Responsible, but capable of something


This morning I was reminded again of a good mind hack I learned a few years ago. If you accept responsibility for something for which a reasonable argument can be made that you really are to blame, it sends a message to the subconscious: “If something was your fault, you are capable of making such a thing happen. And if you were able to make it happen, you are quite possibly able to prevent it, or avoid it. Maybe you didn’t do it this time because you were silly or stupid, or irresponsible or reckless. But you are capable of it. And if you are capable of doing it, you have the choice to try harder next time, or to do better. Or you have the choice now to change your behaviour to avoid it next time, or to improve your skill to enable you to avoid it next time. You are capable.”

Consider the opposite. “It wasn’t my fault,” when a reasonable argument can be made that you were, in fact, at least partly responsible for it. It sends a message to the subconscious that you could not avoid or prevent it. You were a victim of a situation beyond your control, or of someone else’s behaviour. You were unable to improve the situation or minimise the consequences. You are not capable. You are, more or less, powerless.


Two possibilities and a few questions about accepting responsibility


Possibility one:

We are largely responsible for how we experience life. We don’t usually choose what happens to us, but we have to a significant degree control over how we respond to what happens to us, and therefore we have some control over what impact it has on our lives.

This would mean that people who were on the wrong side of government policy, such as during the apartheid years in South Africa, or similar periods in America, also had a significant degree of control over their reactions. Other people were responsible for the unethical and sometimes cruel policies, but the people on the wrong side of it had control over how they reacted to it, and this reaction – from acceptance to armed opposition – in turn influenced their experience of reality.

Possibility two:

We have no control to any significant degree over how we experience life. We have no control over what happens to us, and our reactions have little impact. Plus, our reactions and attitudes towards what happens to us are anyways largely dictated by our culture and how we have been programmed since childhood. This means people on the receiving end of unethical policies and cruel governments and other institutions that exercise power over them are victims who have to take what comes their way. That’s just how it is. Sometimes you’re on top, and sometimes you get crushed, and then you die.

The questions:

Which of the two views on life would ideologues of Apartheid South Africa have preferred black and brown people embrace in the decades prior to the 1990s? You have the power to do something about your suffering, or accept your fate?

Which of the two views on life would ideologues of the resistance movements during the apartheid years, people like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, have preferred black and brown people embraced? What about civil rights leaders in America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – people like Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King? Did they think people had the ability to improve their experience of reality, or did they believe people simply had to accept their fate?

* * *

For the record, the person who commits a crime, or who plans or executes an unjust political or social order, does so out of free will. He does not have to do it. He chooses to do so and is therefore morally and legally responsible for his actions.

* * *

A fundamental aspect of this whole discussion was articulated by Scott Adams a few years ago after Kanye West made headlines over his remarks about slavery. In response to someone else who said Kanye West was guilty of “disgusting victim blaming”, Adams said: “I believe the proposition on the table is that giving yourself a victim identity is less productive than looking forward.”

* * *

Steve Biko, Malcolm X and even W.E.B. du Bois were not exactly non-racial integrationists. One could even argue that especially Steve Biko and Malcolm X (at least earlier in his career) were Black Supremacists. What I say about victim mentality, historical oppression, accepting responsibility even for your own suffering as a way to empower yourself is not affected at all. If you think non-racial integration is more ideal, you might have a problem with Biko or X. But at least they had a positive outlook on the future, right? They looked at a future where black and brown people would do better because they would actively create a better future for themselves, which included convincing white people with political and bureaucratic power that a more just order is better for all.

Quotes from Steve Biko (1946-1977)

“Obviously the only path open for us now is to redefine the message in the bible and to make it relevant to the struggling masses. The bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed.”

“So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

“It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.”

Quotes from Malcom X (1925-1965)

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”

“Any time you beg another man to set you free, you will never be free. Freedom is something that you have to do for yourselves.”

“No, we are not anti-white. But we don’t have time for the white man. The white man is on top already, the white man is the boss already … He has first-class citizenship already. So you are wasting your time talking to the white man. We are working on our own people.”

Quotes from Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)

“Ambition is the desire to go forward and improve one’s condition. It is a burning flame that lights up the life of the individual and makes him see himself in another state. To be ambitious is to be great in mind and soul. To want that which is worthwhile and strive for it. To go on without looking back, reaching to that which gives satisfaction.”

“The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”

“The white man has succeeded in subduing the world by forcing everybody to think his way. The white man’s propaganda has made him the master of the world, and all those who have come in contact with it and accepted it have become his slaves.”

“Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.”

“Before we can properly help the people, we have to destroy the old education … that teaches them that somebody is keeping them back and that God has forgotten them and that they can’t rise because of their color … we can only build … with faith in ourselves and with self-reliance, believing in our own possibilities, that we can rise to the highest in God’s creation.”

Quotes from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”