A Thought-Provoking Conference

On November 6th, Women4ChangeIndiana held a conference, via Zoom, on “Resilience” and the status of women in the Hoosier State. The various presentations, all of which were excellent, went from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and featured a number of accomplished professional women who addressed the various challenges that face women in Indiana: the diminution of our voices via Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering, the psychological strains of the pandemic, current efforts to improve inclusion and diversity, and the distressing lack of progress in improving the economic status of women in Indiana, among other issues.

I really encourage anyone who cares about policies that affect women in our state to click through and watch some or all of those presentations, (enter password sow21) and Charlie Richardson’s tribute to Indiiana’s icon, Marge O’Laughlin, but today I want to explore the broader implications of a remark made by one of the presenters. Shruti Rana is the Assistant Dean for Curricular and Undergraduate Affairs and Professor of International Law at I.U.’s Hamilton Lugar School in Bloomington.

During her presentation, Rana pointed out that many of the more intractable problems Hoosier women face are the result of policies requiring them to find individual solutions to what are really public problems.

Think about that for a minute, because that observation–and the barrier it represents– is true for all Americans, not just women. It is another way of describing the consequences of our ongoing disagreements over the proper role of government.

What constitutes a “public problem”? Why is a correct characterization important?

Americans valorize “personal responsibility,” and for good reason; the assumption of responsibility for our own behaviors, the “ownership” of our own mistakes, is an important part of mature adulthood (and evidently in short supply–but that is an observation for another day…). However, it is also important to recognize that there are elements of our lives that the assumption of personal responsibility can neither control nor affect to any meaningful degree.

If the electricity goes out, I suppose you could fault people who hadn’t equipped themselves with personal generators, but most of us would recognize the unfairness of  such an accusation. Victims of gun violence aren’t responsible for America’s persistent lack of firearms regulation. In the midst of a deep recession or depression, even Republicans recognize that joblessness isn’t due to laziness or lack of ambition. Most of us would bristle at the accusation that we bear any personal responsibility for the rise of QAnon and similar lunacies.

In other words, there is a difference between problems we can solve individually, by dint of hard work and the exercise of personal responsibility, and problems that require a collective response.

In the wake of the pandemic, for example, a significant number of women who want to re-enter the workforce cannot find childcare. The absence of affordable, safe places to care for their children is not, I would submit, an “individual” problem–it’s a social problem that most developed countries have recognized as such.

Rana’s remark led me to an “aha” moment–an epiphany.

I have been depressed lately–a depression shared with a number of my friends and relatives–not because of anything going on in my own life, which is admittedly a privileged one. Along with so many other Americans, I am depressed by the news, by the constant spotlight on the nation’s dysfunctions. Rana’s comment illuminated the main reason for that depression: the feelings of  helplessness and powerlessness that are a consequence of  Americans’ tendency to categorize public problems as individual ones.

It isn’t that individuals can’t do anything: we can vote (but then, gerrymandering and vote suppression…); we can organize; we can lobby our elected officials. I can educate myself by reading broadly, and I can–and do–pontificate on this blog. But most of the problems we face are not individual problems, and the exercise of personal responsibility can only take us so far.

Clearly, not far enough.

One message came loud and clear through all of the conference presentations: Unless Congress passes the voting rights act, and allows the democratic process to proceed fairly, elected officials will continue to ignore the will of the voters–and efforts to collectively address problems that are clearly public will go nowhere.


  1. I think we were raised and conditioned to be that way. So much of your personality and success depends on your early years of life.

    The interesting thing to me is who did our initial program loading. So much comes from who we were exposed to in our early years. In my case, that was a 1930’s shaped personality that was programmed by my grandparents who were born in the early 1900s and they were programed by those raised in the 1880s.

    Its in our personality to be rugged individualists and it is an existential threat.

  2. Sheila writes, “…elected officials will continue to ignore the will of the voters–and efforts to collectively address problems that are clearly public will go nowhere.”

    I think the “aha moments” are just beginning because as a valued member of society you’ve always been able to provide input and see that input make a substantive change at certain levels; your efforts could make an impact. Your personal will had a positive change on the collective.

