A familiar response of politicians and other public figures who get caught doing something that they ought not have done is to say “I take full responsibility for doing whatever wrong or questionable action I got caught doing.” The Washington Post reports today that Hillary Clinton now says “I take responsibility” for her e-mail scandal.
But what does it mean that Ms. Clinton ‘takes responsibility’? The phrase sounds nice, but responsibility without consequences borne by the person who boasts of taking it is unreal, meaningless, a mere word signifying nothing. A truly responsible person suffers losses or personal hardship as a consequence of his or her missteps or bad luck, just as he or she enjoys gains and pleasures as a consequence of his or her wise moves or good luck.
A responsible person is ‘response-able’ – able to respond, personally, to the events in question. (I recall a long-ago conversation with my dear friend Candace Smith about the meaning of “responsibility.”) And as the word ‘responsibility’ is commonly understood in modern English, it means not merely able to respond with words (especially if the word-response is intended to then make the person immune to further ill-consequences). As ‘responsibility’ is commonly understood in modern English, a responsible person is able and willing to respond to the events in question by personally bearing the bulk of the consequences.
If Ms. Clinton were really to take responsibility, she’d submit herself to a genuinely probing legal investigation or even quit (or at least suspend) her political campaign. But, instead of her really taking responsibility, her strategic exclamation “I take responsibility” is meant only to make her immune from actually having to take responsibility.
Hillary Clinton, of course, is hardly the only public figure who emits whatever verbal effluvia she or he senses at the moment might distract the public from scrutinizing her or his actions too closely. Such “I take responsibility” faux-boasts are very common. But these boasts of responsibility-taking are meaningless at best and, in reality – unless the boaster actually takes a truly responsible action such as resigning from office – are actually more like lies. Sensible people ought not be soothed or duped by any claim by any public figure caught in some nefarious or reckless activity that he or she “takes responsibility.”