Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"I more than the others": accepting responsibility

Last week a friend called to tell me that he had recovered memories of something very harmful that happened to him when he was eleven years old. He wanted me to know about this because he felt it explained some of his behavior toward me and other people in the intervening years. He wanted to apologize for this behavior, and excuse himself for it.

My immediate response to his apology was to burst into tears and say that I was sorry, too, that I hadn’t been able to understand him better. When I said how sorry I was, I felt that I wasn’t only apologising for my own failure to be more sensitive to his needs and vulnerabilities. I was also expressing regret for everyone’s failures or inabilities in this respect. I thought of a speech from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov which is repeatedly quoted by the philosopher Lévinas in his meditations on responsibility: “Each of us is guilty, before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.” These words of a holy fool made perfectly rational sense to me in that moment (although like Lévinas, I would substitute the concept of responsibility for that of guilt).

In my recent opinion piece on climate change, I said that it is a mistake to confuse personal and collective responsibility. Was I making that mistake in feeling sorry about all the failures of care that have affected my friend, and wanting to apologise for them all, as if I were somehow at the root of them, “I, more than the others”?

If I had been burdening myself with a sense of guilt for all that he has suffered, then yes, I think I would have been confusing the two forms of responsibility in a way that was inappropriately punitive toward myself. If I felt that this all-encompassing sense of responsibility meant that it was up to me alone to make up for all the harm done to him, to “save him” from the course his life has taken, then again, I think I would have been making a mistake, denying to him and to other people their own responsibilities and misconceiving my own – and also failing to see all the good things in his life, the gleaming silver linings of the clouds he has experienced.

I realise that I did fall into both of these errors to some extent during the days that followed my friend’s call, as I struggled to assimilate what he had told me and tried to work out how to respond to it. My body pretty quickly let me know that it didn’t appreciate either of these views. I’ll spare you the details of its “argument” – let’s just say they were pretty compelling.

The Buddha spoke about “near enemies” of different forms of love, impulses that superficially resemble love, but actually block it. The near enemy of compassion is pity, the near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment. On my analysis so far, the near enemies of responsibility for collective harms are twofold: unbounded guilt, and a desire for control.

But if we avoid the dual excesses of inappropriate guilt and a compulsion to remake the world exactly the way we think it should be, then the impulse to express regret, not just for harm that I personally have caused, but for all the harm done to a person whose suffering is brought to my attention, without concern for whether it is my fault or not, is a good and powerful thing. It provides a connection between personal and collective responsibility that allows collective responsibility to be meaningfully expressed to an individual who has been harmed.

For the one who takes up this responsibility, it is a liberating experience to put aside defensive questions about where the boundaries of personal responsibility lie, and respond to a call for collective responsibility by saying, “I’m sorry.” I imagine that Kevin Rudd experienced this when, as Prime Minister, but also as one among many Australians, he apologized to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations.

The acceptance and expression of this kind of responsibility does not mean that you are suddenly in charge of solving every problem faced by the suffering, but it does make it more likely that you will find some practical, cooperative way to help. I say this because I think that if you personally accept collective responsibility, one benefit is that you are freed from the problems of misplaced guilt and the savior complex which both indicate difficulty in sharing responsibility with others.

Actively sharing in collective responsibility does not mean that the individual merges without trace into the masses. On the contrary, Dostoevsky’s character Alyosha says that “I more than the others,” am responsible. He does not say, "I instead of the others," or "I on behalf of the others." In this form of responsibility, personal identity is not allowed to replace, or to hide behind, the collective. Rather, I am asked to accept more than the others of a responsibility we share. 

Why more? Not because I am worse or better than others, but because in the moment when the acknowledgment of collective responsibility is called for, I am no longer an anonymous individual in the crowd. The ethical spotlight rests on my face: I am the one who has become aware of harm and is called upon to show compassion for the suffering it has caused. The Aboriginal community called upon the Prime Minister. My friend called me. For those whose hearing is attuned to nature, it seems to me that the environment is now calling to each one of us.


Peter said...

What an interesting post, Justine.

I too think the word "responsiblity" is more helpful than "guilt" (in the same way that - not unrelated to your thought here - I think "accountability" is a more helpful concept than "judgment" ).

It occurs to me that as a society (my experience is European, but I'm sure this is valid worldwide) we are more likely to scapegoat others (usually the more vulnerable) than to accept our share of collective responsiblity for society's ills.

I agree so much with your final paragraph - beautifully put !

Collective responsibility

Peter said...

I picked up Simone de Beauvoir's novel "The Blood of Others" at the weekend as extra holiday reading (time will tell if I actually do read it on holiday)and was struck by the Dostoevsky epigraph - "Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being" - which is essentially the phrase you quote (with "responsiblity" already substituted for "guilt"). It will be interesting to see how the novel explores it.