Is This the Age of Irresponsibility?

For modern civilization to flourish again, responsible people need to be burdened much less and the irresponsible individuals among us need to be held more accountable than they have been.

I get literally hundreds of letters, emails, and blog comments every year asking a similar question. People want to know why it seems there are increasing numbers of persons with disturbed characters out there. Just yesterday, I received another such inquiry. The person commented that disturbed characters “seem to infest every area of life” even including “the ranks of doctors, therapists and public officials.” Not only are there more irresponsible people around these days, but mental health professionals of all disciplines are increasingly asked to intervene with such persons, much of the time with less than desirable results.

I first alluded to the problem of character disturbance in my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). My forthcoming book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), takes a much more probing look at the definitive psychological phenomenon of our age. It examines the key questions I get asked so often: “Is there really more character disturbance now than there used to be?”; “Why are we seeing so much irresponsibility these days?”; “What can be done to turn things around?”.

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Whenever I train professionals who attempt to work with disturbed characters, I always begin the workshop with the following scenario (discussed in more depth in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?)). I ask the attendees to imagine that they recently read a newspaper article about a young girl who inexplicably lost her eyesight and who was taken to the finest clinics only to be told that no physical basis for her blindness could be found. I also asked them to imagine that the case was resolved by a psychiatrist who determined that one day, while riding the school bus, this girl just happened to glance at a boy across the aisle and thought to herself how attractive he was. But after being consumed with horrendous guilt and shame for such “impure” thoughts she unconsciously denied herself the ability to see lest she ever have such horrid thoughts again. I then ask the attendees how many such cases they’ve heard about in the last 30 years, or better yet, how many such cases they’ve treated. The answer, of course, is always “none.”

We live in an age very different from that in which the principles of traditional psychology were developed. In the Victorian era, the social climate or “zeitgeist” was indeed very repressive. If there were a “motto” that best described the social milieu of the time, it would have been “Don’t even think about it!” People were over-controlled and were programmed to be very apprehensive about even contemplating acting on their primal urges. As a result, many people developed the phenomenon we now call “neurosis” and some people were neurotic to an extremely pathological degree. Such people displayed many bizarre symptoms, and the theories developed to explain these unusual phenomena became the foundation of classical psychology.

Our age is definitely not the age of neurosis. Neurosis is still with us, but for the most part at functional as opposed to pathological levels. That is, those of us who are “hung-up” enough to restrain ourselves from simply acting upon every primal urge we have make it possible for the phenomenon we call “civilization” to exist. But our age is most characterized by its degree of permissiveness, license and privilege. And if there were a “motto” to best describe the Western cultural milieu, it would be as the once popular commercial advocated: Just, do it!.” As a result, instead of having people crippled by their hang-ups, modern culture has created a situation in which increasingly more people are “not hung-up enough” to restrain themselves from simply doing what they want to do — and with a fair degree of indifference to the consequences. To compound matters, one of the lasting legacies of traditional psychological points of view prompts many of us to view all problematic conduct as necessarily “caused” by abuse, trauma, poverty, injustice, etc., etc., etc. So, affixing responsibility and accountability for behavior where it might rightfully belong is difficult at best.

The character crisis we face today has reached such a high level that some folks are beginning to seriously question several of the things we’ve long believed about why people do the things they do and how to help them behave in a more adaptive manner. And many believe that the pendulum is at long last beginning to shift direction. The main reason the tide might be turning is because of the untenable nature of two mega-trends that have been with us for the past few decades. The first of those trends is the heaping of ever-increasing degrees of responsibility upon those whose character is such that they had already accepted substantial responsibility in the first place. The second is the “enabling” of those who chronically fail to accept any responsibility in or for their lives to avoid any accountability for their behavior as well as to avoid sufficient consequences. It appears self-evident that such trends could not have continued forever without some kind of course-correction. Responsible people are understandably becoming increasingly weary of taking the weight of the world upon their shoulders. And irresponsible people are not only becoming more numerous but also more egregious and outrageous in their actions, putting the safety of society at increased peril. So, there is no question that for modern civilization to flourish again, responsible people need to be burdened much less and the irresponsible individuals among us need to be held more accountable than they have been.

Even though awareness of the need for change is becoming greater, I have great concern about the principal ways Western societies have appeared to tackle the character crisis. We seem to have become largely deluded by the notion that we can legislate our way out of the crisis and in the process have steadily eroded freedoms that we have long treasured and enjoyed. It appears we really want neither to call our dominant social demon by its rightful name nor to confront it head on. We seem to be acting like character is not a valid issue for a society to address or that there is no effective or reliable way to foster its development. I do not agree with this. If the cultural norms and practices we allowed over the last several decades could foster such an age of irresponsibility, we certainly have the power to solidify the institutions, practices, norms, and principles that history has demonstrated can foster the development of character. We don’t need more rules, restrictions, and impositions placed on good people. And more police, jails, or agencies of public protection are not the long-term answer, either. We need responsibility from everyone, so that all of us can enjoy freedom together.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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