What it is to be responsible

March 16, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

George Lakoff has once again weighed in on a critical issue of word meaning.  This time, his focus is on what it means to be “responsible”:

Accountability is what is called a contested concept, that is, a concept with different meanings for different people, depending on their values. What we have found is that conservatives and progressives mean systematically different things when they use the word  . . .

Responsibility itself is contested. To progressives, it means social as well as personal responsibility — responsibility for both oneself and everyone else who could be harmed by one’s failure. To conservatives, it means individual responsibility only. The difference is not surprising, since conservatism is about individual responsibility while progressivism centers on both individual and social responsibility . . .

[For conservatives], individual responsibility and whatever accountability they have is satisfied when they hold others beneath them accountable and carry out punishment . . .

To progressives, one is accountable to those one is responsible for — those affected and possibly harmed by one’s actions. In government, accountability is paired with transparency. Government officials are supposed to be “transparent,” that is, to tell the public what one is doing and why. The why is an “account” — an explanation for one’s actions. . .

There is thus a huge difference in the meaning of accountability between progressives and conservatives. To progressives, conservatives look like they are invoking accountability in order to avoid responsibility. Here’s why. A conservative in authority holds other people below him accountable, and upon meting our punishment to those underlings, his personal responsibility is met. Story over. But to progressives, such a person has a social responsibility to everyone who can be harmed by his actions. He has public accountability. Holding an underling accountable and meting out punishment is not enough. He remains socially responsible. When he just holds others “accountable,” he is avoiding that responsibility.

Lakoff gives various examples to illustrate various uses of “responsibility.”  His acount rings true to me.  It often does appear that conservatives think they’ve done their part to address malfeasance by pointing fingers and doling out punishment. It easily follows, of course, that making one “responsible” for a life badly lived requires throwing “bad” people into hell.  Progressives much more often take a forward-looking view when they use the word.  For progressives, being accountable primarily means making the system transparent.  Sunshine is powerful disinfectant. 

In light of Lakoff’s analysis, it appears worthwhile to take the time to explain one’s use of this important and ubiquitous word before using it when addressing a wide audience. 

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Category: Good and Evil, Language, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    The conservative definition of "accountability" sounds to me a lot like what President Truman called "passing the buck."

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