In this assembly, Joe Walker challenges listeners to think about how easily we tend to blame external factors for things and so perhaps avoid our own responsibilities
It links to a number of recent news items where an important question underlying the story was personal responsibility contrasted with the ability to blame someone or something else.
Due to the nature of some of the stimuli it is suggested that this assembly is more suitable for senior pupils.
Resources: 10 readers and a leader
Reader 1: Apparently, self-harm is on the increase. Hospitals are seeing a far greater number of people admitted – in particular teenagers – for treatment for the effects of self-harm.
Reader 2: Well what can you expect? It’s the internet’s fault. There are all sorts of graphic images of self-harm on there. It’s no wonder people do this.
Reader 3: The war in Afghanistan is terrible – soldiers are dying day after day. Young people, with all their lives in front of them – and their lives cut tragically short.
Reader 4: Well no wonder. It’s the government’s fault. They aren’t providing the money needed for our troops to do their job. People are dying because they don’t have the proper resources to protect themselves adequately.
Reader 5: Look at these Members of Parliament. What a fine example they are to us all with their expenses claims. How can they justify the amount of money they claim? Theft, that’s what I call it.
Reader 6: Well what can they do? The whole system is far too complicated. It must be really easy to make an honest mistake. Maybe if it was all simplified it would be easier for them to do it right.
Reader 7: What about that man who dropped dead outside his home? They say he was victimised by a bunch of teenagers who hassled him over a long period of time. Terrible – groups of teenagers hanging about should be rounded up.
Reader 8: Look, teenagers are out in groups all over the country. Half the time their parents haven’t a clue what they’re doing or who they are with. It’s the parents who need to take some responsibility for their children – they’re just kids after all.
Reader 9: That guy who killed Jamie Bulger – I see he’s back in prison – about time too. He should never have been released and he’s back where he belongs.
Reader 10: Yes, what he did was awful – but he was ten years old at the time. Why was he out walking the streets alone at that age? Why did no-one challenge him as he walked about a shopping centre?
Leader: None of the situations the readers have referred to is simple. Each one is a complex mixture of many different elements – different social circumstances, different understandings of what the right thing to do is, different ways of thinking about who is ultimately responsible for our actions in life.
They all have something in common though. Each one is a situation where we look for the answers to what happened. Who was to blame? Whose responsibility should it have been to do the right thing? Was wrong done, and if so, by whom and for what reason? The tension in each one could be between personal responsibility for our actions and a shared responsibility; it might also be a tension between following what is allowed as opposed to what is right. Or it might just be a simple case of good versus evil.
Is our society in danger of jumping too quickly to pin the blame on things on the outside, rather than look more closely at ourselves and our own responsibilities?
Reader 1: The internet contains many things, but just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean we have to do it. It is easy to blame it – and people do, for all sorts of things – and yes, perhaps it does have some responsibility – but does it hold all responsibility? The internet is open to all – so how can it be controlled? Can it really be blamed for people’s actions? Can the internet actually have any responsibility – after all, it’s just a web of computers, isn’t it?
Reader 2: I think we should ban it all. Have the police shut it down. People who use the internet don’t know any better. They need protecting from themselves.
Reader 3: Yes, if the government is supporting military action in Afghanistan then they should fund it properly. But the government has to spend our money wisely. It has lots of demands on its finances. Perhaps the responsibility isn’t our government’s but those people who make the military action necessary – those whose actions in Afghanistan have led to war.
Reader 4: Governments are there to act on our behalf. If they go to war on our behalf, taking our family out there as soldiers, then they have a responsibility to find the money needed to pay for it to be done effectively.
Reader 5: Yes, the system which the politicians use to claim their expenses is complicated – but is it that complicated? Isn’t it their responsibility to make sure that they are doing the right thing?
Reader 6: But they’re only human. It’s too tempting for them when the expenses system is so open to abuse. It’s only natural that they’ll bend the rules a bit, isn’t it?
Reader 7: Yes, you can blame the parents of Jamie Bulger’s killers if you like. But parents can only do so much. You can’t lock your child in your home after all. These teenagers are young adults – what they do is their responsibility.
Reader 8: But if you have kids you should be prepared to bring them up properly. That’s a parent’s job after all. Your kids didn’t ask to be born.
Reader 9: It’s far too easy to blame everyone else for the actions of the Jamie Bulger murderers. Yes, they were only ten – but the courts decided that they knew what they had done and they knew that it was wrong. The responsibility for that little boy’s death lies on their shoulders and no-one else’s.
Reader 10: But their lives must have pushed them into that terrible deed. Something must have made them do it.
Leader: You might disagree with some or all of the points of view expressed today. Responsibility is a tricky concept. On the one hand, perhaps we are all uniquely and individually responsible for our own actions – no matter who we are, what we do, or the circumstances in which we act. On the other hand, perhaps that is far too simplistic and we are in fact all responsible for each other – perhaps there is no such thing as personal responsibility in a world where all our actions are complicated mixtures of many factors. Or perhaps we are all responsible for our own actions – uniquely and individually.
Leader: Do you take responsibility for your own actions or do you look for others to blame? Are you quick to judge people for what they have done, or are you quick to find someone to blame for their actions and so minimise their responsibility?
Are we responsible only for ourselves or do we have a responsibility for everyone else? Are we our brother’s keeper or should our brothers, and sisters of course, be looking out for themselves?
Today you may find yourself in a situation where you can take responsibility for your own actions or you can look around for someone else to blame. Perhaps it might be why you didn’t complete your homework, or something far more serious. Perhaps you’ll look around hurriedly for something or someone to blame: your school, your parents, your upbringing, the place in which you live, the government, the internet, television, music… the list could go on and on.
But ultimately, are we not all responsible for ourselves? Should we not all accept our own responsibility for our own actions?
Leader: Let me look at my own actions in lifeAnd work out what things are my responsibilityI know that sometimes others are to blameBut when it’s my fault give me the strength to recognise thatAnd to try to put it right[Amen]
This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010
About the author: Joe Walker is Head of RE & Psychology at Liberton High School in Edinburgh. As well as being a well-known author he was winner of Secondary Teacher of the Year at the Scottish Education awards 2005.