Personal Responsibility, or The Difference Between Can & Should

Anyone remember this quote from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm character in Jurassic Park?  It was always one of my favorites.  Funny thing is, I’ve always looked at this line as extraordinarily relevant to what being an American is all about, and it exemplifies that “personal responsibility” that seems to be all the rage to talk about these days.  There are an awful lot of people out there, though, for whom Malcolm’s admonition never even becomes a factor.  Sarah Palin and her crosshairs represent one such example.  Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about Donovan McNabb are another.  And then there’s this line in a comment thread from some ignorant waste of space and her attacks on people in the “Occupy Wall Street” protests:

“I’m sure if they have no jobs then they must be living off the government getting unemployment, food and probably housing and healthcare interesting how we’re do quick to jump on the wealthy but what about the bottom feeders living off of the government just because they can….. Having 8 damn kids by 8 different guys, standing in line at Walmart in their cellulite ridden stretch pants…. But let me guess it’s the wealthy’s fault that they make so much right?? ”

And when called out on the utter ignorance of her tirade:

“I am entitled to my own opinions like them or not, educated or not, I can say what i want when i want.”

Of course you can say what you want when you want.  I would never deny anyone the right to free speech.  Never mind the fact that calling this person ignorant is clearly more fact-based than her ridiculous stereotypes of protesters.  Evidently, she is allowed to say whatever she wants, while people protesting in the streets are just a bunch of rabble who should shut the fuck up and get a damn job.  And to call her on such bullshit is apparently an attack on her right to free speech.  But I digress (as I am wont to do).

Here’s the thing.  Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.  It’s the ability to discern the difference that made the nation’s founders comfortable with guaranteeing that right in our foundational documents.  When the first amendment was written, I somehow doubt that the intent was to protect the right of every self-righteous, moralistic, emotional thinker to go out and spew false accusations of moral turpitude at entire groups of people without ever taking the time or effort to find out if there is any basis to the accusation in the first place.  The amendment has that effect, yes. But there’s that personal responsibility thing again.

See, personal responsibility, as it pertains to speech, is a lot like journalistic integrity.  There is nothing specifically illegal about a headline like

OBAMA WANTS TO SELL AMERICA TO MARTIAN SOCIALISTS!

You see, there is nothing provably false in this accusation.  Since there are no martians, and even fewer martian socialists (the red planet loves its free markets), there is no way the President could sell our nation to them.  In addition, the President lacks the authority to sell the country anyway.  And finally, one can always claim editorial license when it comes to public figures.  After all, how do we know he doesn’t want to sell us all into bondage to our socialist martian overlords, where we will work the iron mines of Olympus Mons until we all die of the martian clap.  You can’t disprove it.  One could always argue that he would if he could.  Therefore, this would be protected speech under the first amendment. It’s an opinion and you have a right to it.

But running this headline would be a dozen different kinds of irresponsible, and so you don’t see that headline coming from any respected news source.  And even more importantly, people who care about credibility do research, so that people will believe them when they say something.  Some people care about whether or not what they say is true instead of just shouting whatever moronic drivel falls from their brain like a puppy pissing on the floor.  This is where should comes in over can.

I can claim that John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor probably spent the weekend performing a three-way around the world with Charles (or was it David) Koch, and that he paid them all in pennies that he made them bob for in a tub full of sweet, sweet crude.  That’s just my opinion.  I have a right to it.

Or, I could say that I think all the Occupiers in Denver are a bunch of drunken, spoiled trust-fund babies who are just living off their mommy and daddy’s money while they leech off society and waste resources that are better used helping people who really need it (like Citi).  Besides, they’re just picking on the rich because they’re jealous and they think they’re entitled to have everything for free.  They should just go out and get a job, duh!

I could say all those things.  But because I’m a responsible adult, I never would (well, except for the Boehner thing.  I’m pretty sure that may have actually happened).

That’s what personal responsibility is all about.  Of course you have a right to say what you want when you want to, so long as it doesn’t directly cause harm to someone (e.g. shouting fire in a crowded theater, etc.).  I have every right to spend the next 72 hours doing nothing but watching internet porn and drinking Thunderbird “wine” until I pass out with a slick, vaseline-covered hard-on in my living room.  I have every right to simply walk away from my job, bills, and family, and tell every single person I see for the rest of my life to eat shit and die.  But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

That’s what our nation’s framers were banking on when they guaranteed such rights in our Constitution.  They were taking a gamble that we would all be responsible adults who would think about what we said before saying it.  They bet that we wouldn’t spend our time deriding people we had never met and knew nothing about, because seriously, what kind of ignorant asshat even does  that?  They hoped beyond hope that we wouldn’t allow emotion to cloud our logic, that we’d learn relevant facts before making our judgements, and that reason and compassion would be the basis of everything we did.  They assumed that future generations would be able to tell the difference between can and should.

Poor bastards, they had no idea.

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