All are responsible

All are responsible February 14, 2010

Snowfall in America brings with it, inevitably, a blizzard of "jokes" about the alleged absurdity of global warming. All of these jokes have two things in common: 1) they mention Al Gore, and 2) they're not actually funny.

Being funny isn't the point of these jokes, so it's not surprising that they fail to achieve funniness. What is surprising, though, is that so many people feel compelled to tell "jokes" that aren't actually jokes — jokes that neither attempt nor achieve funniness. What is the point of such "jokes"? They're like cars without wheels — why on earth would anyone bother making such a thing?

I have a theory. This is just speculation, and I might be wrong. But then again, I might be right.

The great philosopher and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Few are guilty; all are responsible."

That's a wise and important distinction, but it's also an eminently practical one. The good rabbi, I suspect, arrived at this formulation partly as a way of inoculating against the otherwise inevitable knee-jerk defensive response which prevented anyone from hearing his claim of inescapable responsibility. Before arriving at this statement, I imagine he experienced the dishearteningly repetitive conversation that would otherwise unfailingly ensue:

"All are responsible."
"Well I'm not guilty."
"I'm talking about responsibility, not …"
"You can't blame me!"
"Blame isn't the issue here, we're …"
"You're just as guilty as I am!"
"But the point was …"
"Al Gore is just as guilty as I am!"

This seems to be the depressingly predictable result of any invitation to, argument for or assertion of collective responsibility. "Responsibility" is heard as or translated into "guilt" and thus produces an instinctive, angry rejection of blame that, in turn, becomes an instinctive, angry embrace of irresponsibility.

Heschel sought to fend off that instinctive response: "Few are guilty — although I'm sure, my good friend, that category does not include you — all are responsible."

This cautious approach, this defending against defensiveness, may be necessary for anyone addressing a human audience who wants that audience to be able to hear — let alone accept — any consideration of collective responsibility.

Making such an explicit, preemptive distinction between guilt and responsibility may be necessary in part due to an ambiguity of language. The question "Who is responsible?" can mean many things, among them, "Who is to blame?" Talk of responsibility is thus frustratingly likely to prompt the denial of blame which, in turn, becomes a denial of responsibility which, further, becomes itself a kind of blameworthy irresponsibility.

And that, sadly, is where we seem to be in the matter of America's inadequate response to the crisis of climate change.

It might be helpful to look at this through the lens of a textbook example from Ethics 101: The Drowning Stranger.

"A man is drowning near the end of the dock," the professor says. "What is your responsibility?"

"I didn't push him in!" the student says, with abrupt, vehement anger.

From the professor's perspective, this anger is strangely out of place, but for the student it seems justified. The student, instinctively, heard the question of responsibility as an accusation of blame. And, for what it's worth, the student's statement is correct. He didn't push the hypothetical stranger off of the hypothetical dock.

The problem, of course, is that the student's response — standing by as the stranger drowns while adamantly insisting on his blamelessness — is itself so irresponsible as to incur the very guilt the student set out to deny. Very well, he didn't push the man in, but he did just stand there and watch the man drown without lifting a finger to save him.

First let's get the poor hypothetical stranger out of the water and then we can deal with the question of who was to blame for causing his predicament.

Strangely, it seems easiest to get us humans to respond — to take responsibility — when the matter at hand is unambiguously no fault of our own. Remove any potential hint of culpability and we're more likely to agree to act. Frame the text-book hypothetical in such a way that it is clear no one is accusing us of having caused the drowning stranger's predicament and we will eagerly reach, throw, row and go until he is safely back on dry land.

This is strange because the logic of justice would seem to work the other way around. A person partially to blame for the drowning stranger's predicament would seem to have a greater obligation to assist him than would a person wholly uninvolved in his plight. And a person directly to blame for his situation would seem to have an even greater obligation.

Yet we seem to have an instinctual defensiveness that shouts down the logic of justice. It's like a kind of moral fight-or-flight instinct that kicks in whenever we feel cornered into accepting some measure of blame. "The woman you put here with me — she gave me the fruit …"

I'm not trying here to explain or criticize this instinct. Nor am I trying to defend it. I only mean to point out that this is something we humans do. And I think this very human response accounts for much of the confounding climate change denialism that we keep seeing in public opinion polls of average Americans.

(I don't mean to discount the effect of an extremely well-funded disinformation campaign or the collective effect of the army of liars-for-hire serving as its footsoldiers. Nor would I rule out the impact of knee-jerk, whatever-Obama-says-I-believe-the-opposite partisan insanity. But I think what I'm discussing here also contributes to the level of denialism.)

The prospect of catastrophic climate change triggers this defensive denial-of-blame instinct because it raises the possibility of Very, Very Bad results arising without Very, Very Bad intent.

Global warming, after all, was an accident. We humans did not set about at the start of the Industrial Revolution with a master plan of filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases for the purpose of trapping heat and thereby changing the climate. This isn't something we meant to do.

Bill McKibben does a good job of discussing this in his book The Comforting Whirlwind:

Carbon dioxide is not so dangerous to any of us as individuals — it is not like carbon monoxide … which kills you if you inhale too much. Carbon dioxide does nothing like that — the level of CO2 in any room is much higher than it will ever get outdoors, and it's not affecting any of us. In fact, for a very long time scientists described an engine as "clean" if it burned coal or gas or oil and produced only CO2 and water vapor. There is only one hitch in this happy story. Carbon dioxide … is capable of trapping heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise radiate back into space.

Scientists have known this for a long time … But no one paid much attention — most scientists, being human, assumed that the earth would take care of the extra gas we were creating with all our factories and automobiles. To be specific, they assumed that the oceans could soak up all our excess carbon dioxide. Then, in the late 1950s, a pair of California scientists performed a few simple experiments and showed that this was not in fact the case …

This kind of accidentally disastrous consequences arising from well-int
entioned actions is particularly confusing for the many Amer
icans, including most evangelical Christians, who have a primarily visceral sense of morality, where what matters is what's "in your heart." Good-hearted decisions to do what you think is best for your family — a nice suburban home, cars chosen for their tank-like safety, etc. — can't conceivably, from this perspective, produce anything but good results. The absence of deliberate malice constitutes innocence.

And that innocence will angrily assert itself against any suggestion of blame — or any suggestion of responsibility that sounds like it might be somehow connected to blame.

This question of blame and innocence seems to be central to much of the denialism and the vehemently irresponsible lack of a response to climate change. The more overwhelming the evidence becomes that climate change is, undeniably, happening, the louder they protest that nothing can or should be done because climate change isn't "man-made." After years of denying that there even was a drowning stranger in the water, they've fallen back to the student's defensive claim of "I didn't push him in!"

Whether or not they actually manage to believe this claim of blamelessness, what they're really asserting here is that their intent is blameless: "I didn't push him in on purpose!"

Somehow — and I don't know how to do this, exactly, particularly given the urgency of the situation — somehow we've got to convince them that we're not accusing them of doing anything "on purpose." To get beyond their angry, defensive instinct we've got to separate the matter of guilt from the matter of responsibility. This is difficult because, when it comes to climate change, we can't say what Heschel said. When it comes to climate change, all are guilty and all are responsible.

(One hint that the denialists themselves know that: Their Al Gore jokes. They're so nastily gleeful every time the man gets in a car or on a plane that they can't help themselves from smirking about it, even though this undermines their claim of innocence: "I didn't push him, but Al Gore pushed him too!")

But what matters isn't that we get everyone, or anyone, to accept guilt. What matters is getting everyone to accept responsibility.

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