The other night, a friend came over for dinner. The conversation turned to the unhappy topic of welfare reform, and its detrimental impact on lone parents (the majority of whom are women, and all of whom are struggling to raise their families in already challenging circumstances.) We reflected on how public discourse emphasises a single parent’s right to work, rather than the right to stay home to raise children without risking impoverishment.
My friend shared a memory with me, from years ago, of a doctor she once met. Something he had said at the time has stayed with her all these years: people, he reflected, talk about their rights and responsibilities, but really “we have only responsibilities.”
This thought pulls me up short, it seems so imbalanced at first glance. Yet maybe this is because I was raised in American culture, where I grew up indoctrinated with the notion of individual rights. They were enshrined in the US constitution and Bill of Rights, and mythologised in the American Dream of the self-made man who owed no debts to anyone, and whose success had sprung from his own will and effort alone. Now if that’s not imbalanced….
In Europe too, we abide by the notion of rights: human rights, civil rights, citizen’s rights, consumer rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, animal rights…. can you think of more? I’m sure you can. Why do we need to articulate all these rights so formally? What is their purpose? Are they there to protect us from the worst effects of our individual and collective lack of responsibility?
I’ve been thinking much lately about what I’ve learned from the work of Carol Gilligan. In a recent comment to a blog post, I summarised where I’d got to myself, with her ideas:
Carol Gilligan has written about initiation in respect to gender socialisation, and the break in the psyche created when boys dissociate from the feminine within themselves, and girls dissociate from the masculine within themselves. She describes these two aspects not as masculine and feminine per se but as voice and relationship/care. In very general paraphrase: the idealised, socialised female will suppress or surrender voice (eg her own perspective and agency) in order to maintain relationships, while the idealised, socialised male will suppress or surrender relationship (vulnerability, emotional interdependence) in order to maintain voice. These aren’t conscious choices, they are responses to cultural and social expectations, behaviour and environments.
I like this way of looking at it, that men and women both hold within them the capacity for relationship and voice, along a spectrum which allows for the unique expression of these capacities by each individual. But then on top of that, gender socialisation impacts on where in the spectrum they are allowed to comfortably dwell, and on how much they exercise each capacity.
Now add to these reflections the following account from V F Cordova, describing how Native American cultures understand the notion of personal potential:
Humans are born “humanoid,” that is, with the capacity to become “fully human” through the exercise of all of their faculties…. An infant is seen as becoming “human” when he or she demonstrates the fact that he is aware that his actions have consequences on others and on the world. Becoming a human is a responsibility of the group that teaches the new being what it is to be human in this group of beings. In many tribes the new being is not seen as fully human until he or she is five to eight years old (many official naming ceremonies take place at this time). It is at that age that a human being can discern the consequences of his actions on others. He is taught to be human by showing him that he is one human among others. Because he shares the world with other beings, there is an emphasis on cooperation rather than competition; sharing rather than accumulating. (Cordova, How It Is, p. 152-153)
What happens when we view these two sets of reflections through the lens of “We have only responsibilities”? How does the tension between voice and relationship fit with this? It is tempting to align voice with rights and relationship with responsibility, both sitting on spectrums along parallel lines, like this:
<———– voice ——————————————————-relationship———–>
But what happens if we remove rights, if we conceptualise this diagram with only voice, relationship, and responsibility? The way I am seeing it, in my mind, it is 3-dimensional rather than 2-dimensional as below:
It seems to me, that if we allow for these three elements to form the basis of our interactions with one another, the need for rights becomes obsolete. We no longer need to seek out something that we feel has been diminished, because we together ensure that it isn’t. We take care of one another, without losing voice.
If every man and woman acted within their own personal full capacities for both voice and relationship, guided in each by the demands of only responsibilities, I wonder if we might stop needing to strive so desperately for the fulfilment of social justice? If we extend our understanding of responsibility to include all beings, might we stop needing to strive so desperately for the fulfilment of environmental justice? The concept of justice serves us only as a precarious stop-gap, while ultimately holding our imbalances in place.