What Do We Owe Each Other?

Last evening, I curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine to watch the latest episode of 9-1-1.  I like the characters on the show, and it is generally a hopeful show watching first responders act selflessly to help others.

Last night’s episode was sobering.  It began with a young boy in the back seat of a speeding car calling 911 for help.  My first thought was that he had been abducted, and the kidnappers forgot to take his cell phone away.  But as he spoke with the 911 operator, it became clear that his mother was the driver, and something was very wrong with her.

It looked like she had a mental problem of some sort – she looked catatonic and appeared not to hear her son’s pleas.  When she turned robotically up the freeway ramp, her son screamed to the 911 operator that she was going the wrong way on the ramp.

As first responders tried to get to the car, police tracked down her husband who said, “I thought she’d stopped drinking.”

Wait, what?  I couldn’t even fathom how any human being could put so many lives, including her son’s, in danger because she had been drinking.  No, I’m not that naïve – I know drunk driving happens and I know people are killed because of it.

The woman mowed down what seemed to be hundreds of cars, which started a chain reaction with multiple injuries and deaths.  The violence of the crashes started fires.  It was hard to watch; it was brutal.

It shouldn’t have happened.  This was just a TV show, but it happens in real life.

Reflecting on the show in the morning, I saw the issue through an unexpected lens.  The lens that jumped out at me was the lens we hear so much today about – our freedom and how it has turned something precious into something that is a license to do “whatever.”

What does it mean to restrict freedom and is that what is happening?

I hear people today say that their freedoms are being restricted and their personal rights are being violated.  They complain about being required to wear a mask.  They complain about their comments on social media being removed even if they are intentionally hurtful to others or to the community.  They gripe about private companies mandating what their customers can and cannot do.

Those are somewhat easy.  But then come the harder questions: why can I not own and use assault weapons?  Why must I be vaccinated?  Each of these has a profound impact on the community as a whole.

That begs the question, what do we owe each other?

As humans, we have choices.  We can choose to live off the grid, or we can choose to live within a community.  If we live within a community, there is an expectation that we accept that there are rules by which we must abide.

With community come rules

Some rules are enacted as laws, with serious consequences should we break the law.  We cannot drive a car on the wrong side of the road because we could cause a serious accident.  We cannot enter another individual’s property without an invitation.  We cannot drive a car on a sidewalk.  We cannot throw waste into lakes or rivers.

Others are less formal, taught within the community, and the consequence for breaking the rules varies by who was the victim, who was the perpetrator, and how egregious the act was.  I suppose this applies to breaking the law as well.

These rules are necessarily restrictive so that the citizens of the community can have a reasonable expectation of safety.  They were devised for the good of the community – everyone in the community.  Some may object because of personal preference, but If you don’t like the rules, you have a choice to vacate the community.

Do individual rights trump community?

So, my reflection on the 911 episode is one of individual rights.  Did the woman have the right to drink and drive?  Did she have the right to put her son in danger? Did she have the right to drive erratically?  Did she have the right to drive the wrong way on the freeway?  Did she have the right to actions that put others in danger?

Rules and laws are restrictive – there is no way around that.   That is how human beings co-exist.  I think many, if not most, of us, would balk at living in a chaotic community where our property could be accessed by anyone, where we cannot trust that we can survive a drive down the road or a walk down the sidewalk.

Those laws and rules protect us, our property, our safety, and sometimes, our health.

Then, what do we owe each other, as we choose to exist within a community?

Why is wearing a face mask different than not driving on the wrong side of the street? Both may be inconvenient, yet both are intended to provide safety to the broader community in which we live.

Why has this issue become so volatile today when restrictions of one kind or another have always been part of our lives?

Perhaps it is because today we are told by everyone how we deserve “things.”  Attorneys want to give us the settlement we deserve, never mind that claim is made before facts are known.  Joe Namath tells us we deserve insurance coverage.  Billboards and TV ads tell us we deserve a new phone, a new house, a comfortable retirement.

Take a gander at this fascinating article to see some of the wilder things we “deserve” and the author’s perspective about why.

