A “Bill of…Responsibilities”: Is Dialogue Possible?

Image courtesy of pikrepo.com

“Insisting on your rights without acknowledging your responsibilities isn’t freedom.

It’s adolescence.”

The author of the above quotation is apparently unknown, but the words appeal to me.

We seem to be in the midst of a growing trend toward self-righteous indignation that extends to vaccination and mask-wearing protections against Covid; toting loaded guns wherever one pleases; “protecting” one’s children from learning about our nation’s history and great literature; attempting to block women from obtaining abortions; and a plethora of other grievance-driven issues.

In each instance, one individual’s assertion of rights imposes a burden on others–sometimes fatally.

Our body politic has become so coarsened that it’s unclear to me how we move beyond this dilemma, but I did stumble on a concept that I believe deserves some attention.

I first saw it attributed to ye olde philosopher: Bill Maher, who said:

“We have the Bill of Rights. What we need is a Bill of Responsibilities.”

Maher isn’t the only one who’s been thinking in those terms.

The Freedoms Foundation, begun in 1949, is devoted to “educating Americans about their past and the character and virtues that will ensure the country’s future.”

It was established to

Create and build an understanding of the spirit and philosophy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

After World War II, it sought to make sure Americans were aware of the rights that many had just perished trying to defend.

Did they [Americans] understand their own role in perpetuating and defending those rights? Did they grasp the responsibilities that were part and parcel of the American compact?”

Heading the list is “To be fully responsible for our own actions and for the consequences of those actions.”

You can view The Freedoms Foundations Bill of Responsibilities here.

Mati Bishop, a local columnist in the Miles City [Montana] Star, his own American Bill of Responsibilities in 2020.

Our founding fathers laid a groundbreaking path forward for us as a nation that values freedom and liberty when they created the bill of rights. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution only create half the foundation needed for us to manage the wealthiest populace in the history of the world.

With rights come responsibilities. We hold these responsibilities to be self-evident that in order to continue to be a free people living in unprecedented prosperity, we must accept these personal responsibilities.

I’m citing just the first one here because it’s foundational.

“Be active and informed voters with the ability to compromise for the common good. Democracy cannot exist without informed voters. It is the responsibility of the individual to understand and make decisions on what approach to difficult issues is best for themselves, their community and the nation.

In instances where voters hold differing opinions, it is their responsibility to reach a compromise that will provide for all viewpoints in the best possible manner. This responsibility cannot be delegated to a political party or organizational affiliation.

Similarly, sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote How About a Bill of Responsibilities?,”which appeared in The Chicago Tribune on–appropriately–July 4, 1993.

Lamenting the “general deterioration of the social and moral fabric of our country,” Etzioni asked:

“What if we were to convene a second constitutional convention to draft a corresponding Bill of Responsibilities? A Bill of Responsibilities could start with the elementary expectations: Vote regularly, do not try to evade the payment of taxes due, and certainly prepare to serve on a jury when called.

He went on to encourage resolving conflicts through mediation and arbitration rather than “‘sue-you’ at the drop of a dime.”

Seems rather quaint now. And if that seems quaint, consider what followed, parenthetically:

(“U.S. senators are said to be particularly good at being able both to work out differences and remember that they are members of one ‘club,’ that tomorrow they will still need to work with one another as members of one responsible community…”)

If only…

Then, bless his heart, Etzioni mentions stewardship toward the environment in his “Bill…”.

“It would state that we have a responsibility to leave the Earth to those who follow us in no worse a condition than we have found it. (The fact that we are not living up to this elementary moral tenet might be a good reasons to elevate it to the level of a constitutional principle.”

If we had adopted that tenet in 1993, might we have escaped many of the extreme weather patterns and other signs of environmental destruction that are ravaging the earth now?

Ultimately, he concludes:

“responsibilities are a matter of inner commitments, of moral sensibilities, of a sense of obligation. If Americans have lost these, casting responsibilities in legal terms will do little good. And if they are reacquired, new laws will be barely needed.”

Etzioni sought dialogue among Americans to uncover expectations about what the individual can do for community and country. With that information in hand, he felt, a determination could be made whether or not a Bill of Responsibilities was needed.

