On Trust and Personal Responsibility

“Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become…The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself.”

-James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

I’m fairly certain that when Baldwin wrote this he wasn’t thinking about people with mental illness. Given the context, he wasn’t thinking of an individual at all. But he is describing a sort of cultural mental illness, which he then narrows down to the individual. He’s describing a state of constant doubt and anxiety that I think much of our country and the individuals within our country are experiencing these days, and must have been experiencing at the time Baldwin was writing, as well.

To what extent does this cultural mental illness affect the individuals living within the culture? To what extent can the actions of individuals help cure this cultural mental illness?

I rarely trust myself. My emotions can’t be trusted, my senses can’t be trusted, my judgment can’t be trusted. I take medication that slows me down and smooths me out, and still I can’t trust myself because how do I ever know what’s real?

But then, how can any of us know what’s real?

“The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—this touchstone can be only oneself.”

How do we know what reality is unless we compare notes with our neighbors? Reality is just the perception that the majority agrees upon. We think it’s objective, but everything we observe is processed through our fallible senses and interpreted by our brains, awash in hormones and traced through with past experiences. How do we know what’s true without other people’s perceptions? Assuming there even is a true reality, of course.

Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” If you’re uncertain of your self and uncertain of truth, where does that leave you?

Which I suppose brings us back to Baldwin again.

“Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here…”

Where is the dividing line between a people and the individual persons within that group of people? When do the actions of the individual meld into those of their culture/group/country, and when are they just their own individual actions? When do we as individuals have responsibility for the actions of our culture/group/country?

When Congress opts to initiate military action in another country, is it on their shoulders as a body or on their shoulders as individuals? Or maybe the blame is on those who voted the individuals into Congress, or maybe on those individuals who didn’t vote.

Is the individual ever to blame for the actions of a group of people?

When a gunman shoots up a place of worship, it’s the act of a single individual, but does the culture/group/country of which that person is a part hold any blame for the individual act? The gunman might be targeting a group of people—Jews, African-Americans—but it’s individuals who die. If the culture is responsible for sowing or tacitly approving of hate for that group of people, is it responsible for the deaths of those individuals?

Is the group ever to blame for the actions of an individual within that group?

When an individual commits an act of violence, his action is inevitably blamed on his own mental illness (diagnosis often made by the peanut gallery). But what if the cause is the mental illness of the country and the individual violence—incident after incident after incident after incident—is merely a symptom of that collective mental illness?

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