March 21, 2022 | Reading Time: 9 minutes

Accountability to others is the price of freedom for ourselves. But too many Americans want democracy on the cheap

Henry David Thoreau, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr and Audre Lorde knew that shared problems demand shared responsibility.

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Anne Tyler, the American novelist, illustrated last weekend my pet theory about cancel culture. Those who allege being victims of it don’t really know what they mean when they allege being victims of it.

In support of her new novel, French Braid, Tyler sat for an interview with the Times of London. Among all the literary stuff, this grabbed attention: “I’m astonished by the appropriation issue,” she said. “It would be very foolish for me to write, let’s say, a novel from the viewpoint of a Black man, but I think I should be allowed to do it.”

Cancel culture could mean a few things in this formulation, even contradictory things. But I’m guessing Tyler’s meaning is bound up in that telling word “allowed” – “I think I should be allowed to do it.”

It seems to be that Tyler would write a novel from the perspective of a Black man if not for an unnamed coercive force denying her permission to do it. Taken to its logical end, she’s being censored.

Or “canceled.”

She isn’t, though. 

Nor are most people declaring themselves victims.

“I am trying to challenge the idea of citizens as simply consumers who pursue their self-interest without regard to the consequences of their actions. If citizenship is simply about consumption, why even have democracy? Democracy, I think, is underpinned by moral ideals that are — at least, at times — demanding.”

What is happening, though, is they are being held accountable by other people, particularly nonwhite people, who are using their own freedom of speech. This is the nut – the who is saying what to whom. For white people of a certain age, the experience is fearful and new.

Fact is, Tyler is free to write a novel from the perspective of a Black man. It might even be a worthwhile exercise! As is the case with all of her 25 novels, however, she is accountable for what she writes. To the extent that she’s experiencing censorship, it’s self-censorship, which is what people do all the time when they hope to escape responsibility. 

Tyler’s complaint is small beer. But I do think, despite its pettiness, that it exemplifies a larger social aspect, namely that our political discourse about individual liberty almost never features individual responsibility. That goes double for our collective responsibility as a nation.

Tyler appears to think there’s injustice in not being “allowed” to write from the perspective of Black man. But her true complaint is the constraint of her freedom by the obligations of her freedom. At nearly 80 years old, she’s never been held to account by people who might complain about her writing from the perspective of Black man. 

Which is to say, by Black people.

To understand more about democratic responsibility, I interviewed the woman who literally wrote the book on it. Nora Hanagan is a political theorist and academic administrator at UNC. She’s also the author of Democratic Responsibility: The Politics of Many Hands in America. 

In her book, Professor Hanagan profiles four figures in US history: Henry David Thoreau, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr and Andre Lorde. “While the need for a sense of shared responsibility is not new, I do think that a sense of shared responsibility for political, social and environmental problems is perhaps even more urgent in 2022.”

We’re living an era of widespread corruption. Your book, Democratic Responsibility, seems aptly timed. To what extent were you writing about our current moment? How does your research apply?

I was inspired by events happening when I was in college, especially the Iraq War. I thought it was a mistake to see the Iraq War as George W. Bush’s debacle. What about the politicians who voted to authorize use of force? What about the citizens who cheered on the invasion?   

Similarly, I was concerned about what I perceived to be unequal access to education in the US. This seemed to be a shared problem. It impacts all those who want to live in a society that treats its citizens equally.   

Additionally, we are all participants in a system that produces unequal outcomes. When middle-class people buy houses in neighborhoods with “good schools,” they often end up pricing other people out.   

By responsibility, I don’t necessarily mean blameworthy. No one should be blamed for wanting a good school. But there also should be some sense of responsibility to ensure that all kids are able to flourish.

While the need for a sense of shared responsibility is not new, I do think that a sense of shared responsibility for political, social and environmental problems is perhaps even more urgent in 2022. 

The conservative hegemony of the last 40-45 year, starting with Reagan, was a period in which citizens were turned into consumers and society was atomized into millions of self-interested individuals. Your book, and its four profiles, seems like a counterargument.

