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Trust, respect, responsibility [Jun. 19th, 2008|12:17 am]
[Current Mood |tired]

On a hot summer night when the humidity's jumped up, you can trust toads to come to the lily pond and trill loudly.  It's their nature.   I can trust the horses to eat hay and the red one to pester the palomino, and the palomino to nip the red one.   I can trust wrens to scold if I get near their nest, and summer in Texas to be hot and gravity to slam me to the ground if I fall over something on the trail.  I trust two plus two to equal four (in base ten, anyway)  and the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle to equal the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

What about people?   What does "trust" mean with people?   There are lots of ideas about that.   Most of us have experienced the unhappy result of misplaced trust: a friend we trusted to do something, or be someplace, or keep a secret...a seller we trusted to tell the truth about the house/car/other item we purchased...a relative we trusted to be on our side because blood is thicker than water, but who turned on us, who betrayed our trust.   We've heard about others' experiences; we know about traitors, spies, moles, at every level from neighborhood gossips to international intrigue.     And yet we must trust at least some people at least sometime, because it's impossible to check everything ourselves.   Most of us, in fact, have to trust a lot of strangers--every time we buy food grown by people we don't know, transported by people we don't know, stacked in stores by people we don't know--every time we drive a car made by people we don't know, put into it fuel refined and shipped and sold by people we don't know, drive on roads full of people we don't know, stay in hotels, ride on public transportation--every day, we are trusting that those people did what they claimed to have done.   And mostly they have, or we'd all be dead. 

But not, always, on their own.  Past history has shown repeatedly that many people, when they think they can get away with it, will cheat.  Bridges have failed when contractors or subcontractors used substandard (and cheaper) materials.  Planes have crashed because replacement parts weren't really new parts and someone put their own profit above the safety of those in the plane.  Ancient texts report that putting chalk in the flour and (later) sand in the sugar were common cheats, and ancient advice to anyone heading for market was "Buyer beware." 

So what can we trust people to be?  People.  We can trust them to be human, and to keep doing what they've done before.   If someone cheats you once...you can trust them to cheat you again (and your best friend, and his best friend, and her best friend...)  especially in similar circumstances.  You can trust  used car salesmen to forget to mention that a shiny low-mileage  car was under water for a week.  You can trust the fellow who sells you diamonds at a wonderful price to sell you zircons instead.  You can expect the person with control issues to be overcontrolling; the person who whines to keep whining; the person who erupts in rage to keep erupting in rage.  You can trust most people to consider their welfare before yours (there are delightful exceptions.)  On the good side, those who make you feel better about yourself can be trusted to keep doing that.  Someone who doesn't panic about a wasp in the kitchen can be trusted not to panic about a wasp in the playroom.

Most people are a mix of what most of us consider good and bad traits, with behaviors elicited by situations, not just  principles.  So most people can be trusted to be variable--to be, in some sense,  un-trustworthy.  Usually your neighbor is cheerful, helpful, a delight--but every once in a while, he or she is a sorehead.    Your kid's teacher is usually positive, concerned, reasonable, understanding--but one time threw a complete fit  and sent your kid to the principal's office for dropping a pencil.   Someone who is usually cautious with money may make an obviously unwise (to you, to his/her banker) investment  for reasons you can't understand.  Moreover, what someone can be trusted to know, understand, or do, varies with age, education, ability.  I trust our son to be honest with money (he's demonstrated that) but I do not trust him to drive a car (a skill he does not have and may never acquire, due to his disabilities.)    I will trust an expert who has proven his/her expertise to me, with that person's field of expertise--but not out of it. 

Respect is a different animal.   Those who think every individual should be respected do not mean that every individual should be trusted (for any definition of trust.)    There are different definitions of respect (including "admiration for" and "yielding to" but the one I'm using here is recognition of  each person as that individual.   It means regarding every human being as having innate rights, human rights, just for being human, and regardless of age, gender, race, religion, education, abilities, disabilities, etc.   No one is a throwaway; no one is unimportant.  Respect is not the same as liking, or agreeing with, or wanting to be friends with.   An enemy deserves respect, in having his/her humanness recognized, even if we are facing each other with weapons.   Respect is fundamental to representative governments:  citizens must  have the respect of the government, or the government won't let them participate and will not allow them to make choices.  

With respect comes responsibility.   If the individual is viewed as a powerless nonentity, then the individual has no (or limited) responsibility.   No choice = no responsibility.    Choice = responsibility.   Thus babies are not responsible for how they're dressed: they can't yet dress themselves and have no choice.   Adults, on the other hand, can choose, and thus are responsible for knowing how to dress.   Respect opens the door to choice...it gives individuals the chance to show what they are...and makes responsibility possible.   In parenting, teaching responsibility requires parents to respect children enough to allow them to make choices--and then to teach them how to accept responsibility for the results of those choices, good and bad.  (Bad parenting can result in adults who don't take responsibility for any of their choices, or those who take responsibility for only the good outcomes, or only the bad outcomes.)   Respect is also central to the formation of healthy boundaries, a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.  (Example of confusion: "Don't make me hit you" is a sign that the speaker does not take responsibility for his/her own actions.)

As with all learning, example teaches better than talk or books.  Humans are natural imitators.  Parents who want children to learn respect for others must demonstrate that respect--for other adults and for the children.  Parents who want children to learn to take responsibility must demonstrate that they themselves admit mistakes, apologize, make amends...and that they can recognize their own good decisions, and the outcomes of them as well.  ("Consequences" is a term used too often to mean only bad consequences of wrong choices--not good consequences of good ones.) 

