Personal Responsibility and Campus Assault

America isn't polarized about politics. It's polarized about responsibility.

That's my working hypothesis anyway, prompted by a Twitter adventure a few days ago. Deluged with all the media back-and-forth about the sexual culture on campus, I tweeted the following two nights ago: "If you are drunk or high, to what degree can you say you are a victim when something bad happens to you? A question to take seriously."

I was trying to get at the issue of victimhood, which takes the following general form: When we do stupid things that are within our control, to what degree are we obliged to say to ourselves, "That was really stupid of me" when we don't like the outcome?

The outcome could be waking up in a strange bed with someone you don't know after passing out the night before. It could also be getting fired for a mistake that doesn't seem bad enough to warrant getting fired—but you also know you were goofing off. The outcome could be your abandonment by a spouse for no obvious reason, but you also know you didn't put enough effort into the marriage.

That was my topic. Almost nobody got it.

Fifteen minutes after I posted the tweet, I already had dozens of replies. Within a few hours, I had hundreds, perhaps thousands, if you include all the retweets. Here's a sampling:

"Good to know, Chuck. So you're giving anyone permission to assault you if they see you when you're drunk?"

"I hope Charles lets us know next time he has a few drinks so that I can take a good whack at him."

"Do you think it should be legal to murder drunk people? A question to take seriously."

"Sooo, are you condoning taking advantage of people who are drunk & high? Is it OK to take their wallets too? How about kidneys?"

"So if have a few drinks in my house and a tree smashes my roof, it's my fault? That's where this logic is going."

And then there was the discussant who looked on the bright side:

"Some of the replies to Charles Murray's horrific ignorant tweet are pretty great. May be hope for humanity yet, based on the response."

I've omitted the more creative and unprintable replies, but you get the drift. Few of the replies responded to the point of the tweet. We're not talking about a 60–40 split, but more like 99–1. And, of course, you guessed it: It didn't cross my mind (though it should have; stupid of me; shouldn't tweet after I've had a martini) that I was implying aggressors have the right to take advantage of people who are drunk or high.

I'm not trying to infer what proportions of the people who saw my tweet did and didn't notice what it was about. These were Twitter replies, not a Gallup poll. But the experience did add to my recent preoccupation with the thought that it's not politics that polarizes us, but something deeper.

That deeper something lies in the personal characteristics that Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" explicates so well. What my Twitter adventure clarified is the degree to which I think a single characteristic—assumption of personal responsibility—is key.

I have plenty of friends, not to mention relatives, who support Obamacare, want the U.S. to take the lead in combating climate change and think a living Constitution is just dandy. But my knowledge of them also leads me to believe that they share the indispensable virtue: Their first instinct is to take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.

I don't mean that they wouldn't file a police complaint against someone who stole their wallet while they were drunk, but that they would also say to themselves, "Wow, it was stupid to put myself in that situation." They aren't Randian individualists. They just don't go through life expecting someone else to pick up after their mistakes.

I can overlook a lot of political disagreements with people who share that first instinct. It's the same reason I retained a certain affection for Jesse Jackson far too long because in the 1970s I heard him tell high school students in inner-city schools, "It's not your fault if someone knocks you down, but it's your fault if you don't get up." And it's the same reason I was so offended by President Obama's "You didn't build that" line—it wasn't the politics of the thing, but its denial of responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

So that's my working hypothesis: It's not merely that politics is an epiphenomenon and that deeper personal qualities account for what we call political polarization, but that one specific dimension—our respective attitudes toward personal responsibility—accounts for a huge proportion of the polarization all by itself.

Through the end of the 19th century, it was not an issue on which Americans differed. Americans' assumption of personal responsibility for their actions was a foundation stone of our civic culture, agreed upon by Federalists, Whigs, Republicans and Democrats. We all bragged about it endlessly.

Now we do disagree, and that disagreement surfaces in all sorts of public policies. But it's not really the policies themselves that make so many Americans unable to abide the company of someone on the other side of the ideological divide.

Which leads to the point that that I have discussed elsewhere and needs contemplation: Actually, there are lots of people on the other side of the political divide whose company we can not just abide but enjoy. The good guys and bad guys aren't defined by liberal and conservative but how they as individuals see their own responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Reprinted with permission of the American Enterprise Institute.