I’m trying to reframe conventional language about responsibility. Often, we think about it as self-reliance, taking care of ourselves or our families. I want to say that in a democratic society, responsibility means more than this. It means taking responsibility for harms that stem from institutions and processes in which we participate.   

Our political institutions make us complicit. Because we can shape political outcomes through voting and through answering opinion polls, we bear some responsibility for things our government does.  

Democracy is not simply a set of institutions. It is also a way of life underpinned by ideals, like self-rule, equality and solidarity. We cannot be true to those ideals if we do not take responsibility for harms that result from institutions and processes in which we participate.

Again I do not necessarily mean blameworthy. 

Rather, I mean having a duty to respond.   

So I am trying to challenge the idea of citizens as simply consumers who pursue their self-interest without regard to the consequences of their actions. If citizenship is simply about consumption, why even have democracy? Democracy, I think, is underpinned by moral ideals that are — at least, at times — demanding.  

I also want to challenge the idea that a set of benevolent experts are going to solve our political and social problems without input from citizens. That strikes me as a threat to the ideal of self-rule.

At the same time, I am hesitant to look back to some kind of golden age of American civic life. In my book, I look at historical actors who sought to respond to real evils, like chattel slavery, and complex problems, like child labor, and they all faced serious challenges.  

So maybe democracy is about trying to face obstacles and to remain hopeful and to continue to have faith in other citizens.

Let’s talk about those historical actors. Can you break down each and explain the context they were operating in?

First, there many philosophy books about shared responsibility that emerge out of World War II – eg, do ordinary Germans bear responsibility for the Holocaust? I have learned a lot from these books, but also Nazi Germany didn’t claim to be a democratic society.  

So I wanted to think about what responsibility for political and social problems looks like in a democracy. How does the ability of citizens to shape institutions – at least to some extent – impact our responsibility? How do democratic ideals impact our response to shared problems? I discovered that some of the people who have wrestled most with these questions were political actors.   

OK, now Thoreau.

Yes please. I love him.

Henry David Thoreau may seem like a curious start. He’s often seen as a crank who lived in the woods and didn’t care about politics. (He did in fact have contempt for things like voting and political movements.) 

But Thoreau was animated by an intense sense of responsibility. 

He argued that riding on the railroad made you responsible for the welfare of railroad workers. He argued that giving your allegiance to the American government makes you responsible for slavery. 

Thoreau also connects this sense of responsibility to democratic ideals, such as freedom and equality. He asks what’s the point of political freedom if you don’t have moral freedom, meaning the ability to act on your principles. We cannot act on our principles if we allow ourselves to be complicit in things that violate our core values.  

There are, I think, real problems with Thoreau’s vision. 

He’s too skeptical of collective action. He has this idea that we can wash our hands of injustice by withdrawing from institutions that cause harm. This kind of withdrawal is impossible for most of us.

I do, however, think there is a lot we can learn from Thoreau. 

He helps us see democracy as a moral ideal requiring a sense of responsibility. He helps us understand obstacles preventing the development of responsibility. He thinks many of us are afraid to speak out about injustice because we don’t want to offend our neighbors. 

Thoreau was actually sympathetic to this — he was more social than we give him credit for — but he felt like democratic ideals do at times require some sacrifice. This is, I think, important to keep in mind.

OK, who’s next?

Jane Addams.

Addams wrote a series of books and essays about her experience in which she develops the idea that democratic citizens share responsibility for shared problems. In a democracy, she argues, we are inevitably affected by the decisions of others. We cannot expect others to care about our well-being if we don’t care about theirs. 

She insists that citizens respond to shared problems collectively.

Addams tried reframing how citizens think about charity. In a democratic society, we should try to avoid doing good “to others.” Rather, we should see ourselves doing good “with others.”

In other words, shared social problems are a shared social responsibility, not the responsibility of a few benevolent elites.

