Opinion | The Canon

Don't be a hero

One of the most underdiagnosed diseases of our time is hyper-responsibility. You know you are suffering from hyper-responsibility when you can feel in your bones that you are the problem and also the solution to that problem. No one else, nothing else. Just you.

As a factor weighing on political awareness, hyper-responsibility goes back at least as far as George Orwell. Consider Orwell in 1936: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” 

How responsible am I, personally, for childhood malnutrition in India (which happens to be higher today, after India’s economic miracle, than in sub Saharan Africa)? How responsible is my individual life-style for, say, global warming? Not very much. And there is something a bit self-important as well as self-righteous about claiming that all of this is on me. When self-blame gets this far out of control, it really is a bit sick. And so it will be perceived. The most likely responses are indifference (I have reading to do for tomorrow) or backlash (those goody-goodies). There are more suicides at Cornell than in those Foxconn factories. But don’t worry, if we can grab a taxi, I know a place that serves great strawberries and cream. 

But what if Orwell is right, more or less—right about everything but pinning the responsibility on “you”? Something should be done, no? Even if you are not about to do it single-handed. 

One of the side effects of hyper-responsibility is slowness in realizing that many problems are really collective and demand collective solutions, including solutions for which the proper agent is the state or some other large institution. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you are a Columbia student. Like you, the institution you attend is not individually responsible for the capitalist system. It’s not Wall Street. It’s not even Moody’s, which is currently in the inappropriate position of deciding whether or not young Greek citizens can attend college. But Columbia is a lot bigger than you are, and a lot more visible when it chooses to do something. Or chooses to do nothing, thereby declaring to all that it prefers the status quo. Institutions can and should be pressured by their members to live up to their own principles. 

Whatever Columbia’s principles are—I’m a little fuzzy on that right now—they aren’t “make as much profit as you can, and damn the consequences for everybody else.”

Thanks to the Academy Award-winning documentary “Inside Job,” many of us learned about the non-negligible role played by professors from the Columbia Business School in creating the financial crisis of 2008. Whatever you think about the ethics of the individuals involved, it was the fact that they had “Columbia University” after their names that made their signatures worth the big checks they got from the big insurance companies and investment firms (and the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, which paid for and received an “objective” report testifying to the trustworthiness of the country’s bonds shortly before Iceland went bankrupt). So a thorough review of the ethics of the Business School faculty was Columbia’s responsibility both to the rest of the world and to itself. 

According to the new rules, Business School professors don’t have to cease and desist—they just have to disclose their for-profit activities. It’s not good enough, but it’s a step in the right direction. More such steps would include scrutiny of Columbia’s employment practices. If graduate teaching assistants, without any guarantee of post-Ph.D. employment, are paid below the minimum wage and denied the right to unionize while doing work without which the University could not function, it sends a message. 

There should also be scrutiny of Columbia’s investment portfolio. Ten years ago we had (and we probably still have) investments in Boeing, which makes Apache helicopters, and Caterpillar, which makes D9 bulldozers—both of which are actively used in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. What message does that send about Columbia’s commitment to human rights and corporate responsibility? 

Send an email. It won’t take up all your time. It wouldn’t replace beer night. It wouldn’t be an excuse for not studying for your exams. I’ve got work to do myself. Unlike Rachel Corrie, I’m not going to stand in front of a custom-built house-wrecking bulldozer to stop it from demolishing another Palestinian house. Not everybody can be a hero. Then again, not everybody has to be. 

The author is a professor in the department of English and comparative literature.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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menckenman posted on

With the exception of the West Bank comments, I agree completely.
Re WB and CU investments, this is rather far fetched. It is analogous to ridding ourselves of Exxon because they make the fuel for warcraft, or Microsoft because the military uses PCs. Conscience is vital, but not to ridiculous lengths.

Now, talk to me about a Chick-fil-A boycott and I'll listen.

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Sugar Man posted on

Also not super crazy about the end, but a terrific op-ed nonetheless!

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