I sense that we have come to believe that we deserve things without the responsibility that goes with being part of a community.

We are so very fortunate to live in a country where our freedom is taken very seriously, and decisions about restricting that freedom are onerous and tedious simply because we try so hard to hear and satisfy all sides.

Satisfying all sides isn’t possible.  Period. The very best we can do is make the best decisions that we can make at the time, and considering all facts, opinions, and perspectives.

It is a balancing act

That utopia will always be elusive, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to dystopia.  It has always been and will always be a balancing act.  Orwell gave us a warning that we all should know, understand, and heed.

There have been times in our past and recent history when power created a serious unbalance of rights.  We have the freedom to speak and a reasonable freedom to act, and we do.  That privilege comes with responsibility. Our responsibility is to consider the community as a whole as we debate and decide.

If all we consider is ourselves, all of us lose.

How it ends

By the way, the mother survives and is shown highly injured, worried about her son, and handcuffed to the hospital bed.  The father is at his son’s bedside trying to figure out how he will explain things to his physically injured son.

By choosing to live in a community, be in the U.S., the state, or the neighborhood, we, by default, accept the restrictions.  Yet these days it feels like folks “deserve” to speak and act without consequences.

When and why have we gotten to this point?


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Carol – I guess it comes down to how you define “community.” There are people – I think a growing lot – who live geographically in community with others, but do not live spiritually with that community. They simply want to be left alone with little or no interference on what they see as their “freedom.” They are the remnants of the Reagan creed that “government is the problem.” They want the protection the military provides, and the roads paved, and the electric grid secured, but take your masks and social distancing and….

    What strikes me about the “no masks, no restrictions” crowd is how short-sighted they are. We’ve been at this pandemic existence for a bit over a year, not 10, not 20. Yeah, I’m as frustrated as the next person that I couldn’t do this or that for the last 365 days – I’m 70 years old, so every day counts! – but somehow I see a direct correlation between the leave-me-alone attitude and the staggering number of new cases reported in the paper every day. Michigan comes to mind. They want to be free, but they refuse to see that their freedom overlaps with everyone else’s. There is a parallel to S.C. Justice O.W. Holmes’ “you can’t falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.” You can’t say whatever you want if it brings the broad definition of injury to others. Most of us see the parallel between some limitations on speech and some limitations action. Some obviously do not.

    Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” We’ve been here before with the world-wide flu outbreak in 1918/1919. There were the same complaints about having to wear masks, restrictions and the like, and the plague lingered, and lingered, and lingered….

    A strong, thoughtful piece, Carol.

    • Hi Jeff – I appreciate your comments, and yes, we’ve been here before but without 24x7x365 news and commentary of any flavor you want to embrace.

      I used the term community to be intentionally broad because I think it is multi-layered which makes it even more complex. We migrate to smaller communities where we feel “at home,” yet we still have to navigate the bigger, more diverse communities that frame our actions and behaviors.

  2. Interesting post. I believe that communities are strongest when you have two things. 1. Community leadership that is respected. 2. Community members who really understand that living in a community comes with responsibilities. All over the world we see that the communities who have pulled together under good leadership have created the best societies.
    Here in North America, the polarization between the left and the right (and yes it’s even happening here in Canada where I live) has created chaos and given rise to all kinds of splinter movements, founded basically on inflammatory rhetoric from people in power, and ignorance that comes from an unwillingness to find out the facts. The current pandemic is a good example. The vast majority of people in my country are doing whatever it takes to stay and keep others safe. But a small minority are not and this is what is preventing this plague from getting controlled. Eventually this will all be resolved one way or another, but the ignorance will still exist. And it will pose a real problem when the next social issue rears its ugly head.

    • Hi Jim, and thanks for your comment. I agree with your two standards, but I fear we are far away from them, at least in the US. In this country, we have watched the escalation of polarity – subtly at first, but in the last four years – blatantly overt.

      Can that change? I don’t know. I like to think we’ve had a wake-up call, but I thought that on 9-11 and it didn’t take long for us to go back to blissful sleep.