Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Guilty, But Not Responsible"

I enjoy watching The Contender (2000), a film about gender equality, double sexual standards, the Siren called Ambition, power and its abuse, missing moral compasses, ethical lines in the sand, and so much more. In that film, four words that serve as the title of this post, "guilty but not responsible," focus the viewers’ attention upon the venal and mortal crimes committed by characters. The film's President Evans, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, runs Senator Shelly Runyon up a flag pole and leaves him twisting in the wind, a political maneuver for which the president is guilty but Runyon himself the responsible party. Runyon initiates a smear campaign against the President’s appointee, Senator Laine Hanson, and even suppresses evidence proving the accusations he makes are lies.  So President Evans merely employs a bit of his own dissembling to bring about Runyon’s ruin.

Guilty but not responsible seems, to me, an apt phrase for much of what passes as human interaction these days. Paula Deen admits that she’s guilty of having used the N-word, but omits how supercilious her deeds have been, then excuses her racist tendencies as a product of a bygone time. In other words, she admits to certain guilt while forgiving herself as not responsible.

Edward Snowden is another who falls back upon the guilty but not responsible defense. He admits to being guilty of outing a government program that was, in fact, never a secret--if one listened to and read a wide array of news releases. Still, Snowden shirks the consequences of his actions; he wishes to dodge responsibility, evident in his flight from Hong Kong to nations less likely to cooperate with the strong, long arm of the law in the United States. He's guilty of the crime, but doesn't wish to do the time.

Furthermore and more important, we citizens are guilty but not responsible as well. We enjoy the conveniences of GPS location services, pride ourselves on our Google Fu, and delight in having vendors pitch savings at us after we’ve searched online for an item. We are guilty of consummate consumerism. We tuck in for a day with our Smart phones, electronic notebooks, Kindle feeds, and navigators, smiling at our newly found efficiency, tacitly endorsing all invasions of privacy in favor of convenience. We are guilty, but not individually responsible for the direction that technology has taken us.

We are also guilty of not lamenting the loss of our privacy. We let others know what level we’ve reached in the latest online game. In fact, we boast about our Candy Crush prowess. We share the nittiest and grittiest details of birth, and we mourn the death of everything from restaurants to loved ones quite publicly. We announce what tunes we’re hearing in earbuds that prevent us from hearing oncoming buses. We stare at our screens instead of watching out for oncoming concrete posts or the edge of subway platforms.

Still we decry the government when it collects a list of numbers we call frequently, and we look for remedy when someone adds up all the personal data we post in order to steal our identities. We are guilty of releasing those telephone calls and identity details into the great world wide network of data, but we’re sort of alarmed when someone gathers it to create a picture of us. We are guilty, but prefer not to accept responsibility.

I wonder just how far we are willing to go to shoulder responsibility. Would you give up Facebook in order to take a slice of its off-shore profits, downloaded in the form of an endless stream of advertising becoming more and more prominent in the stream? Or would you remain guilty but not responsible by nattering about your personal life online? 

Would you join the Constitutionally legal peaceful protests known as Moral Mondays in North Carolina at the risk of having your face, city of residence, age, and occupation posted online? Or would you shrink into invisibility in order to preserve some modicum of anonymity and perhaps even job security?

Some of our greatest national Civil Rights figures have chosen to be guilty AND responsible. Medgar Evers is one. He made public the blockades to voting rights and brought national attention to the horrific crimes against Emmett Till. His actions literally put his life on the line in Mississippi as he had willingly done during his World War II service, and his actions at home killed him--a bullet fired at his back as he stood on the most domestic of all places, the driveway access to his own home. Martin Luther King, Jr. also comes to mind. He practiced civil disobedience and accepted the consequences of his actions. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail has helped us learn just to what extent he was responsible, so much so that he continues to inspire.

And surely, on this day, July 3rd, 2013, two hundred and thirty-seven (237) years after a revolution to found a nation free and independent of British rule and one hundred and fifty (150) years after the Blue and Gray met on a Gettysburg hillside to fight for the unity of that free and independent nation, we take pride in the guilt of all those who stood to fight for a noble cause because they were responsible to an idea that has endured. We owe the Founders and convicted more than we can repay. 

In their shadows, we should ask ourselves: to what should the rest of us aspire? Should we step aside and hold others accountable, or should we share the burden of responsibility even if it means surrendering some of the conveniences we hold dear or paying more for the privileges and opportunities we enjoy? Should we re-read the Constitution in an effort to comprehend what it is we stand for and which branch of government is truly responsible instead of laying blame on anyone and everyone except the party responsible? Will we shirk our responsibility to understand the Constitution and continue to let others interpret for us? Will we act to preserve privacy or sacrifice privacy in favor of the illusion of safety? And above all, will we demand that our elected officials have a solid understanding of the Constitution, including the utmost respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? More important, will we demand that our elected officials secure life, liberty and paths to happiness for the many, or just the few?