Thursday, February 14, 2008

Taking Responsibility

In the comments to an earlier post, Matt Freeman expresses objections to what he considers an "us versus them" approach to this discussion. He writes: "We need to stop talking in terms of us versus them, especially when "they" are "us."

Perhaps Matt will find this surprising, but we are in agreement. They are us. That's the point.

I am reading a book entitled NonViolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. In Chapter 2: Communication That Blocks Compassion, Rosenberg lists "Denial of Responsibility" as one of those things. He writes: "We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to:
  • Vague, impersonal forces.
  • Our condition, diagnosis, personal or psychological history.
  • The actions of others.
  • The dictates of authority.
  • Group pressure.
  • Institutional policies, rules and regulations.
  • Gender roles, social riles, or age roles.
  • Uncontrollable impulses." (p 20)
He goes on to give an example that I think is relevant here. When serving as a consultant for a school district, he heard a teacher remark. ""I hate giving grades. I don't think they are helpful and they create a lot of anxiety on the part of the students. But I have to give grades: it is district policy.' We had just been practicing how to introduce language in the classroom that heightens consciousness of responsibility for one's actions. I suggest that the teacher translate the statement 'I have to give grades because it's district policy' to 'I choose to give grades because I want...' She answered without hesitation, 'I choose to give grades because I want to keep my job,' while hastening to add, 'But I don't like saying it that wat. It makes me fee responsible for what I am doing.' 'That's why I want you to do it that way,' I replied." (p 21)

I believe, with Rosenberg, that we have to stop shifting blame to forces "out there," because it lets us not take responsibility for our actions, and by doing so it disempowers us. We all have power. When we move to NYC because "that's where the work is," not because we want to live in NYC, we have shifted responsibility to others. We're not to blame if, by our actions, we are supporting a system we don't like -- hey, that's "the way it is," right? (Cf. "vague, impersonal forces above). Similarly, people in regional theatres are making choices. When they mount a huge capital campaign to pay for an enormous new theatre, as the Guthrie did recently, they are making choices about what they feel is important. Does anyone know of a regional theatre doing a huge campaign to raise the salaries of artists and to allow the theatre to maintain a resident company at a middle class salary? Perhaps I am missing something. The argument people will make is that nobody wants to contribute to raise salaries, they want to contribute to buildings. But that is because capital campaign managers have devised a way to effectively sell buildings . Have they made a similar effort to sell working conditions?

We can't continue to deny responsibility anymore. We can't keep shifting responsibility to vague, impersonal forces. We need to acknowledge the problems, acknowledge how those problems are being perpetuated, acknowledge how our actions tacitly supports those problems, and then do one of two things: stop complaining about the problems, or do something to change them -- even if all we do is refuse to tacitly support them through our actions. If you can't see clear to doing it for yourself, then do it for people like the actress that Mike Daisey describes, who is talented, committed, and very, very tired.

1 comment:

nick@ said...


We all identify with victim in Mike's essay. We all want to bitch-slap the staff at the regional theatre for keeping her out work.

We identify with us not them.

I am Freeman on this. WTF good is that kind of simplistic and easy alignment. Mike doesn’t do anything remotely as ignorant to that in his performance.