March 9, 2023

Character, Agency, and Responsibility

Accepting individual agency is the only mechanism by which a person can act responsibly and ethically and live up to his potential.

By Mark W. Fowler

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” ―Joan Didion

There is an emerging philosophy that views many parts of the populace as victims of circumstances beyond their control, disconnecting them from responsibility for their own lives. Racism, white privilege, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny are deemed to be both widespread and preternaturally effective in oppressing virtually everyone except white males, who are deemed responsible for our corrupt society and must be treated with contempt. Ibram X. Kendi proposes that the only solution to past racism is ongoing racism in favor of previously oppressed groups.

The English language is racist, it is said. Mathematics enforces white privilege, and standardized testing penalizes non-white students. So corrupt is the entire system, advocates claim, that it must be torn down and reimagined. This begs the question: What student hearing that will want to try to thrive in a corrupt society?

Instead of challenging students, schools adopt no-fail grading systems so that showing up warrants giving a student 50 base points of a hundred. Students are “socially promoted” from one grade to another without concern for their proficiency. In some larger public school systems (Chicago, Baltimore, Memphis), most students are not proficient in reading or mathematics. A meaningless diploma may superficially avoid the hurt feelings of the child holding it, but in his heart he knows the paper is as worthless as the education it represents. How does that enhance his self-esteem?

In the realm of criminal justice, leniency has become the byword. Critical race theory posits that the law enforcement system arose primarily out of a need to catch and return fugitive slaves; its racial roots result in disproportionately high arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates for African-Americans. This ignores the very real issue that African-Americans commit crimes at higher rates than whites. On the assumption that minor crimes are over-prosecuted, resulting in disproportionate penalties for oppressed groups, misdemeanor shoplifting is redefined as theft of more than $1,000 in California. As a consequence amidst a rash of well-publicized thefts, stores have had to close due to individuals stealing large quantities of merchandise. No-cash bail laws allow suspects to remain free on bond where a considerable number reoffend awaiting trial. Progressive prosecutors reduce or dismiss charges to obtain lighter sentences. Criminal laws perpetuate racism and white privilege and are a source of ongoing oppression largely attributable to the legacy of slavery. This approach is associated with a significant rise in crime.

This is, of course, nonsense. Criminal suspects are not swept off the street randomly based on skin color alone. Nor are they processed through the system in meaningful numbers without some substantiation of their culpability. To claim that is the case is to ignore the safeguards that prevent widespread abuse: the right to counsel, the right to trial, and the public defender system.

At the national level, progressive politicians advocate for student loan forgiveness. In response to polling of students, they report they wish to spend the savings from loan forgiveness for expensive items and travel. Students advocating for loan forgiveness fail to appreciate the inappropriateness of asking those without the benefit of a college education to pay for theirs.

This paradigm shift in understanding personal responsibility is an economic and social moral hazard. When children are taught that all of society is racist, they will then recoil from the effort needed to become proficient in navigating that society. Algebra is important not because we use it daily but because it disciplines the developing mind. Proper English is important because facility with language opens the mind to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world in which we live. Street patois cannot do that. Indeed, in the physician-patient setting, street patois is barely sufficient to convey the problem for which the patient seeks relief.

“It’s like, you know, I’m sick. Like, I don’t know, really sick,” says the patient.

Doctor: “Can you tell me what you mean by being sick?”

Patient: “You aren’t even trying to understand. Very sick, like I’m fixing to die. Is there someone else I can talk to?”

Doctor: “Well, do you have fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, cough, rash? Does it hurt somewhere? Were you injured?”

Patient: “Yeah, all of that.”

The doctor who fails to immediately glean from this type of exchange what the patient is trying to explain is presumptively guilty of cultural incompetence without regard to the fact that the patient cannot use language to report what is wrong.

In a largely free society, individuals are not limited by caste or political constraints. Thus, Nikki Haley, a daughter of first generation immigrants, can rise to be governor of South Carolina, ambassador to the United Nations, and a viable presidential candidate. Ben Carson can overcome the burden of being raised by a single mother with limited skills to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Not every child will or can go that far, but practically speaking, they can go as far as their imagination and effort allow. The combination of imagination and application of effort in addressing challenges in life is called agency, and every functional human has it.

Effective agency frees the human spirit to thrive, to achieve what had previously been imagined, to overcome that which was thought insurmountable. But the concept of agency is destroyed when a child is told the system is racist or the system is against him or she cannot succeed because of misogyny. Who can fight a societal system? The transition from one level of learning to the next is always associated with the necessity of increased application. Addition precedes multiplication. Algebra precedes calculus. Each requires more exertion than the level that preceded it. Proficiency in each step leads to the confidence that the next step can be undertaken. But when a child foregoes striving for ease, and foregoes attempting because he has been told the system is against him, the child abandons his potential.

A good excuse is not the same as good performance, a truism that an enabling mindset ignores. Moreover, a good excuse is not the same as good behavior. Having represented criminal defendants as a lawyer and treated them as a physician, I can reliably say almost no criminal defendant ever claimed to me that the burglary he is accused of arose out of being mistreated as a child, or that he stole to feed his hungry children. Nearly always, the rationale for theft was to make a profit without the requisite honest effort. Likewise, sex offenses did not arise out of a history of abuse but because of unbridled impulse. Finally, homicide always arose from a malignant heart, not from some ill-defined lack of social opportunity. Every murderer I represented knew reflexively that killing was wrong, as manifested by their efforts to conceal what they had done. The decision to commit crime was theirs and theirs alone, unaided by a history of difficulty in their past.

Accepting individual agency is the only mechanism by which a person can act responsibly and ethically and live up to his potential. It’s time we stopped thinking otherwise.

Mark W. Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified physician. He can be reached at [email protected]

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