Relationships--personal, business, political, social, religious--go better if all parties are able to face the reality of their individual selves and take responsibility for their own choices, and if they respect one another as individuals.   Intractable problems arise when individuals shift responsibility for their acts onto others, or accept responsibility for the acts of others., or try to coerce others...all relationship problems resulting from from lack of respect for each individual's personal sovereignty.   

So, back to trust.  Too much trust makes us vulnerable to cheats and to those who are merely mistaken (it doesn't really matter whether the guy that tells you to turn left at the next  traffic light when you should turn right is deliberately misleading you or just mistaken...the result for you is an unplanned detour.)    A little skepticism is a good thing, especially with those you don't know.  You can't trust everyone to know everything, or everyone to be perfectly honest (and how much do you really trust about yourself?  Are you always even-tempered, always rational, always kind, always honest?  Most of us would have to admit we're not.) 

But respect--respect does not depend on trust, but on recognition of humanity, the human worth of every individual.   (Respect does not negate the possibility of violence, of course: violence can be a situational response not related to failure to respect a subclass of humans.   If you attack someone, and they bash you, it's not because you were black/white/male/female/foreign/whatever, but because you attacked them.) 


[User Picture]From: touchstone
2008-06-19 02:05 pm (UTC)

With respect comes responsibility. If the individual is viewed as a powerless nonentity, then the individual has no (or limited) responsibility.

Respect creates the opportunity to demonstrate responsibility, and that's vital in order for someone to learn it. But I'm not sure about the second part...at least, if the viewing is being done by someone else. Someone else's low expectations don't absolve you of responsibility for something YOU know you could have done differently...though they may protect you from being HELD responsible. Your own view of your abilities is definitely central to the idea of responsibility, though. For some people, powerlessness is a refuge to avoid taking responsibility for their choices. If nothing you do makes a difference, then it doesn't matter what you do.

Actually, now that I think about it, that difference between what other people think you can do and what YOU think you can do (and thus, between what they hold you responsible for and what you believe yourself responsible for) shows up a fair bit in your writing (and in life...) as a source of conflict. In one direction, it's the guilt of someone who thinks they should have been able to Do Something even though everyone else is telling them there was nothing they could have done. In the other, it's someone making excuses for themselves and saying there was nothing they could have done because they didn't want (or didn't dare) to try.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-06-19 03:14 pm (UTC)
I was talking about situations where choice is literally impossible...where no choice exists (not where someone *thinks* no choice exists or would rather not exercise choice that exists) *in that situation* there's no responsibility.

Granted, it's a difficult assessment to make, especially by those in a situation. Mistakes in assigning responsibility run both ways (holding someone responsible who isn't, or not holding someone responsible who is) and by all parties. Typically, persons in authority are tempted to (and often do) deny responsibility and place it on those over whom they have authority--like the policeman who screamed at the elderly lady who couldn't get her window down fast enough "You gonna make me break the window and drag you out?" Police are quick to blame crime victims (even the common statement, "in the wrong place at the wrong time" suggests that it was the victim who should have chosen to be somewhere else. When my husband's car was vandalized and robbed, he was told that he'd parked it in the place: in a movie theater lot while attending a movie. And yes, the car was properly locked; that's why the thieves destroyed the doorlock.) Typically, abused persons are told that they caused the abuse and many of them believe it.

And yes, these are issues I use in books, because they're common issues all of us face--they're human issues. They're also issues important in understanding good citizenship and working towards being a better citizen. More available choice imposes more responsibility...which is why some writers have claimed that most people are happier without choices or with very few. "Do what you're told and you won't get into trouble," "Just follow orders," and lots of people do. Authoritarian governments demand that response and the really strong ones ensure that not only do people lack the freedom to make choices, they lack the knowledge that choices exist anywhere else. It's a lot easier to control a population that has never had choices, and doesn't know choice exists anywhere else...or a population that has chosen to ignore choices, ignore information, because it's easier to just do what you're told.

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[User Picture]From: touchstone
2008-06-19 03:35 pm (UTC)
Agreed - once you're in the air, you're not responsible for falling. It's entirely out of your hands. At worst, you might be responsible for the choices that resulted in your BEING unable to make any more choices.

It's a lot easier to control a population that has never had choices, and doesn't know choice exists anywhere else...or a population that has chosen to ignore choices, ignore information, because it's easier to just do what you're told.

There've been some interesting things written about China lately, in the wake of the disasters there, about the public response. At least according to the people I was reading, there's been a strong demonstration of citizens there acting on a feeling of personal responsibility towards those who were in need (whether by sending donations or by traveling to the affected area to participate in recovery efforts) instead of leaving it to be handled by the government. Most of the articles also speculated on what this meant for the future shape of that government :)

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-06-19 04:27 pm (UTC)
China's a very interesting case study for many things. In a program I saw on young people in China (which included ex-pats returning to do business there as well as people from a variety of backgrounds who had never left) it was clear that there's a big collision of traditional culture (some of which was never extirpated by Marxism), Marxist culture, and modern international consumerism. "Deep" Chinese culture has no tradition of individualism--individuals were basically allowed no choices (especially women, but to some extent peasant men as well.)

That's similar to many peasant cultures worldwide, of course, but the sheer size of China made learning about other ways of living, or getting away, very difficult. Chinese Communism did not increase either the choices available or access to knowledge about other places. The government is still top-down and very worried about losing control, but at the same time wants the economic and political benefits of international markets...and technology makes it difficult to keep 'em down on the farm, barefoot, pregnant, and ignorant.

Going to be interesting times over there--and because of their size and economic heft, everywhere else, too.
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