Let us each begin with the consideration of our voices.  Many of us are writers and those of us who aren’t are at least either blogging or on facebook/twitter (at least you are if you’re reading this) and this means we communicate with words in a very public way.  What responsibility do we have for those words?  How far does it go?  If you are seeking publication, or are published, then what responsibility do you have for those words?  Other authors- what responsibility do they have?  What about politicians?  How far does the culpability go?  For what?

It is my contention that we are all responsible for our actions.  Nothing more or less.  The varying degree of public exposure matters little to these points for me because, quite frankly, all we can ever be responsible for, with very few exceptions, is ourselves.  I can not rightly be blamed because a neighbor of mine took offense to my words and then went out and committed vandalism (this did NOT happen so please put your phones down).  Why?  Well, because I didn’t commit the vandalism of course.  The person who CHOSE to commit the act is the one that committed the crime.  The most that I would be guilty of is shooting my mouth off to a friend which, let’s be honest, we all do.  Sometimes our friends aren’t exactly mentally balanced (I’m not one to judge my friends – pot calling kettle and all that) and so our trust in such vitriolic outpourings wind up being slightly misplaced.

Let’s change the venue.  Perhaps what I said was through a character in a work of fiction, a reader I didn’t know took it as inspiration and then decided to act out violently as a result.  Am I responsible?  What if it was a work of non-fiction?  Does that change anything?

In my opinion it doesn’t.  The only thing I can take responsibility for are my words and this is, more than likely, what my response would be: Yeah, I wrote them.  I even did so on purpose.  What of it?  When my words become a means for persecution simply because a person made a choice to do something allegedly as a result of them it means we have criminalized words, not action.  If we are forever relegated to this mentality nothing will be written simply out of the fear that one person could act out malevolently and be able to place the blame at the author’s feet.  This is a never ending situation and one that demonstrates a lack of personal responsibility.  It is a way of making the blame appear upon someone else’s doorstep and, in matters of the public, this becomes a public beheading not unlike what occurred in France when the blood of the aristocracy ran through the square.  Those who are unpopular in the masses get beheaded first even if they committed no action.

Assuming we have decided to criminalize words then what do we have left to use for discussing ideas or even spreading information?  Pictures?  Things that in many ways are more ambiguous than finitely defined words?  Would those things not get criminalized as well and for the same reasons?  How could they not be?

When we make every public person out (this person acts in a way that I don’t want young girls to see, and that’s her audience, and how dare she….) to be culpable for the wrong doings of whoever may be in their audience we are saying the audience isn’t responsible.  The public quite necessarily seems to feel more comfortable blaming the outspoken, the people with ill and violent words, instead of the people who don’t necessarily say a thing but instead act violently, with cruelty and depravity.  Actions are things to consider and what this brings home to us is that not all of us are balanced and respectful of others, many want, can, and do cause harm to others.  These are not comfortable things.  But therein lies what we necessarily must acknowledge while walking around in this world: People often do bad things and there are NO reasons that can be given that will make it okay, make them LESS responsible, make the person/s injured less so.

When we assume there is a reason for every bad thing that happens, that there is a causation we can root out, kill, forbid, we are perpetuating a dangerous myth.  The person is no longer responsible, or at least LESS responsible, for their actions and so, too, are we.  Unless we do something publicly.  This isn’t to say we shouldn’t choose our words carefully, that our actions are thought of and the intent thereof addressed – for freedom is absolutely something that comes with responsibility, but that it is the action that must remain the crime lest we fall into the world of Minority Report or 1984.  Each of us has ownership of our actions and sometimes those actions come with consequences.



11 responses to “Responsibility

  • Courtney Vail

    Great article. No one ever seems to want to blame the guilty party. I think people want to believe that the majority of people are good in nature and when they aren’t, they look for something to blame for that. Maybe it was the parents. He probably played too many violent video games. Maybe this book sparked rage. I bet he saw those targets on the map and took them literally.