I would love to see such a dialogue held nationwide. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

Do you think dialogue would be possible? If so, under whose auspices? Would this idea gain adherents in your community? Or am I totally off base?

Annie

26 thoughts on “A “Bill of…Responsibilities”: Is Dialogue Possible?

  1. Annie, well said. I have purposefully avoided referring to the latest former president as a leader, as I do not witness much leadership from this person. I also avoid referring to him as a man, as a man (or woman) is accountable and responsible. This person blames others for his mistakes or tries to pretend they never happened. Our divisiveness is worse because of his lack of leadership, accountability and responsibility. And, his fragile ego.

    If our elected officials can not be among our better angels, then we need to call them on the carpet and show them how we need them to act. They need to tell us the truth and the need to be accountable and responsible. We have actual Congress people who have committed seditious acts like the former president and are masking that fact. This must come out. I am tired of politicians lying to us without repercussions. It matters not what party they belong to.

    Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keith, although I agree with your comment, I wasn’t speaking of politicians in this post. You are a very civic-minded individual, and I’m wondering if it’s possible to try to get people at the grass roots who care about our country to get together and discuss what being an American means to them at this juncture. What do you think? Can you see your neighbors and others devoting any time and energy to such an endeavor? Would you join a dialogue like that?

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      1. Annie, thanks. I would join that conversation, but I think a group like an Interfaith Council or Women for Democracy et al would be the best convener to get people there. They do a good job of getting people to come to events of import. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Keith. Those are the kind of grassroots efforts I had in mind. Other good government citizens organizations such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters might also join—I’d like to think.

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  2. Whatever movement exists toward encouraging home schooling, interfering with public schools and discouraging college doesn’t promise a better educated electorate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. whungerford: your point is well taken. I don’t know anything about your community, but can you imagine your neighbors or fellow townspeople being able to have a civil discussion about the topic of rights and responsibilities? Would anyone care?

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      1. We have an ongoing “Political Pundit Night” moderated by a retired Elmira College Dean, which highlights the views of local and regional voices on the issues of the day.. The series reportedly has attracted thousands, so some do care.

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  3. It depends on exactly what you mean by a “bill of responsibilities”. If you’re talking about something enshrined in law and enforceable on citizens the way other laws are (as talk of a Constitutional convention implies), then any such idea is an absolute non-starter. It’s more than enough of a challenge for government to carry out its appropriate and necessary function of defining, prohibiting, and punishing clear-cut criminal acts. Defining and enforcing virtue is the farthest thing I can imagine from a legitimate government function. In countries where government does take on the role of defining and enforcing virtue, such as Iran, the result is an Orwellian nightmare. There’s too much nanny-statism already. Americans will never put up with empowering bureaucracy to nag people (especially with the force of law) about things like “inner commitments” and “moral sensibilities” which are none of the government’s damn business.

    If you’re not talking about something legally enforceable, but just trying to support a general civic sense of what people’s responsibilities are, then I don’t see what needs to be done differently than what people are already doing. Anyone is already free to express and promote the idea that citizens have a responsibility to vote, to worship the Christian God, to serve on juries, to be open to compromise, to do everything in their power to stop women from having abortions, or whatever else a person considers integral to being virtuous. There are already vigorous dialogues under way about the moral obligations imposed by some of these issues and by other similar ones, and have been for generations. People are already free to advocate for whatever they believe is an appropriate national consensus on such things, and to exhort others to adopt whatever tenets they deem worthy.

    I think, though, that for some of the specific issues raised in your post, the nature of the problem is being mis-stated. It’s not a problem of a balance between freedom and responsibility, it’s a matter of misunderstanding what freedom is. Freedom doesn’t mean being able to do absolutely anything you want — I don’t have an inherent freedom to drive drunk, or walk into your house and just take anything I like the look of, or toss a live grenade into a crowd of people for entertainment. Freedom does not legitimately include acts which substantially violate the rights of other people.

