This week, listening to public leaders talking about a range of challenges, from Zika to storms to pollution to violence, I kept thinking about one popular response by the public and the media:
“Someone ought to do something!”
Many of us think or say it in the midst of a public crisis, large or small. The traffic delay because of debris in the road. The escalating conflict between two younger or older adults in the park or at the family barbecue. The loss of electrical power after a storm. Someone ought to do something . . . and typically, the someone isn’t the speaker.
Whether we are talking about family structure, the structure of government or the structure of our society, there are roles certain individuals are supposed to play. The police officer ought to direct traffic around the hazards. The friends and family of the potential combatants should separate them and reason with them (or get them to go home). The utility company ought to clear the downed wires and restore power. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Indeed, if others of us step into these specific roles, things might not go so well, for us and for others.
It is in the very nature of society that each of us has an array of roles. Some, like being a spouse, a parent, a particular kind of professional, we choose. Since we have chosen them, it is hard for us to argue that we don’t have to fulfill the obligations that go with them (though some folks try).
Other roles are implied by roles we have chosen, but we may not have thought about them very carefully. The lovers sometimes become parents without having thought that possibility through. The parent may also become a chauffeur, an academic advisor, a therapist, a loan officer. Here, too, we might want to grumble. We might claim that we didn’t sign up for this but the truth is we did . . . we just didn’t read the life-inscribed fine print about the role we chose.
There also is a role we can’t avoid. It is ours because we are human and because humans are social creatures by nature. And our human role carries its own particular obligations that must be met if human society, and humanity, are to persist.
Respecting the rights and interests of others are among those obligations. Providing some form of support for the achievement of the goods the society of which we are a part has chosen to pursue collectively is another.
It is clear that some of us are disinclined to recognize this reality. We demand that “someone do something” about the things that bother us without necessarily recognizing and without accepting that we are the “someone” who ought to take action.
But the choices we face, as social creatures, boil down to three. We can resist the whole social enterprise and refuse to comply. We can comply with the mandates imposed on us by society (like taxes and regulations) only to the extent that those mandates are enforced upon us. Or we can accept our share of responsibility and do something to meet our society’s needs voluntarily.
The first option requires a depth of commitment to not doing something that will, ironically, take the form of having to do a great deal. For the most part, this approach is not the primary concern of local officials trying to secure public goods.
The second option is the least demanding path. Mere compliance with enforced rules neither requires us to decide what we think of the rules nor decide how to achieve or thwart the purpose for which they were imposed. We simply do as we are told, when we are told. The rest of our time, we probably grumble.
The third option has a name: citizenship. And it has both a noble purpose and an ennobling character. We choose to work together for the good of all. In working, we come to understand just what the “all” is, come to cherish it more, come to grow in our capacity to take on responsibility and our commitment to the community.
Whether we are talking about the spread of Zika, or of prejudice, or of poverty, the best hope to combat these threats is that more of us will embrace the third option. We are, after all, citizens of our communities, members by choice of a society that chooses, through a democratic process, what the public good is and how to secure it. Embracing our personal responsibility is far better than mere compliance, far more mature, far more truly human.
It is incumbent upon those who have chosen the role of public leader to remind us, to invite us, to facilitate our acceptance of our place in the solution to the challenges our communities face.
Don’t sell us short. We can do better than we are doing. We just need to be reminded of our role by those who have chosen to lead us. And we need to see what it means to fulfill our responsibilities by observing those leaders.