“Thoreau asks what’s the point of political freedom if you don’t have moral freedom, meaning the ability to act on your principles. We cannot act on our principles if we allow ourselves to be complicit in things that violate our core values.”

Finally, and I also think this is super important, Addams suggests that one of the biggest barriers to a sense of shared responsibility is a lack of information about how our fellow citizens live. 

Middle-class citizens, Addams worried, don’t understand the challenges working-class citizens face, and how hard work and frugality aren’t always enough to achieve the American dream.

Addams felt the key to developing a sense of shared responsibility to shared problems is interacting with people who have different life experiences and trying to interpret their ideas sympathetically. 

In comparing Addams to Thoreau, I can’t help thinking about the concept of exit. For Thoreau, you can leave. That same idea animated “white flight” from US cities. For Addams, there is no exit. 

In many ways, Martin Luther King Jr’s approach to responsibility is similar to Addams’s. He believed individuals needed to respond to social and political harms in which they are embedded. He believed that most social and political harms require collective action. 

But MLK writes from the perspective of somebody who has been marginalized by society. I think he offers an important perspective. 

King thinks victims of oppression have to make an effort to respond to the institutions that have harmed them. He doesn’t think white people are going to end racial segregation without political pressure. 

Moreover, he thinks real freedom requires agency. So he wants Black Americans to be agents in their own liberation struggle. 

I think King is right about this, but it’s also very difficult. It’s difficult to tell people who have already suffered that they need to make further sacrifices to address the institutions that have harmed them.  

King does, I think, offer compelling responses to these concerns. 

He describes the joy and dignity that come from taking responsibility for your own liberation. He emphasizes that white Americans must be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve racial liberation. 

But King is demanding. Many of the most demanding things he asks for – risking prison and death – are exemplary, but not obligatory.   

King reminds us there’s always going to be resistance. People who benefit from the status quo usually won’t give up power willingly.  

Addams is, I think, too optimistic about the ability of democratic societies to address shared problems in a cooperative manner. King is more realistic in believing elites must be pressured to give up power.

Was Lorde of a mind that sacrifice is obligatory?

Audre Lorde was a poet and essayist who played a key role in the development of intersectional feminism in the 1970s and 1980s.  

She was also really concerned about democratic responsibility. 

She once told a mostly Black audience: “We are not responsible for our oppression, but we must be responsible for our own liberation.”  

Lorde was acutely aware of the ways in which socially constructed identities can be a major source of suffering. Conventional beauty standards, and ideas about femininity, can be harmful to people who don’t conform. Lorde once wrote about how her Black co-workers put curlers in her locker because they didn’t like her natural hairstyle. 

Lorde is clear that all of us are implicated in institutions and processes that reinforce socially constructed standards like these. 

Lorde is helpful in analyzing why shared responsibility can be hard. 

She famously described how white women would respond to her observations about the presence of racism in the feminist movement. They said they could not possibly be guilty of oppressing others before trying to get Black women like Lorde to absolve them of guilt.

Lorde wants to say guilt is often unhelpful. It is an imperfect world, and all of us are complicit in the suffering of others. 

Rather than trying to achieve some kind of complete innocence, we need to be prepared to confront our complicity and do better.  

So Lorde really encourages us to be willing to have hard conversations and to bear witness to people who are angry about systems of oppression in which we are implicated – all without being defensive.

The Republicans are demanding a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas. The ban would drive gas prices up. When it does, the Republicans plan to blame Biden for high prices. The GOP is good at doing things the Democrats end up being responsible for. Thoughts?

It’s not responsible to approach every problem by figuring out how to achieve partisan victories. We need to accept that democracy requires some collective sacrifice. As you say, the idea that politics is simply about providing economic gain to citizens is a deeply problematic one.  

I’m not sure how to get out of this political mess.  

My suspicion is that politicians are going to use every crisis to achieve partisan gain, as long as the strategy is effective. So maybe we need to figure out as citizens how to demand more of our leaders.  

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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