Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”


Taking responsibility, or accepting blame?

“I came here to accept the full responsibility for what I’ve done,” New York Rep. Anthony Weiner said at yesterday’s press conference, following his disclosure of unseemly online relationships with women.

But does he?  And what exactly does “take full responsibility” mean?

This verbal formulation, which surfaces most frequently following terrorist attacks or sexual confessions (à la Weinergate) always troubles me.  But not for the reasons cited on NPR, which seems to focus on the voluntary nature of the disclosure:

Doesn’t taking responsibility have to involve volition if it’s to be meaningful? What does it mean if you don’t have any choice? For Weiner, the image of the emperor having no clothes was about to become upsettingly literal. The existence of physical evidence — a child, let’s say, or a cache of photos and messages including a photo of himself literally holding up a sign with an arrow pointing to his own head that says “ME” — makes it hard to credit either man with much of anything other than not fleeing to Mexico or changing his identity. So … well done?

What [Arnold] Schwarzenegger seemed to mean by “taking responsibility” was partly the acceptance of the actual, tangible consequences of parenthood. For Weiner, it’s more complicated. What are the material consequences of his behavior that he’s now taking responsibility for? He’ll be publicly excoriated, but that’s only because he was found out, so what kind of a consequence is that? What kind of a consequence is it when the worst thing that happens to you because of something you did is that people treat you as having done it?

Taking responsibility exactly for what?

Does he take full responsibility for, say, the 21-year-old Seattle student Genette Cordova whose life and whose studies have been disrupted as she prepares for finals and was forced to drop a class? “I’m really upset. I feel like he’s a person of power and influence, who can make a statement and make all this go away,” her mother said when his actions still represented a choice rather than an inevitability.

In my book, “taking responsibility” is more than a synonym for “apologize.” It means actually doing something to ameliorate consequences.  Will he, for example, intervene with the college authorities on Ms. Cordova’s behalf?

I am always troubled in this usage when a terrorist group “takes responsibility” for a brutal attack that leaves people dead.  Do they comfort the bereaved?  Raise a fund for widows and orphans?

When we “took responsibility for” the liquidation of Osama bin Laden, in the terms that were bandied about several weeks ago – did we even sponge the blood off the walls of the hideout?  Do we take responsibility for the future of the children who watched the killing?  (How careful we are to call this a “killing” rather than a “murder or assassination” – why so much care on these phrases, but imprecise banalities on others?)  Please note:  I am not arguing for or against the necessity of what happened – I am pointing to the language used to describe the decision.  And, for that matter, Osama bin Laden “took responsibility” for a lot of killings on his own.

"We will weather this."

Doesn’t this really mean “accept the blame for”?  Or “takes credit for”? Or “confesses guilt”?

In the case of terrorists, I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions.

As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Such phrases further the disjunct between words and actions – a chasm that already widened when Weiner was onstage weeping, and apologizing over and over, as if he had given names under torture, or crashed the car while drunk … yet when one looks at the photos from Twitter and Facebook, he hardly looks troubled or tormented.  He looks like he’s having a good time; he’s smiling and joking.  He is in full control of his faculties.

“We will weather this. I love her,” he said of his marriage, making his longstanding, premediated behavior sound like a force of nature – an earthquake, or a hurricane, perhaps.  The photos remind one that this wasn’t a momentary slip-up or the result of uncontrollable passion: it was a series of actions coolly considered, uninterrupted by his marriage almost a year ago.

I have to concur with NPR:

Maybe if public apologizers were better at just being sorry, we wouldn’t need “I take full responsibility for my actions” in the first place.

Orwell Watch:  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #8:  “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6:  “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Postscript on 6/13:  More on “taking responsibility” – and some nice pick-up from Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Beast – over here.

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2 Responses to “Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…””

  1. Dan Riley Says:

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the force of nature argument…this wise observation from Cary Tennis at Salon:

    “In the end, the id will out. Shakespeare knew. Freud knew.
    The id will find a way. It will throw a cloak over our heads, drug us with chloroform, have its way and then when it is finished we will awaken, shaken, if from a blackout, asking, Where am I? What happened? What did I do this time?”

  2. Quid plura? | “Thursday, I don’t care about you…” Says:

    […] Haven hears Orwell when public figures “take full responsibility”—and when she looks at […]

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