Rights Without Responsibilities?

Watching the documentary about Jordan Peterson made by David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom, especially the segment starting at time index 19’07, I had a strong experience of resonance with the following train of thought:

It is potentially dangerous to have discussion about rights—what some people want others to contribute to their wellbeing, say healthcare or a universal basic income for everyone, as a demand on society—without also including responsibilities in the same conversation. A critical component in such a conversation is that for people to feel that they are sovereign individuals, these responsibilities must be shouldered voluntarily. The alternative, which Jordan Peterson responds to with such vehement criticism, comes down to forcing some people into acting in certain ways to fulfill others’ needs.

The way I look at it, I see three main problems in how societies struggle with having this discussion honestly:

First, our historical trajectory is full of examples where a few people—a king or some form of ruling class—more or less dictated the rules by which the majority of people in a society had to live. This has created such a deep backlog of resentment, of not being heard and seen, that it seems almost impossible to overcome this motif of rebellion against a kind of (global) elite. Luke Skywalker’s and the Rebellion’s adventures against the Evil Empire became a truly best-selling franchise, newly revived in recent years. To me that is telling of the following impulse: we all kind of want to “stick it to the man”. Unfortunately, the way the media portrays the world these days looks as if inequality is worse than ever—some of which is probably true, but compared to previous epochs, most people’s lives also seem so much better. Yet, without providing sufficient space and empathy for this resentment to at least be expressed first, and for people to experience that there is good reason to feel frustration and distrust, dialog seems impossible.

Second, people who have a strong propensity to derive their meaning from shouldering great burdens—who are driven by what Jordan Peterson might call the virtuous side of the archetypal masculine, the aspect that seeks to engage a messy and dangerous world with an attitude of the hero—aren’t given the encouragement and feedback they need. The resentment against the elites has created a strong desire for raising the living standards and improving the experience of people who have a much harder life than those few privileged. And this has moved the discussion in a direction that also signals to people who thrive on this masculine aspect that they “want too much” and that they ought to be willing to “slow down” or take a back seat. It is a movement that, at its core, throws out the baby of individual achievement with the bathwater of unequal outcomes.

The third problem I see comes by way of an incredibly high level of complexity of our economy. We no longer have direct access to talk with those providing the goods and services we use to satisfy our needs. So, how can we have this societal conversation, in which the people who need something can even make an honest request, if all they can see is an impersonal, faceless, bureaucratic, and ever more efficiency driven system?

Imagine that you are in your thirties, married with kids, struggling in your relationship, struggling financially, and some relatively small catastrophe places an extra burden on your shoulders that you didn’t accept voluntarily. It is about to crush you under its weight. What are you supposed to do? And what are the people who themselves may still be far enough away from such a crushing experience, but who fear that the system may well crush them too eventually, supposed to feel in response to seeing this happening again and again and again?

That’s the poorly articulated wish I sense in the expressions of resentment by those who want to tare down the system. They express their anger and frustration that, with so much more actual resources being available—which could be used to alleviate a lot of the direct problems people are having—still not enough is being done. And the claim by proponents of the system as it is to keep up this status quo is that “communism was tried, and it failed.”

If our society is to make it through these turbulent times, I believe we need to have a new conversation on how to encourage people to shoulder as much responsibility as they possibly can, and to reward them for doing so. And this conversation needs to include that the way in which the past has pushed the majority of people into a position of not having a lot of sovereignty over their lives is coming to an end. Without building trust across and faith in society, I don’t think people will be able to let go of their resentment.

Important questions that come up for me during such a discussion would include

  • How can we help people build up faith in courage in their own ability to shoulder the responsibility for their lives?
  • And how can society respond whenever people feel that the weight on their shoulders is too much, without taking away the responsibility—helping people to “get back on their own feet”?
  • What are ways in which we can transform the backlog of distrust in “the system”, due to a lack of autonomy and sovereignty in the past?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *