Judgment, Social Empathy, and the Falsehood of “Personal Responsibility”: Walking In Another Mom’s Shoes

[image via]
[image via]
In the wake of our absolutely amazing Campaign for Judgement-Free Motherhood, our community has been discussing what it really means to be judgmental, at least in the context of parenting choices, and whether we should be careful not to judge the judgers for being judgmental.* Got all that? In other words, some of the not-so-nice comments we received in the coverage of our photo shoot by other media sources may have been driven by a place of defensiveness and insecurity, not by a desire to antagonize, and those judgers are worthy of our non-judgmental response. Go in peace, or some such. On the other hand, it could be that some nasty comments are just that—intended to be nasty, and hurtful, on purpose, not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of causing conflict.

It got me thinking about the nature of the Internet and a somewhat recent Time article profiling Generation Y (not to say that this has anything to do with Gen Y-ers in particular). In that article, the author claims that this generation of 20-somethings lacks empathy for their fellow human beings, due to the isolation and relative anonymity caused by growing up in the Internet age. I think, sadly, there is much truth to this statement. People are much less inclined to, well, be a jerk to someone they disagree with in person, as opposed to online. But the added benefit of live interaction is this: if the person is too wimpy to speak up and disagree, it could just be that she realizes her disagreement was not worth voicing, and the issue is resolved. If she does work up the nerve to say something, she is likely going to voice her disagreement in a much more civil manner, which in turn is more likely to spur some thoughtful, though perhaps spirited, discussion. That discussion could cause both parties to learn something new about each other and the greater world through the exchange of differing viewpoints and experiences, and well, that is simply grand.

So here I am going about my day, mulling these deep thoughts, when I see something (online, of course) that catches my eye. It turns out that the American Medical Association has just classified obesity as a disease. Makes sense to me; it’s an epidemic in this country. However, my Facebook feed was filled with comments like this:

“Fat people are fat because of their own bad choices. Cut the junk food, start exercising. Take responsibility for your actions.”

Ah, personal responsibility! It sounds great, doesn’t it? I am not responsible for your choices, and you are not responsible for mine. I don’t need to put myself in your shoes, because mine fit just right. I make good decisions, you make bad ones. Simple. Or is it?

First, let me recap a few other statements of the “personal responsibility” genre, in case a different context drives the point home for you a little more easily. Do any of these sound familiar?

• I don’t feel bad for that mom of seven kids. She knew what she was getting into by having such a large family.

• People who discharge their debts in bankruptcy are just irresponsible spenders. They don’t deserve to just wipe the slate clean like that.

• Recent college grads should not complain that they were deceived by the promise of a fulfilling, well-paying job. They knew the job market was bad, yet they chose to pursue worthless liberal arts degrees.

Personal responsibility is not, by itself, a terrible concept. In fact, it’s a pretty good one. It is great to make decisions and own them, and I hope I can convince my children to feel the same way. But I think the particular brand of personal responsibility enshrined in the statements above is not true to the spirit of what that concept means. That kind of personal responsibility is projected outward, at “the other” (who, remember, is the victim of that aforementioned lack of social empathy). The old-school personal responsibility is internal: it comes from me, and applies only to me, as a rule. I take responsibility for my own actions … and when it comes to others, that’s another issue entirely.

What is that other issue? It’s the issue of whether we as parents, as employees, as students, whatever we are, would all benefit from not just taking personal responsibility for our actions, but from going one step further and lending a hand to others who clearly need our help. We don’t need to open our wallets (taxpayer money! The horror!), but we do need to open our hearts.

Maybe that mom of seven kids is having a bad day, and just needs to vent, because the mom she thought she would be is just not there when she looks in the mirror. Depression and self-doubt have taken over.

Maybe that couple who filed for bankruptcy just got knocked on their asses by a layoff and a furlough at the same time. Easy credit and bad mortgage products play a role too.

Maybe that college freshman, raised by loving, supportive parents, has been told all his life that he can be whatever he wants to be, and believes wholeheartedly in his own talents and potential. So getting a job someday with a degree in history doesn’t seem so ridiculous.

I think that my problem with judgment is not the casting of the judgment itself, if all this amounts to is having a different opinion, and stating the reasons why that opinion differs from another’s. The “judgment” that Michelle and others are referring to is the non-productive, shut-the-conversation-down, “I WIN!” kind of judgment that does nothing to better society. In fact, it does nothing more than to encourage smugness on the part of the judger. And this falls exactly in line with my problem with the new-school iteration of “personal responsibility”: it allows us to judging others for not making good choices, but then releases us from any sense of responsibility to do something to help that person we have judged.  It does nothing to correct that person’s behavior, or make real societal change to incentivize people to make good choices. And it’s that lack of social empathy that tells us that this attitude–a collective shrug and tsk-tsk when it comes to others’ self-inflicted pain–is ok.

In my opinion, this is not ok. We may have a hard time sympathizing with a mom whose lifestyle and parenting choices are so diametrically opposed to our own, but we must never reach a point at which we, as a society, lack the ability to empathize with that person. Empathy means that we have the ability to understand what the person is going through, because we have experienced something similar enough to be able to understand. A child who sees another child fall down and get hurt understands why that child is crying, because he too has cried over getting hurt, even if he was hurt in a somewhat different way.

We are all moms, and dads, caught up in the insane lifestyle (that we chose, yes, we know!) called being a parent. That’s it—we are all parents! We have the ability to empathize with, and not judge, other parents, because we have that in common, even if our choices are different. So instead of rolling our eyes and chocking up some other mom’s hardship to failure to take responsibility for her choices, let’s offer a hand instead. And let’s take things one step further and ask what we, as a community, can do to approach whatever the problem is systematically. Just as we can offer our opinions without casting judgment, at least in the colloquial sense, we can remember to empathize with others even if our different choices make sympathy difficult.


* My preferred spelling of “judgmental” is without the “e.” Planet Fitness tells me this is ok.




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