The Language of Responsibility

Friday, June 10, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

By the language of responsibility, we mean the way we report events for which someone might be held responsible --- events for which someone  might be  blamed, or praised.  For example, in reporting a famous event witnessed by millions of people on TV,  I might say "Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson’s blouse, revealing her naked – uh --- chest."  Well, actually, her right breast, not to be overly euphemistic.

I’m  describing an action for which Timberlake might be held responsible, and with him CBS, for exposing the young, innocent Super Bowl watchers of the world to a naked breast.

That’s not the way Timberlake described it, however.  He said that as he reached across her blouse, "a wardrobe malfunction occurred”.  He described the same event, but without a person to hold responsible for opening the blouse.  Presumably he thought that made him sound less culpable.  Still, millions of people saw it.  They saw Timberlake reach across Jackson’s blouse, unclip something, her blouse fall open, and her exposed breast.  Even if that wasn’t his intention, it's clear he did it. 

Shakespeare said that a rose smells as sweet, no matter what one calls it.  If he were correct, anyone who witnessed that Super Bowl moment should realize it was something Timberlake was responsible for, no matter how it's described.  But interestingly enough Shakespeare was wrong.  There's quite a bit of evidence that if you blindfold people and ask them to smell an aroma, what you call that aroma has a big effect on how pleasant they find it.  If you call it a rose, they’ll probably like it.  If you just call it a flower, they’ll like it, but maybe not as much.  If you just call it a plant, even less so.  And so on 

Now suppose you show two groups of people the same footage of from the Super Bowl.  You say to one group:

"You're going to see a video where Justin Timberlake reaches across the front of Jackson’s body, unfastens a snap and tears part of the bodice!" 

To the other group you say:

"Timberlake reaches across the front of Jackson’s body.  A snap unfastens and part of the bodice tears!" 

So, what would happen if you ask, "Was this Timberlake’s fault?  Should someone be fined?"

We might think that what should happen is that it shouldn't make any difference.  Both groups see the same event.  It’s obvious that Timberlake did it, even if it wasn’t what he meant to do.  It wasn’t spontaneous bodice combustion.  The second description doesn’t say that he didn’t do it.  It’s like when President Reagan said, about the Iran-Contra affair,  "Mistakes were made”.  Well, if mistakes were made, someone made them.  And if a bodice was torn, someone tore it.  But what should happen, isn’t what actually happens.  In fact, the first group is much more likely to assign responsibility and level a fine, and a large one at that.

What’s more,  there are differences between languages on this.  Suppose we're eyewitnesses who think the bodice-tearing was unintentional and accidental -- a true wardrobe malfunction, as Timberlake put it.   In that case, either description is still OK, at least in English --- the one where Timberlake himself unfastened a snap and tore the bodice --- or the one where the snap unfastened and the bodice tore.  But in Spanish, the eyewitness who thinks it was an accident is much more likely to use a reflexive verb that avoids giving responsibility.

This is important because the effect carries over to memory.  Often the way we describe things affects how we encode the memories of them.  When we remember passively-described events, we're much less good at remembering who was responsible.  And people whose language prefers reflexive verbs, like Spanish, are less likely to recall the responsible parties.

We’ll be talking with one of our favorite guests, Lera Boroditsky from Stanford’s Psychology Department.  Being a psychologist, Lera can prove these effects with many experiments, lot of graphs, statistics, and all sorts of things like that.  But  I need to say a little about why it’s philosophically interesting.  For one thing, language seems to affect how we think of events, even when we're eye-witnesses.  For another, given the way our descriptions of action, agency and responsibility vary across languages and cultures, perhaps the the conception of responsibility does too.  Who knows, maybe Puritanism can be traced to the way English lets us focus on the person who does something, even when those actions are unintentional and accidental…or maybe I’m going off the deep end.