    To apply this to some the issues you mentioned, mask-wearing and vaccination are necessary to contain and minimize an epidemic which is harming and killing large numbers of people. Refusal to abide by such measures is analogous to drunk driving — it unacceptably elevates the risk of harm or death to other people, therefore the government is entitled to enforce laws about such behavior, and doing so is not an infringement on freedom. Virtue and moral sensibilities have nothing to do with it. Such inner mental states are, as I said, none of the government’s damn business. Its legitimate role is to prohibit and punish behavior which endangers others.

    There is a place for citizens and groups to advocate for whatever virtues, moral standards, and concepts of civic responsibility they deem important. But there is absolutely no place for any government involvement whatsoever in such issues.

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    1. Infidel: I realize that reference to the Bill of Rights evokes the role of government, but that wasn’t what I was discussing—nor is it key to any of the sources I cited. The “Bill of Rights; Bill of Responsibilities” framework struck me—and others before me—as a way of defining a problem that centers on individuals and Community with a capital C. There are many reasons for this very complex problem—the lack of civics courses is one.
      I ended with Etzioni because he was looking—as I am—at a fractured country that seems to have strayed far from its guiding principles. And he was seeking dialogue in the hope of reawakening some commonality that had been lost. I do remember times when Americans of differing political views were not overtly hostile to one another.
      You may find the term “rights” wrongly used, and I would agree, but it is in the American zeitgeist now, and one of the needs is to clarify what it actually means—and does not mean.
      If the kind of effort I have in mind is occurring elsewhere, I would love to know about it. Despite being highly partisan politically, I continue to hope that we Americans can recognize that we share some important things as Americans.

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      1. In all honesty I’m a little baffled by this response. I cited the call for a Constitutional convention, not the Bill of Rights, as the thing that suggested you were talking about a government role in this. My comment doesn’t mention the Bill of Rights at all. And I referenced freedom, not “rights”, as the term which is fundamentally misunderstood (not just “wrongly used”, which is not the same thing) in the context of measures to control the pandemic. The word “rights” does not appear in my comment at all. Surely, at a bare minimum, a successful dialogue requires a willingness to pay attention to what one’s interlocutor is actually saying.

        If the kind of effort I have in mind is occurring elsewhere, I would love to know about it

        As I pointed out at some length, dialogue over morality, the meaning of virtue, the responsibilities of citizenship, etc — real dialogue, between camps whose views of those things really are profoundly different — is ongoing all over the country and has been ongoing continuously since before our great-grandparents were born. For such a dialogue to be worth anything, it cannot be confined to a curated, supervised, gentlemanly format under the “auspices” of something; it can’t be just a new strategy for getting everyone else to agree with our own premises (on the role of guns in society and culture, for example). Any such genuine dialogue will be exuberant and uncontrolled, and yes, it will involve anger and hate. Such is inevitable in a genuine clash of ideas between people whose fundamental values are different. For example, like it or not, tens of millions of Americans do not agree with the proposition that “we share some important things as Americans”. Any real dialogue must engage with that attitude, not insist that it be dropped as a precondition for discussion.

        I do remember times when Americans of differing political views were not overtly hostile to one another

        I “remember”, in the sense of historical awareness, the time of 1861-1865 when Americans of differing political views slaughtered each other in the hundreds of thousands over those differences. Yes, we are going through a period of heightened polarization right now, but it is not the worst period of polarization in our history. Not even close.

        Oh, and

        If we had adopted that tenet in 1993, might we have escaped many of the extreme weather patterns and other signs of environmental destruction that are ravaging the earth now?

        Achieving results in that area would depend on dialogue with other countries — 96% of the human race lives outside the US, and the planetary climate is all one interconnected system. Americans’ perennial belief that defeating global warming depends mainly on what we do within the US is just another manifestation of this country’s chronic narcissism and solipsism. Any discussion of fighting global warming which isn’t laser-focused on world-wide (as opposed to just American) measures is worthless. Several other countries and regions are doing much more on this issue than the US is.

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      2. Infidel; In truth, I’m as baffled by this comment as you are about my prior response. I get that you see no merit in the idea I’m positing—which I did tentatively, as I thought the closing question on my post made clear. But since the post was about the Bill of Rights and responsibilities, I don’t think it was a large leap on my part to assume that your lengthy response was intended in that framework. It did not, to my mind, suggest my lack of “willingness to pay attention to what one’s interlocutor is actually saying.”