    However, you are on a privileged rail that most citizens are not. They’ve been feeling what you describe (that I’ve been feeling for the past four years but coming out of the other side) for several years, but they do not have the tools to cope with it.

    If you shift your perspective to a metaphysical level, the structure of our society is an oligarchy where the power lies in the hands of a few — it’s a metaphysical vacuum cleaner. It’s literally sucking everything from the bottom to the top. Power, control, income, wealth, everything is being sucked up from the bottom levels to the top. In CA and other pristine places out West, you’ve had tent cities popping up for years because people at the bottom are literally priced out of the marketplace.

    Of all people, Bill Gates has become the largest landowner in the USA. He’s gobbling it up like Skittles.

    These are the structures/institutions/systems we’ve created. Einstein and Marx saw what it would lead to. It’s inevitable. You have to metaphysically step out of the paradigm to see it because it has a momentum all its own.

    That’s enough from me for now.

  3. Apparently society has decided that men rule and women are still property. Someday probably after I’m long gone, women will lead the world. I mean, look at Merkle and Iceland! They have led their countries to prosperity but they are the outliers. Men are failing the world, yet we keep letting them lead.

  4. As an “intelligent species” we have evolved in such a way that we can no longer discern the difference between needs and wants. Generation after generation have slowly and now completely accepted as truth that a person’s worth as a human is based on the size of his/her bank account and stock portfolio plus the size and complexity of residence. Newer is better; the very latest is best. All material goods are disposable. In order to achieve this level of “civilization” people remain disposable too just as they have since the dawn of man.
    We are a sorry lot alright. Wired and programed for self-destruction. Our existential problems rooted in causes so complex that we believe only a newer, better computer can save us. What fools!

  5. It would be interesting if someone with enough money would buy 535 copies of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaids Tale” and send a copy to every member of Congress. And then let the press know it was done, so reporters could ask the members why they think it was sent to them.

  6. “Lysistrata” should be required reading for women everywhere. Reason and logic get us nowhere, especially in these days of alternative facts. Maybe we need to go on strike?

  7. America it seems is stuck in the agricultural age and mentality of rugged individualism. This carried over to the Industrial Age. Unions were one the first organizations to challenge the rugged individualism. The unions brought their power of numbers to negotiate for the Union Workers.

    The 1% and the Oligarchs used the power of the state with legislation and in some cases the Organs of State Security to fight the Unions any way possible.

    America unlike other countries clings to the myth of rugged individualism via an ala carte, i.e., if and only if you can afford it (child care, good schools, comprehensive heath care, higher education, etc.) you can have it.

  8. I was raised with some emphasis on being my own person, but also with emphasis on cooperation and consideration for others. This latter was
    drilled into my head repeatedly as I grew up in an apartment building, and “You have to think about the neighbors,” rather than make noise
    early in the day, or at night. It did not hurt that message that the grandparents raising me were believers in an idealized version of communism.
    “Community” is not part of that word by accident, I expect.
    All that said, Rana’s point is spot-on! I have been somewhat depressed because of the communal dive towards the extermination of the human
    species, about which there is only so much I can do; as I type away,here, waiting for a friend with whom I am going to go to the local
    recycling center, in about 10 minutes.

  9. We are finding out how tyranny can be subtle enough to sneak in announced.

    I sincerely believe that over much of my younger life the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would have zipped through Congress accompanied only by the thought that making voting easier to do for everyone is a no-brainer, why do we need to codify it?

    Now tyranny has stalled it, possibly forever.

  10. Seventy seven years ago today I was anchored off an island in the South Pacific in a conflict I was told necessary to save our democracy. Hitler had not yet committed suicide nor had Mussolini yet been hung upside down by Italian partisans. I enlisted at age 17 with the announced intention of killing Hitler but was sent to the other side of the globe and Hitler relieved me of that chore. I was young and impressionable and susceptible to incendiary speeches, flags and other such calls to save our country from the evil leaders of the Axis.

    Today I question what I didn’t question then. I’m now wondering if flags and speeches glorifying us veterans is not primarily an oligarchic means of protecting their status and wealth, and especially when that class by its silence apparently supports the attempt by the 1/6 insurrectionists (which contains some vets) to overthrow the democracy some of my friends died for in the South Pacific and China during WW II.

