What is responsibility? We toss this word around— as children we are taught to grow into this, as adults we assume we are this. But what does it mean to ‘be responsible’? It must be more than just a ‘thing’ that we become, an adjective that we climb into at a certain age, after a certain life experience.It seems that there are different kinds of responsibility: Parents are given responsibility for their children, teachers for their students. There is an intrapersonal responsibility to someone else. Me to you, you to me. But we are also responsible for ourselves. Isn’t this one of the key features of ‘growing up’, stepping into an ownership of self that somehow makes us have to start looking out for ourselves. Our parents are no longer the ones that will feed us, house us, or take us to our sporting events. We have to do this ourselves. I am responsible to myself.
And so being responsible means looking inwardly and outwardly. Watching out for the wellbeing of ourselves and others. But what does this look like? How much ‘watching out’ do we need to do? Philosopher Levinas suggests that the responsibility that we have for one another is infinite— we can never cease to be responsible. It’s like an eternal burden that we have to bear for the other person. And a burden that we have to bear for ourselves. Which can seem like some kind of chain rather than something that can set us free.But I think that it can actually be the ticket to a lot more freedom. Because if we are responsible, then it’s us approaching the situation, saying, ok what is going on here? How can I act in a way that gives me power over what is happening outside of me? An important example of this is looking at responsibility in HIV. Let’s say we are responsible for others— for helping them to get well and to stay well. What does this look like? Ensuring that we are educated on the issues that people are facing, examining whether we use stigmatising language, pressuring health services to provide accessible treatment that can effectively treat all populations regardless of cultural backgrounds, engaging in activism that addresses criminalisation and misrepresentation of facts about HIV. And what about responsibility for self? Often this seems to be forgotten in the sea of ‘otherness’. But if we don’t ensure that we are taking responsibility for ourselves, how do we propose to get well and stay well? Is it enough to demand rights to medication and health-services? Perhaps in part. But I think responsibility for ourselves is more widespread, if we really want people to stay well in the long term. Maybe it means making sure that we are exercising, eating well, receiving the appropriate psychological counselling and support we need and engaging in safe sexual practices.
I think that it is easier to look at rights when we are talking about these kinds of issues, because rights are something we can claim. We can say, this is something I am owed. But responsibility puts the action on me and I become the agent of change. And this becomes much more challenging because it requires looking inwardly and outwardly and saying— ok, let’s look at the facts. And let’s look at where I stand in the middle of it all and what I need to be doing for things to change. Which is hard but essential if we are to really claim ownership of our own lives.