Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?
I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.
I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.
I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.
As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?
If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?
If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?
If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?
Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.
If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?
I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.
Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.
Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.
Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.
However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.