    The “rugged individualism and pioneer spirit” as well as “Tell the gummint to keep their hands off my Medicare” may well be the result of years of subtle propaganda by the oligarchic class designed to have the gentry “rally round the flag” and thus assure their status and, most importantly, little to no taxes; hence we see how our country is so far behind the rest of the Western World in matters of universal healthcare, decent wages, childcare and the like, which the oligarchic class labels “socialism,” thus ending the argument (except that it doesn’t, because the chronic need persists). I note in passing that the oligarch’s lobbyists for tax cuts do not include the military budget on their chopping block, a telling reminder in support of my thesis.

    We should catch up with our Western friends in caring for our citizens and ignore the greedy definitions of “isms” and covered-wagon economics in this era of AI and computers, instead evening out this uneven response to reality perpetuated by the oligarchy, all irrespective of gender, color, class or other such artificial distinctions, starting with adoption of the Voting Right Act.

  11. As a substance use counselor, I had to help clients learn how to take responsiblity for their own choices, attitudes, and behavior rather than blaming others. It is important that each of us take responsibility for ourselves.

    There is also a limit to personal responsiblity. The rugged individualism of our country has become toxic for both men and women. In Step 1 people have to admit to being powerless over their addiction. That step applies to other things as well i.e. global warming, tornadoes, car accidents that are not necessarily anyone’s fault, the weather, other people’s choices etc.

    One of the biggest issues I take with the GOP is that they seem to believe everyone should be able to dig themselves out of a catastrophe that was not necessarily of their own making. I have helped people who are suffering from catastrophic events totally out of their control, i.e. the loss of many loved ones in a short time, divorce, the loss of a home due to bankruptcy etc.

    The truth of the matter is that we all need help at times. There are many catastrophic events that are so overwhelming we cannnot repair the damage done to us with “rugged individualism”. Of course men tend to have more difficulty asking for help especially with mental health issues. So does anyone in the professions of law, medicine, nursing as well as police officers and the men and women in the fire dept. We are expected to have it all together no matter how much trauma we experience, even when we feel overwhelmed by vicarious trauma.

    The GOP value of personal responsiblity does not seem to extend to the former president who blamed everyone else, the global corporate leaders and billionaires, and the major contributors of global warming i.e. the leaders of the fossil fuel industries. They fail to recognize that corporations that are only concerned with keeping share holders happy and their profit margins, have failed to take responsiblity for the safety and well being of their workers as well as taking responsibility to give back to the community. And now they cry over the worker shortage. Our government has been complicit with this. The GOP has been full of climate deniers and COVID deniers. Denial is not a river in Egypt and is an excellent way to avoid taking responsiblity. Both parties have failed to enact policies based on the belief that housing and health care are human rights.

    There has been a long standing argument between the GOP and Democrats about what the government is and is not responsible for. The GOP wants small government based on the philosophy of rugged individualism, the argument that government welfare keeps people dependent. The Democrats state they want a government that has a compassionate safety net that helps the poor and the middle class.

    The struggle between taking personal responsibilility, and helping others less fortunate, less privileged remains on both an individual level and in the halls of our local, state, and federal governments.

    God grant me the serenity…..

  12. mr. Smith,

    very thought-provoking comment.

    I would have to agree with you on the part about learning or getting input from the generation before. Absolutely positively, individuals are influenced by their parents and grandparents and even further back.

    Although I do believe there are other elements at work, and it brings to mind what the Apostle Paul said at Romans 2: 14, 15 “for when people of the Nations, do not have the law, they do by Nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and buy their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.”

    We have actually witnessed the current state of affairs and warped sense of faith as brought out by John at John 6:2 “men will expel you from the synagogue. In fact the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he has offered a sacred service to God.”

    a vast majority of humanity will clump together in tribes, towns, cities, countries, political parties, unions, social groups, conspiratorial organizations, and the like! we’ve reached the point of saturation concerning being connected to any part of the world by the little device We Carry in our pocket. We don’t have to be in close proximity to each other anymore to form some sort of Union with anybody on this planet. Therefore, the true Insanity of humanity has been brought to light as never before. Even more so than during the world wars!

