If ever there were a well-respected class of rodent, it would have to be the beaver. They’re notoriously hardworking, acting as tree-cutters, masons, and engineers. They are a keystone species—a species so important to an ecosystem that it would be unrecognizable without them—because their dams provide shelter and food for dozens of species, prevent flooding downstream, and filter and purify tons of water (in stark contrast to human-created dams, which are ecologically destructive and need to be detonated as fast as we can ship the dynamite). Beavers even build their own canals, connecting their food supplies to their ponds. Plus, the bastards are vegetarian, something I despair of ever accomplishing.
Given this impressive resume, beavers seem like the perfect animal mascot for the Republican conception of Personal Responsibility. If these two words don’t send echoes of Fox News segments and dinner table rants through your head, then you are very lucky. To give you a sense for what you’re missing, let me introduce you to Dennis Prager, who in 1994 wrote “The American Tradition of Personal Responsibility.” This essay is a perfect encapsulation of the conservative mindset on individual agency. Here’s a representative excerpt:
No One Is Guilty
Yet another battle against personal accountability/responsibility is the battle against guilt. No one is guilty of behavior: If you steal, you are the product of socioeconomic forces; if you’re 15 years old and get pregnant, it is because there weren’t enough condoms and you didn’t get a good enough sex education in school; if you murder, it is because you had too easy access to a gun and/or because you were raised in a poor neighborhood.
[…] This was an example of another way of undermining personal responsibility–psychologizing actions rather than judging them. Rather than good and evil, there is healthy and sick. For example, men who rape are often labeled sick. But they are not all necessarily sick. They may be normal-but bad. It comes as sad news to many modern women-men are by nature rapists. “I like woman, I take woman” is male nature. The reason that most men do not rape is because they hold values that forbid them to, not because it is foreign to their nature. There are armies that rape and there are armies that do not rape, and the armies that rape do not do so because they consist almost entirely of sick men. The soldiers of the Red Army were not all sick. But they did have 28 years of nihilism in their country. A generation was raised with no right and wrong, just Communist Party notions of what is “progressive.”
[…] We cannot know exactly what normal and sick are, but we can and do know what good and evil are. We have substituted normal and sick for good and evil, and that, again, means no personal responsibility. How can you be held responsible if you did what you did because you are sick?
Throughout the essay, Prager goes on at length about how our wayward youth have been brainwashed into believing that no one should fail, and that feelings matter more than actions. To people on the left, these ideas seem self-evidently reductive. Obviously, there are a whole host of social and economic factors that influence the decisions individual people make, which can’t be easily boiled down to any concept as simple as “personal responsibility.” Many leftists might also object to the idea that humans are naturally a bunch of murderers and rapists whose tendencies toward evil are just barely restrained by “values.” But it’s not just Dennis Prager who believes these things. I personally have known many good people who would quickly jump to assume that a thief or a pregnant teen or a homeless person had “poor character,” that this “poor character” was the sole explanation for their misfortune, and that what they really needed was to be taught a lesson in “responsibility.” Where does this shockingly pervasive mindset come from? And—if we agree that this way of viewing the world is incorrect, and harmful—what can we do about it?
Growing up, I instinctively disliked the “personal responsibility” mindset. It didn’t match with my observations of the world. For example, when I was a preteen, maybe a little younger, I remember discovering my aversion to road rage when my mother was driving the Smurfmobile (our blue Dodge Caravan) down Boxley Boulevard. Suddenly, a car whizzed past and cut us off. My mother was beloved by all the little children at church as the “Beautiful Storyteller” from Bible school. At that moment, however, she leaned on the horn and shouted, “Jackass!” I was upset, and thought it was unfair to call that guy names when we didn’t know why he was speeding. What if his wife was in labor? What if he had never, ever sped before and there was some kind of emergency? Isn’t it wrong to be so mad and to condemn him? You don’t know, I said. I won the fight.
Pure, youthful empathy—untainted by years of driving on roads which are indeed often filled with assholes—let me see the speed demon’s behavior as subject to circumstance, rather than a sole result of “disposition” or “character.” (Possibly, it becomes harder to charitably think through these hypothetical explanations for people’s actions the more often they inconvenience you, hence my mom’s angry reaction.) The tendency to assume that a driver who cuts you off is an asshole, whereas your own speeding ticket last week was totally justified—you’re not an asshole, you were just late for work that one time!—is something that psychologists have dubbed the “fundamental attribution error.” It’s one of many sneaky mental habits responsible for why we can’t seem to cut each other some slack.