        Under the circumstances, I think we should agree to disagree, agreeably.

        I do appreciate the time you took to present your thoughts here.

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  4. Well said, Annie. As for my neighborhood, I am so sorry to say that I am not very optimistic on dialogue that explores our responsibilities to community and country. We aren’t perhaps as acrimonious as some places, but a headline today noted that even our city council meetings have broken down of late with increasingly hostile behaviors. A number of things are up for grabs here, politically, including a shuffle for the House and a soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat, and we can’t even manage to house the homeless as the bitter weather sets in, or hire a chief of police in one of our largest cities, or back critical climate actions without partisan uproar. What could change this? Leadership. And in the meantime, there’s your wise old sage: Bill Maher. Gotta love a thinking man who can make us laugh.

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  5. Annie –

    The last time I attended my high school class reunion,I walked around the halls I saw that my name was the last one engraved on the Civics Award plaque (from the last century shall we say). Due to budget cuts after Prop 13 passed, Civics is no longer taught at my old school, and that’s how all these years later I am the longest-running recipient of the award…

    I like the idea of a Bill of Responsibilities, but if we cannot teach Civics, I have no more faith that Responsibilities could make it into the curriculum than CRT.

    I don’t see a way that we could even get to a baseline definition of responsibilities, and that would be before we got to enforcement. Without enforcement, responsibility becomes aspiration.

    I like to believe that voting is a responsibility, but as our history on elections show (especially off-cycle ones), many of us don’t agree and the current GOP absolutely does not want (some) people voting. Paying taxes? (Jeff Bezoz is laughing) And sooner or later someone will add the culture war stuff to the Responsibility list. Gun ownership, Church attendance, not being an unwed parent, and so on.

    It would be too easy to game.

    It’s a good question, maybe even a great question to ask, and maybe I’m just too cynical to see a way forward.

    Rgds,

    Tengrain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Tengrain. Belated congratulations on receiving your high school civics honor! I agree with you about the importance of teaching civics, but based on the red state/blue state divide, it is indeed hard to imagine even civics as you and I knew it being widely taught. I’m not sure how responsibilities would be taught either; I was envisioning, probably naively, people on the local level sharing experiences in discussions guided by questions developed by some knowledgeable third party persons/people/entities. I don’t see enforcement here either. That would counter the goal of trying to find consensus.

      Admittedly, I haven’t put a lot of research and thinking into the idea; I was intrigued by it and grasping for some way we might be moved out of our dangerous and disheartening morass. I did end by asking if I’m far off base, so I certainly understand your cynicism.

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  6. A bill of responsibilities is a really interesting idea. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I’ve not got a great deal of patience for debating non-vaxxers or similar. I’m not sure that old fashioned reason is a tool with which to change minds anymore. I hope I’m wrong.

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  7. Israel has a sort of bill of responsibilities, and all it seems to have succeeded in accomplishing is sharia law…the law of one religion over all others. Civics hasn’t been taught in public schools, at least in texas or oklahoma since the 1980’s….one has to attend college to get that class, and then only for certain degrees. As far as my own community actually getting together to discuss anything, there is no chance. It is far too polarized. One can’t admit to democratic thoughts without censure.

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    1. The Sharia Law is apparently a complicated issue that was designed to protect Muslims dating back to Israel’s founding in 1948.
      But I didn’t make myself sufficiently clear that I was not speaking of governmental activity. I had in mind a grass roots dialogue that might lead to a sense of commonality arising out of our expectations as Americans. It seems too unlikely to find enough adherents to the basic ideas at this time—as you’ve noted concerning your area. Thanks for your comment.

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      1. grass roots is actually all I care about at this point. the problem is I am by my neighbors definition a “liberal” therefor someone to be vilified. It is difficult to establish a conversation while being cursed at.

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  8. I feel like the dialogue is possible. A way to start might be to get the buy-in of major social media influencers. Propaganda works over time. We just need to flood the airwaves with the right messages.

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    1. So glad to hear that, Carol. Though I’ve heard several pleas recently that we Americans try to engage our neighbors with differing views, none has mentioned anything like this idea.

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