Responsibility is the kind of word that has a comforting sound to it, something that feels like an answer without requiring anyone to do anything about it — and there’s some irony in that. The definition creates the expectation of living up to some standard, typically unstated.
And therein lies the problem. The presumption is that we all have a common definition, operating under a common agreement on what morality demands of us.
One example of this appears in the abortion debate. Opponents of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body say that she should have had the responsibility “to keep her legs together,” as it’s often expressed. Abortion is attacked as a despicable effort to get out of the consequences of one’s actions.
But reframe the concept. Instead of giving birth to a child who will be unwanted or who could end up in the foster care system, some women make the responsible choice to terminate their pregnancies.
Another case comes up in discussions about guns in American society. While people on the right wing frequently call for responsibility regarding abortion, the left wants us to accept responsibility as a requirement of gun ownership and carry. By that, they mean that we should allow laws restricting magazine capacity and types of firearms, along with rules preventing most Americans from legally having guns on their persons in public.
Once more, though, let’s change the frame. From another perspective, someone might say that carrying a gun is a responsible choice, as is having one in your home for protection.
And that’s what happens when we use slippery words. Without explaining what we mean by responsibility, telling others that they need to practice it is meaningless.
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