    I do believe words can steer people into bad behavior and mentalities, like Nazi propaganda, which seduced many, but people are ultimately responsible for their own actions.

    Using words is also an action. They’re extremely powerful, ranging from rose petals to weapons. One snippy comment of “You’re stupid” can scar a child for life. With our right to free speech comes a certain level of responsibility to not be a fire-breathing troll.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Courtney – Totally agree about the responsibilities of freedom. Completely.

      The issue with words is how they play out in our society – the words aren’t action. They can’t be. “Word” is a noun. Giving a speech, is an action. Incite, encourage peace, the intent becomes something we should consider so we know whether or not we want to listen to that speaker. But those words didn’t do anything. It is the people who do.

      I’ll never argue that words can’t hurt people – they can, terribly. There can even be violence in words, but we can not blame words for violent action.

  • laurelrainsnow

    Very timely post! It is definitely the responsibility of the person who acts out his/her impulses, and nobody else’s. This fact was constantly brought home to me in my role as a Child Protective Services social worker for more than three decades. Typically, when a parent or other person in a child’s life committed heinous acts against that child, there is always a public outcry. And guess to whom the fingers point? Well, social service agencies, of course. We should have done more, or acted more quickly to prevent these occurrences.

    That topic always seemed to spread like a consuming fire, especially since agencies cannot respond to specific issues (and cases) due to privacy issues. Which always makes the agency look more culpable.

    Yes, indeed…nobody seems to point at the actual perpetrator as much as the supposedly responsible agencies and individuals.

    Don’t even get me started! LOL

    But the words of writers…other “culpable” persons people want to blame.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Laurel-Rain – Oh, so painfully true. People always want someone/something to blame and in recent years it’s become popular to paint the perpetrator as a victim (child abuse, being bullied, etc) and it’s only seemed to further aid in a lack of responsibility in the populace. If we don’t own ourselves, our choices, than we will forever be stuck dealing with blaming someone who it’s popular to blame. This solves nothing.

      Of course people also like to believe we can prevent bad things from happening by criminalizing more things, too. I heard a recent story about a police officer who did was he was supposed to and the consequences of his actions had him taking leave from work and truly considering whether or not he can do his job. The system failed him and a family he thought he was helping in the most horrifying of ways and yet he holds himself responsible because it was his action that enabled the system the opportunity to fail so miserably. It’s a terrible thing to behold when those who own the responsibility of their actions seem to wind up as fodder to be thrown under the wheels of the machine.

  • Hart

    Okay… I am going to turn this on its head a little. If the words hold no responsibility for action, then what becomes the point of an inspirational speech? Does this mean Martin Luther King Junior did almost nothing because most of what he did was SPEAK?

    I don’t think the words should be ILLEGAL. I don’t think they should be CENSORED. AT ALL. What I think is people should be mindful of the words they speak and recognize the power they might have.

    Do I think a fiction author who inspires some wack job to emulate his serial killer is responsible? Not at all. Non-fiction relaying a story? -no–that is a past event.

    But I think the person who gets up and says in a speech to burn down some building because of some wrong has made a call to action and should recognized it as such (sometimes these calls to action are FABULOUS–they tear down the Berlin wall–something seen as a crime by some, and as heroism by others–YES the words played a role and the people who said them get some of the credit).

    Sarah Palin putting bullet sites on politicians should have at least considered that somebody might take her seriously. Would that make her a murderer? No. But it DOES in my opinion make her culpable.

  • kimberlyloomis

    Hart –

    If she is not culpable of murder, what exactly is she culpable of? Speaking irresponsibly? Responsible to whom? To the public? To you? Is that not the antithesis of freedom? If violent words are so upsetting then that is something that needs to be put upon pretty much every politician who has gotten significant air play over the last few years and just about all news pundits over the last decade or more. My issue here is that it is a game of partisanship and not one of principle.