    Everyone has a conscience, and individuals who do not abide by their conscience usually have worked against it. Therefore, whatever grievance a person has either real or imagined rides roughshod over their conscience. when the conscience is weak, you have no sort of internal brake pedal. And, you you tend to careen down the Mountainside of insanity and hatred.

    When Christ said the whole lot hangs on this, to love God and to love your neighbor! Those who claim to be Pious in religion do just the opposite. Christ was making the statement to the Sanhedrin, at Matthew 5:23 he told them you heard it said you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Christ was quoting part of the Mosaic law at Leviticus 19:18. Christ also made perfectly clear, the Mosaic law never said “hate your enemy” that was added by corrupt religious zealots that were part of the Sanhedrin. in Leviticus 19:18 it reads, “you must not take Vengeance nor hold a grudge against the sons of your people and you must love your fellow man as yourself.”

    As it’s been brought out in many scholarly books, neighbor did not mean someone who is just like you, but it meant your fellow man, as, everyone was supposed to respect everyone else. and, Jesus Christ also stated at Matthew 5:44 “continue to love your enemies.” So, this was exactly in harmony with the Mosaic law and the Hebrew scriptures. Exodus 23:4; Job 31:29 Proverbs 24: 17, 18; Proverbs 25:21.

    Concerning mankind, the corrupted religious teachings give people a permission slip to be, for the lack of a better term, evil! And, I would have to say, that we’ve not seen anything yet, it’s probably going to get a lot worse, and lead to possibly a worldwide collapse of society, eventually!

  13. Gerald,

    Absolutely positively! The flag has become a God in itself. And, used to promote hatred and divisiveness! mankind is a slave to its symbols and idols. Those that have the wherewithal know how to manipulate that misplaced devotion, without realizing that they are laying the groundwork for their own demise. Maybe they somehow believe they can live on a space station or somewhere else, but that will never come to any sort of realization. In the end they’ll be a rotting corpse just like everyone else.

  14. As you noted Sheila, you share your depression with a number of people you know. You may also have seen a number of articles in the news about the need and the unmet need for therapy services precipitated by the double emotional burden of political instability, increasing persecution of people considered “the other” and the constant anxiety about what will happen next. Anxiety about the present often includes concerns about getting Covid-19 and concern for loved ones and friends about it as well. Then there is the tremendous burden, for those of us who take Covid-19 seriously of making so many discernments and decisions about who we have contact with and whether they are staying safe, how we will be perceived if we are masking and what it will be like to go to any kind of event where there are more than a few people who we know nothing about. Additionally, the number of drivers who are angry and stressed who drive recklessly certainly creates lots of anxiety for me every time I get in my car. Worse yet, road rage is increasing rapidly. Someone rammed my car from behind and left the scene over what I think they perceived as my driving error but because they were tail gating me and also moving to another lane behind me, it was impossible to anticipate. I use many more of the strategies that I teach my clients to manage their anxiety to manage my own. Anxiety about the future certainly include what will happen with Covid-19, politics, climate for many and world affairs for some. The unmet need for services is dire for adolescents and still huge for adults. Most seasoned, competent private therapists that I know in central Indiana are running long waiting lists. Larger practices are hiring therapists just licensed which means many people are being served by much less experienced therapists. Also, online therapy companies are hiring therapists to provide virtual services. Sounds great doesn’t it. However, they are paying as little as a fifth if my hourly rate which less than half of what most insurance pay an in-network therapist. The best paying insurance company would pay only two thirds of my rate if I were in network with them. We in the midst of mental pandemic which will last a whole longer the Covid-19 pandemic.

  15. Paul I give you my sympathy and support. Indeed, I worked for 45 years in mental health and substance use treatnt centers. It was obvious to me there was still lots of social and system stigma against people with substance use and mental health disorders.

    Our country has always given inadequate attention and resources to mental health and substance use treatment centers. They do not understand that our mental health and physical health are intimately interdependent. The lack of resources has not and will not decrease health care costs and neither will the stigma.

    I used to hold onto the miraculous moments when I met someone several months after their treatment and told me they were still sober. I hope you have many of those moments to hold onto as well.

    Peace be with you.

  16. Thanks Robin. As an EMDR therapist, I have the opportunity to see minor miracles regularly and major miracles from time. All is not lost.

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