America lacks sufficient social responsibility

April 13, 2013 

The evolution of our ancestors’ propensity for compassion, sharing and cooperation was essential for societal development.

To these socially cohesive attributes, add our dexterous hands, language and our remarkable intellectual abilities, and these are the distinguishing traits that made us human and allowed culture to become our extraordinary adaptation. Social responsibility, given our nature, means that people (be they rich or poor) should have a sense of community and hence contribute to the betterment of society. It means individuals do not swindle the nation’s safety net or misuse the Constitution for antisocial, self-indulgent purposes.

Social responsibility entails the awareness that we often accomplish more together, such as winning World War II and sending people to the moon, than what is achieved by acting alone.

In addition to our great accomplishments, however, we should consider the violence, vulgarity and blight that exist. Our rates of poverty and crime are generally many times higher than comparable nations, with our incarceration level, correspondingly, the highest in the world.

Such conditions are indicative of an unhealthy society. Too often, when confronted by the need for modifying institutions and practices to improve the health of our society, Americans are resistant to change. Why is that?

One of America’s core values is individualism, which partly came from our Calvinistic roots instilled by the Pilgrims (a.k.a. separatists or Puritans).

There are certain benefits of individualism, but we often overemphasize it to the point of social degradation, paralysis and utter irresponsibility.

From the neighborhood slacker blighting up the community with his junk-strewn yard to Wall Street fat cats eroding our society with their dysfunctional orgy of greed, we pay a hefty price for social indifference.

One reason people act with such social disrespect is because our overemphasis on individual rights allows them to do so.

In a more general sense, our callous disregard for alleviating poverty, sensibly controlling guns and providing adequate mental health services obviously costs us dearly.

We so often forget that our Constitution begins with “We, the people” not “Me, the individual.”

The price of excessive individualism is indeed high. Many people live with the loneliness and despair of social isolation, and across the land is a dearth of security, sharing, community and compassion. We frequently toss out many of the main teachings of Christ and other spiritual leaders.

Concerning moral issues, a responsible citizen also acknowledges, albeit perhaps rarely and grudgingly, that more than one valid opinion is possible. Life in society, if it is to be liberated and fair, requires compromise. Too often, we wallow in a childlike partisanship, focusing on what feels good to do or think regardless of the social consequences.

Moreover, in a democratic republic such as ours, citizens have a responsibility to be well informed. To understand capitalism, I cordially suggest reading The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism by Joyce Appleby. It’s a serious attempt to understand and explain capitalistic society. Without reading at least some professionally written books on history and political economy, people generally are limited in their understanding of current events.

We overlook, for example, that our overreliance on markets and hyper-individualism create societal problems, resulting in fear, and hence, less freedom. Ideological dogma and hyperbole are too commonly confused for real knowledge.

In Dave Schulz’s insightful In Focus column (Tri-City Forum, April 7), he pointed out the importance of CEOs giving back to their communities. The only modification I’d make to his argument is elevating the importance of social duty among CEOs to the highest level. The wealth and power of large corporations are too vast for them to operate without a charter of social responsibility.

Much of the societal illness we experience in America stems from our intellectual laziness, our indifference to others and our lack of understanding on how to create a healthier society. In reality, however, we create culture; thus we can change it. Models for salutarily tweaking capitalistic societies are all around us.

Emphasizing the ethos of social responsibility would help with our economy, debt, violence, poverty (economic and intellectual), crime, mental health, and general well being. Expectations of community responsibility permeating our society would nip the growth of many antisocial behaviors in the bud.

We need to demand more of ourselves.

-- Mark Mansperger is an assistant professor of anthropology and world civilizations at Washington State University Tri-Cities. His research includes cultural ecology, development and international economics.--

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