    The link between Palin and the shooter was fabricated by the media from the outset. A friend of Loughran stated he was not political, did not take sides, in an interview on ABC. Not surprisingly it didn’t get a lot of air play. There’s also been LITERALLY no evidence linking Palin to the shooter and his intent/inspiration for the action he took. There’s only been conjecture and opinion bent on creating a spin to sway the public for or against whoever the villain of the moment (or in this case – decade) may be.

    MLK was a brilliant speaker who lived the philosophy his words preached. That alone deserves admiration. Why wouldn’t it? If he spoke as he did and was physically inactive beyond those speeches would he have had the impact he did? I don’t think so, but that’s opinion, not fact. The truth is we can not separate out his actions from his words because he was more than each individual aspect – each being a mere part of a whole. Did he play a pivotal role by speaking out, encouraging thought, and dialogue? I think so. But the truth is A LOT of people wanted to see an legal end to Jim Crow. No one did it alone and this makes each person involved incredibly valued, not diminished.

  • resourcetherapy

    I agree with you about the need to be responsible for our actions. However, the act of putting atrocities on a wall is still a desecration of the wall. Now, I understand that if it is your wall I have desecrated, I had no right to do so. If it is my wall, even if you don’t like it, it is my right to do as I please. But ultimately, I think freedom is about doing nothing that harms another. I believe that you need to look at the definition of harm here. If I call something you say mental cruelty but I stay to continue to receive it, are you still culpable, and I the victim? or have I done harm to myself by staying? thereby relieving you of some of the guilt? I ask this because it is something that comes up a fair amount in families. Now if a child is the receiver of the mental cruelty, we cannot expect them to leave. But if it is an adult? Then what?

    • kimberlyloomis

      My limitations of responsibility regarding speaking has to do with other people reacting to and creating action based upon interpretations of another person’s words. For example, if an abused child became a serial killer the guilty party of the serial killing is not the abusive parent, but the person who did the killing while the parent is only guilty of the abuse.

      Freedom is an absolute. People behaving cruelly, and kindly, are examples of choices made. How did those choices come to be? Their sense of options – their freedom. Few people are truly so mentally incapacitated that choice is not something they are responsible for. There are some, of course, and some of these are in cases of abuse – but abuse is not what this topic was about.

  • Litlove

    What an interesting post. I was looking at the fail blog with my son the other day, and he couldn’t believe that there was a boy in America trying to sue because he had swung at a golf ball and ended up hitting himself in the eye with it. On what possible grounds could he be trying to claim $3 million in recompense? And there was the case about the man with the camper van who left it on the motorway in cruise control and went out back to make himself a cup of coffee. When he inevitably crashed he sued the manufacturers for not having stated in the handbook that this shouldn’t be done.

    It’s not words or actions that are the problem here – it’s being responsible for the thought that links them. What really disappears is the sense that the individual is responsible for his or her own thought processes. You can hear hate speech or persuasive rhetoric and be powerfully moved it, but you can also think about it, and consider it, and choose not to react to it. We aren’t blunt machines; sure we have responses, but we don’t have to act them out. We have to be responsible for thinking things through inside our own heads. No one else can do that for us, indeed in other circumstances, we’d be hopping mad if someone TOLD us what we were to think. So let’s choose consistency, and take responsibility for ourselves first and foremost.

  • Tina DC Hayes

    Hi Kimberly,
    Great post here to make us think.

    I agree with you, that the writer can not be held accountable for what other people do after reading their work. If someone is mental enough to kill people or commit violent crimes, they could blame it on anything, from something they’ve read, to a song on the radio, their neighbor’s barking dog, or even a bad potato chip commercial.

    And Hart, I think the difference is Dr King spoke the words in public, passionately, and marched to support those views. Most importantly, those were non-fiction messages, while what I think Kimberly blogged about are the effects of written fiction and how some individual’s misinterpret them.

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