Comments (10)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, June 11, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Experience has taught me that people shun responsi

Experience has taught me that people shun responsibility for things which exemplify lapses of good judgment. This behavior is not exclusive to our more modern times, but it has become more prevalent as the spur of the moment(situational ethics)has caught our interest and an embrace of popular culture has eroded our good sense (I used to think common sense was the barometer of a life well-enacted, but it appears that common sense no longer exists.)
With the notable exception of natural catastrophe, insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Those who wish to be unresponsible are willing to pay ever-higher insurance premiums for the privilege of remaining so. Insurance wins, unresponsives win (sort of), everyone else loses.
If we are appalled at the unresponsives (and we should be),we ought to be equally dismayed by those who wish to abscond with credit for good deeds when they had only peripheral involvement in the doing of those deeds.
The door swings both ways---no, scratch that---it is revolving. Because all of us are guilty of responsibility procrastination---if it suits our situation. And fits the ethics of the moment.
There is no deep end anymore. We have collectively seen to that. Thanks, JP. Always a pleasure reading this blog.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 12, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Neuman is hard on us, isn't he? But like what he s

Neuman is hard on us, isn't he? But like what he says or not, I like his candor and propensity to tell truth as he sees it. Celebrities (especially those whose career candles are growing dim) just seem to find ways to re-ignite interest in themselves. Happens all the time. Harrison Ford just cannot seem to accept the fact that his candle is burning low. At age sixty-eight, he is preparing for one last(?) huzzah as the enigmatic Indiana Jones. We wonder if Grandpaw Jones might be a better handle for him now, but that has been done. Grandpaw Jones was a country/bluegrass legend.
Well, these are only random thoughts, committed to ephemeral ink. What is historionic effect anyway? It is everything that happens, much of which is beyond our control---the rest of which is beyond our understanding.
Because we are affected by history. And we are too, what, proud?, to realize that the hole is getting deeper.
The end of the world is the least of our worries, unless we fully realize, accept and act upon those factors that are bringing it about. So far, no good.
(historionicity describes the degree of change that affects us. More or less---with adjustments. This is not science. Yet.) It is June 12, or so. And the pyromaniacs are gearing up for independence day hi-jinx.
yawn.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 12, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

One Are you looking for a responsible word? I

One
Are you looking for a responsible word?
I know One
One is me.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Responsibility is a tough sell in these turbulent

Responsibility is a tough sell in these turbulent times. Everybody who is too busy to bother with being responsible for his/her actions, behaviors and lapses of judgment---or feels that they are far too important for these things to matter, takes refuge in the smokescreen: it's not my fault. What is this really?
Is it an evolutionary regression, or is it merely a loss of consciousness in the face of environmental overload?
Several of your commenters, past and present, have alleged that we are far busier than humans ought to be. Probably so. But we appear to invite challenge and adversity---believing that these things are badges of maturity. I do not know who came up with that ludicrous paradigm---it certainly has not improved us, as far as I can tell. I am only an armchair philosopher who heard of your blog through a friend.
Historionically, it all fits. If one believes in such things.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

fantastic love the article well written and very u

fantastic love the article well written and very useful. full of great information and I found it wonderful to read thank you

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

It is amazing how people are able to so easily pas

It is amazing how people are able to so easily pass blame or responsibility, whichever you like to call it, from themselves by the simple phrasing of a sentence.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, June 25, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Funny that Neuman refers to the door swinging both

Funny that Neuman refers to the door swinging both ways. The Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith) are on tour again. Come on now,---really?, the Monkees? How long will it take for the boomer generation to realize that youth has passed them by? Oh, and for those who didn't get the connection, the Monkees had a song called This Door Swings Both Ways. Or maybe I just imagined that? Could it have been Paul Revere and the Raiders? No---it must have been the Monkees. Maybe. Heh.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, June 26, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Well. The Supreme(?) Court has, once again, abroga

Well. The Supreme(?) Court has, once again, abrogated its supremacy. Responsibility must be relative? Children can buy (and buy into)the mayhem of video games and their parents are the arbiters of childhood (?)responsibility. GIVE ME A BREAK, please. Parents are so absorbed by their own vanity and desire to fit in with everyone else, they just cannot seem to realize their own responsibilities. The Court, in respecting privacy and primacy, has dropped the ball. I do not advocate a big-brother state. But there is something dreadfully wrong here. Must be the money thing, hmmmm?
That historionic effect thing starts to make sense, too.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, July 3, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Modesty is king...my point of view.

Modesty is king...my point of view.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

evolutionary regression, very interseting and such

evolutionary regression, very interseting and such an indepth comment. I agree it's as if our society are addicted to shunning responsibility for poor judgement. I myself have learnt from a very young age that action has consequence. Its maturity that brings up to realise social respect for which we are all responsible for.

 
 
 

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