they acquire all-important coping skills. In many cases, they lose out on knowledge that could better their lives, and at the same time, they become inured to the plights of others. If one leases a swanky apartment and never fears a shortfall when the rent is due, because Mom will step in and pay it, it’s difficult to have empathy for someone working hard and still struggling to make ends meet. Deciding to have a family and then having to buckle down and put in extra hours or get a second job to cover the expenses makes a person comprehend the very real cost of that choice; he or she can then look at others and have more sympathy for their situations. Increased selfishness and tunnel vision are additional results of never having to face what one has done.
All actions have consequences; it’s just that, sometimes, those consequences are removed from the orbits of those committing the actions. When the lack of answerability is extrapolated to a much larger scale, it becomes a template for the type of callousness and cruelty that are so prominent in our country today. Regardless of affiliation, the people in charge are all too blasé when it comes to their constituents’ needs and concerns. Theoretically, they can be rebuked at the ballot box, but with gerrymandering, voter suppression, and election rigging so prevalent, making them face the ugly outcomes of the choices they’ve inflicted on the rest of us is often a very remote prospect. Successful class-action suits are rare: there aren’t many Erin Brockoviches out there. There are legal battles in progress to make Big Oil pay for their share in climate change, but the odds are extremely long. We as a society have seen the awful results of pushing off blame and accountability; we’ve all suffered from being the third-person stand-ins for first-person crimes and errors.
Getting away with it hardens corporations and individuals alike and teaches them that they can kick the can down the road when it comes to owning up. The can comes to rest eventually, though — just ask the person who has recently moved from the Oval Office to a hospital bed.