This phenomenon can easily be spotted in society’s tendency to blame poverty on poor people’s bad choices. See this characteristic remark from Bill O’Reilly in 2004: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ‘em they’re irresponsible and lazy. And who’s gonna wanna do that? Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period.” Conservatives like O’Reilly and Prager are fond of acting like their willingness to assign guilt is evidence of their unflinching realism, whereas their lefty opponents are just bleeding hearts who can’t accept the truth. But the fact is, the belief that poverty is the result of “choices” is very much not supported by empirical evidence. The best single figure to punch a hole in the “indolent poor” myth is the productivity-wage gap. Nearly half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, but productivity has outpaced wages by more than 600% since 1979.
The graph from the Economic Policy Institute shows, in short, that workers are producing, but they’re not earning. Combine that with the fact that we’ve had historically low unemployment in recent years (barring the recent catastrophic impacts of coronavirus), and you have a simple conclusion: most of America is working, and their work is creating value, but that value doesn’t make it to their paychecks. (Where could it be going???)
This problematic and unfounded belief about the “indolent poor” isn’t held only by Fox News pundits; almost a third of US adults (largely Republican) believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy, according to Pew Research Center.
How does such an unfounded narrative become widespread? Obviously, education, corporate news media, and devotion to capital play a role. We can also find some explanations in psychological research. We already talked about the “fundamental attribution error,” the seemingly deep-seated human tendency to accept nuanced excuses for our own behavior while harshly condemning the same behavior in others. It turns out that we have a lot of blind spots about ourselves, and that these can contribute to not only our day-to-day assessment of individual situations, but our entire theory of how the world operates.
In one experiment, researcher Paul Piff rigged a game of Monopoly so that some randomly determined players started the game with more money. When the privileged players inevitably won, Piff asked them why they believed they had been successful. The winners answered with descriptions of their clever property purchases, completely forgetting the initial random coin toss that determined who began the game with an advantage. This phenomenon—believing that those on top deserve to be there, and those on the bottom likewise deserve their place—is called Just-World Fallacy. The conclusions we draw about the world around us are intrinsically flawed by our silent biases, always ready to shield us from the truth that we, too, might be subject to forces outside our control. Attribution error whispers in our ear during the nightly news: those people unable to make rent April 1st were irresponsible—sure, the pandemic is unfortunate, but hey, they could have been thrifty and saved more. Just-World Fallacy tells us to change the channel: why feel guilty holed up in our cozy homes when, after all, we deserve to be safe and comfortable, because of how hard we worked to get here?
Conservatives aren’t wrong for finding beavers’ hard work to be truly impressive. Their dams need to be watertight to provide shelter and protection come winter. If a beaver hears the sound of running water, he is immediately relentless in finding the source and plugging the hole. It doesn’t matter whether the beaver is tired and had planned to chill out and nibble on some lilypads rolled up like cigars.
But the conservative worldview fails to take into account that not only is it impossible for many humans to work like beavers, but that people who do work like beavers are exhausted and frequently desperate. The “personal responsibility” crowd tends to argue that however hard the circumstances—however big the hole in the dam—you should just work even harder to overcome them. But let’s dispense with the narrative that hard work is a virtue, and admit what the beavers know: this extraordinary exertion is simply an absolute necessity to not die. About 13 million US workers have more than one job. 12 million people living below 200% of the poverty line (a more realistic threshold of financial hardship in America) have full-time jobs. A society with an abundance of wealth which still works its citizens to the bone in order to survive is sick. Not only do many people still suffer financially and physically, but the spell we have cast to treat work as a blessing rather than a curse takes an emotional toll. This, in turn, makes us even more prone to that fundamental attribution error: if we’re both required to work incredibly hard, and conditioned to believe that working this way is morally good, then it’s very easy to assume that people who don’t work like this, or can’t, are morally suspect.
Maybe the beavers have endless energy and love to fix their dam holes, but I rather think they’re irritated by them (especially when the holes are made by asshole human nature-tourists who want to watch the beavers scramble). I think I know how the beaver feels. Working so tirelessly, creating something to be proud of, but being unable to ignore that faint sound of running water, that ominous clue that maybe something isn’t perfect. You tell yourself it can’t really be that important, can it? For once, can’t “great, just not perfect” be good enough? But it won’t ever be. You’re conditioned to find that sound at any cost and plug the hole—your life depends on it.
