The Language of Responsibility

I’ve always been fascinated by the language we use to describe falling. With little kids, we say “Susie fell.” But for an elderly person, we say “Grandma had a fall.” That passiveness—as if Grandma were a victim of gravity— is akin to “accidents happen.” Maybe I’m a control freak, but I don’t much believe in accidents.

Recently I asked whether a young man who’d damaged his grandmother’s car in a rear-end collision felt embarrassed. Oh no, I was told. It was a rainy night, and the woman in front of him stopped short. So much for responsibility! But wouldn’t the young man gain a greater sense of control, of pride in his potential power, if he acknowledged that he hadn’t kept a safe following distance?

I worry about a little boy who leaves a trail of broken toys and bruised buddies as he zooms through his play—all “by accident” and thus forgiven. I explain that although his intention is to do no harm, some forethought about cause and effect is needed. I tell him about a kid whose playmate swung him around near a flagpole. The resulting concussion necessitated weeks of missed school and left him too dizzy even to watch TV. The little boy’s eyes grow wide, but I’m afraid he still wouldn’t notice a flagpole.

Years ago at Trenton High, a young man who usually loved science came in, put his head on his desk, and hid his face in his arms. I went over, bent down, and realized he was crying. Two members of his family had been seriously injured the previous snowy night when the car in front had skidded on a patch of ice and they had been unable to avoid a collision. “I should have driven them home,” my student sobbed.

You? I tried to console him. “It’s not your fault. What could you have done?”

He looked up, still berating himself. “I race stock cars. I know how to swerve to avoid collisions.” So much for what I knew about my students, but what a sense of responsibility! He believed that, given the weather, he should have anticipated issues with icy patches and volunteered to drive. Too much forethought?

When is an “accident” an accident, and what is the impact of the language we choose? I don’t have the answers, but the question seems useful.

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