Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Responsible" is a bad word

Good words are words that cannot be bent.  Words like "yes" and "no".  Their meaning is unambiguous.

"Responsible" is a bad word because it is bendy. In its original incarnation it was a condensation of "able to respond." Most properly used, it communicates a condition of an inseparable Siamese twin of Accountable .and. Authority.

"Responsibility" is one arrow in the economy of power.  The other arrow, the one that points in the opposite direction, is "Privilege".  Just as money flows in the opposite direction of goods-and-services, the flow of "Responsibility" flows in balance with, and in the opposite direction of, "Privilege".

Consider the crew of a ship. They are given the privilege of "shore leave" and they carry the responsibility of "respecting the parameters"...return at a certain time and place, capable of crewing, means of early recall back to the ship.

In popular usage the word "Responsible" has become a wraith that presents to the listener what they most desire.  Often, in the ears of the listeners, it instantly transmorgifies into "Privilege" with no concept of the debit that must be entered to keep the yin in balance with the yang.  Or they hear it as "I have been given Authority" or "You are to be held Accountable."

As a bendy word, "responsible" is much loved by politicians.  They can toss it out by the grain scoop and the seething masses sucks it up like so much verbal cocaine.  The word has become million blank, white screens that accepts whatever the listener projects upon it.

So, I propose that mature bloggers purge the word "responsible" (and its derivatives) from our writing.

Use "Authority" when we mean authorized to act.  It is interesting that "authorized" means "it is written". Writing is permanent and less vulnerable to mutation than verbal communication.  It can be presented as evidence.  It often bears a signature.

Use "Accountable" when we mean "subject audit or review for our performance."  The old joke among mathematicians is that "accountable" is to counting as "amoral" is to morals.  In fact, accountable means being able to recount "I did this with that" to the person who gave you authority.  So, internal to the concept of "responsibility" is an economy of near-equal but opposite counterflows of authority and accountability.

Use "privilege" when we mean special access that is conditional on behaviors or outcomes.

What happens when the connections between the yin and yang are snipped?


Numerous checks and balances were written into the US Constitution.  Checks and balances are simply another way of  articulating the economies of responsibility, of authority, accountability, and yes, of privilege.

Authority with no accountability is the clearest form of tyranny.  No matter how perfectly balanced at the onset the unforeseeable bumps and nudges of the unfolding of history will put the system in the ditch.

Accountability with no authority is a path to madness.  Dogs that are arbitrarily punished-or-praised for the same act are dogs that bite.  The cop that pulls you over, the one who might give you a warning might also be the one who strikes you with his baton....how can he be called anything but a tyrant?  So accountability without authority creates tyranny as well.

Populist pandering leads to tyranny because it achieves its ends via the severing of the yin and the yang.

Bloggers can push back by expressing ourselves clearly, by avoiding "bendy" words.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, and I'll try to do better. But as a Navy lifer, responsibility is kinda ingrained...