I definitely know how that feels. I know how it feels to go to the doctor because you can’t get over a cold, and leave with a note to take a week off work because apparently the problem is that you’re so anxious and depressed by the sound of water rushing out of your carefully-constructed dam all the goddamn time. I know what it’s like to be so obsessed with taking care of yourself and your loved ones, with always being responsible for everything and working hard, that you see the entire world through that lens. Maybe some days you even resent anyone who seems like they might be having an easier time of it. You might want to say “when I was your age, I had to walk to school uphill both ways—in the snow!” You might hear a news story about those 13 million people with multiple jobs and remember a time that you, too, had to work very hard. You might resent when people imply we should change the world for the better, so future generations do not have to work as hard; after all, those changes weren’t around to help you, those people weren’t there to sympathize as you scurried to build your dam.
Another fun biological fact about beavers is that they chew constantly not just to reshape their environment, but also to stop their own bodies from violently betraying them. A beaver can chew through a 5 inch willow tree in 3 minutes because of their strong teeth. While tooth enamel is usually enriched with magnesium for strength, beavers have stronger iron teeth, the red mineral turning their teeth to their distinctive orange. Those incredible teeth that chop down up to 200 trees annually to build dams, that plough through branches for food, that fend off enemies, are constantly being worn down with use. To keep up, the beaver’s teeth grow constantly throughout their life, up to 4 feet a year. But if a beaver, like any other rodent, is unable to wear down their teeth, they just keep growing—into their skulls, through the roofs of their mouth, through their eyeballs. That house-building, food-chewing, enemy-biting gift becomes a curse if left unchecked.
I’m attached to my hard-working beaver teeth. I am so embarrassingly attached to them that I let them grow and grow until they turned inward and pierced me. This is how people become “workaholics”: they push themselves to cultivate a stronger and stronger work ethic, in the name of survival, but then have to work harder and harder to satisfy their own internal demands. And sometimes, when you’re hard on yourself, the fundamental attribution error then just magnifies how hard you’re willing to be on others. But this, as the name suggests, is an error. I am both proud of my sprint through college to save money, and resentful that I had to do it that way—but that doesn’t mean I should oppose student debt cancellation. Why should future generations suffer to avoid debt simply because I had to? Are they lazy or uncommitted or entitled for wanting what I would have wanted for myself, if it had been possible? Or was it cruel to put me in that position in the first place, and therefore cruel to wish the same thing on others?
Understanding some of the reasons why our brains are so quick to latch onto narratives that are unfounded is key to trying to correct our own misconceptions and help others to do the same. In addition to his monopoly experiment, researcher Richard Piff has also found a lot of gross, if unsurprising, evidence that rich people are ruder, less charitable, and more likely to break the law. The hypothesis is that a life of privilege is also a bubble that removes people from their empathy and compassion. But, crucially, he also found that this behavior is malleable. In another experiment, after watching a brief video about childhood poverty, those who saw themselves as rich were just as likely to help someone in distress in the lab as those who saw themselves as poor. These “psychological interventions” take people who are otherwise self-sufficient and remind them of community, cooperation, and other values that engender compassion.
While you, dear reader, may not be in a position to sit Jeff Bezos down in front of a video about childhood poverty, you can do your best to be responsible for cultivating your own compassion—this is the kind of personal responsibility that is truly important. In the same way that exposure to other people’s problems can make us harder and more impatient, it can also make us more compassionate, if we approach these experiences with a more open mind. I was a big reader, thanks to my parents and retired English teacher grandmother. Like many avid readers who smuggled flashlights under their blankets to read late into the night, I viewed novels as transformational and transportive experiences. It turns out that reading—like the short video from the “can rich assholes be reformed” experiment—actually does transform us, making us more empathetic. The part of your brain that infers others’ thoughts and feelings lights up like a Christmas tree when you read (evidence suggests that this is form agnostic, so don’t let people make you feel bad if you prefer watching Buffy or playing Dragon Age to reading Proust).
To exercise that muscle, you can always try reading about the experiences of real people, like Vanessa Solivan, a home health aide and mother of three who spent years as part of the growing demographic of the “working homeless,” people who—astonishingly—have someplace to work but no place to live. A New York Times piece describes the difficult circumstances of her upbringing, as well as her current job and how she attempts to afford to live. Her job doesn’t pay nearly enough to lift her above the poverty line, and additional assistance she might receive from one government program cuts her eligibility for another. The more we can vividly picture the circumstances that might leave someone destitute, the harder we can fight against the instinct to attribute destitution to character rather than, just maybe, circumstance.
When I see a car go speeding by or do something foolish, I still hate it when someone yells at them. What if the driver is just a beaver, desperate to find the sound of running water before their entire world drains away?