“I’m not responsible for the atrocities perpetrated by colonisers two centuries ago,” claim present day descendants of those colonisers.
“I’m not responsible for the rape of all those women,” claim many men.
Such claimants are both right and wrong.
Like many words in the English language, the word responsible has various shades of meaning.
One of those is the sense of being the cause of something to happen, being responsible for a particular outcome. In this sense, a coloniser who shoots and kills an indigenous inhabitant because the coloniser wants to appropriate the land is responsible for that action.
In the same sense, the man who rapes a woman is responsible for that action.
A descendant of that colonising murderer can fairly claim to have not been the cause of that murder. A man could equally claim to have not raped that woman.
However, when the issue of responsibility is raised in these contexts, such a narrow meaning of the word is not what is meant.
Responsibility also means the ability to think morally and to make good judgments leading to acting in a helpful and correct manner.
Thinking responsibly also means having the capacity to think about the consequences for other people.
When the consequences for others are considered then it becomes clear that a victim of harm and/or trauma never gets the opportunity to not be a victim. A raped woman does not have the luxury to set the rape to one side and to “put it behind” them or to “get over it.”
Thinking responsibly means to recognise this reality.
Inter-generational trauma is well known within colonised peoples. The consequences of that ongoing trauma get played out in present day: poor health, inadequate housing, drug and alcohol issues, greater incarceration rates, lower educational achievement, lower socio-economic status, and many other social ills.
A woman who is raped always remembers being raped and is wary of other men because of that.
So, yes, I may not be responsible (the cause of) a particular action, but I can, and should be, responsible for thinking morally and ethically.
Those who are the descendants of colonisers should encourage responsibility towards creating a society in which colonised people are able to heal from inter-generational trauma. We should encourage responsibility towards ensuring that ongoing oppression is halted.
Men should encourage men to take responsibility for creating a male culture which is respectful of all women. Men should encourage men to take responsibility for recognising how patriarchal thoughts and actions continue to support a system in which women are victims of sexual assault.
For this to happen, we should encourage each other to take responsibility for educating ourselves about how oppression, victimisation, colonisation, and trauma get played out in our culture.
Finally, we should encourage each other to not get trapped in the easy refrain of “I’m not responsible.” Instead, we should encourage each other to recognise that “I can be, and I am, responsible.”
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