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To Take Responsibility

August 8, 2009

Last semester I taught about gender roles in American evangelical families; in particular, using Bartkowski’s excellent book on the subject, Remaking the Godly Marriage, my class talked about the (sometimes considerable) gap between conservative evangelical ideology and actual family practices.

One thing that came to mind that I want to share is this: when people in patriarchal families say that “the man” decides so he bears “the responsibility,” there is an ambiguity here that masks familial power relations.

The reason why patriarchal families might say “the man decides but that makes him responsible” is probably in order to soften the patriarchy. The patriarch is not a slave-owner; if he makes a bad decision he’ll be responsible for it himself, right?

But what does this really mean? “Being responsible” can have two radically different senses to it.

  • “I’m responsible for that” can mean “blame me,” or, “I’m the one who caused this to happen”
  • “I’m responsible for that” can also mean “I bear the consequences and it’s my job to fix the problem”

So, consider an evangelical patriarch who decides to take a job in another state and move his whole family there. Let’s say the whole thing turns out to be a disaster: his family hates the new home and the new neighborhood, the kids feel alienated at the new school and miss their old friends, the mother becomes depressed, and the father gets laid off from the new job because, it turns out, the company was unstable. The family could rally around him, saying: “He was a real man about it; he owned up and took responsibility for his decision.”

But what’s happened? Maybe he’s “taken responsibility” in the first sense (“you can all blame me”), but he can’t have taken responsibility in the second, because it’s actually his family that bears most of the consequences for his decision.

However, this ambiguous “responsibility” rhetoric doesn’t get at that. On the contrary, it makes him look good for taking the blame, and shifts attention away from the fact that his family had to bear the consequences—just like politicians who earn back squandered social capital by admitting mistakes while their constituencies pay the material costs.

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