Sennett believed this new idea of self gave rise to what he called a culture of intimacy, and he derided it for its self-absorption. Another cultural critic, Christopher Lasch, called it a culture of narcissism. But whatever you call it, its signs are everywhere. See me, the new self demands. See my sensitivity, my pain, my self-awareness. Empathize with me. Understand me. Most of all, accept me.
Whatever else this has done, it has changed our notions of how to apportion responsibility for our actions. In a society where people regard themselves as self-created, it is fairly easy to parcel out responsibility, and the law did carve out only small exceptions, such as insanity, to mitigate criminal behavior. But in a society where so many people seem to be delving into themselves, only to expose the wounds they say have marred and made them, responsibility is far trickier.
Is Smith culpable for her deeds when she may have been pushed down the road to disaster by her experiences? Are the Menendez brothers? Is Long Island Railroad murderer Colin Ferguson, whose lawyers wanted to argue that he was an automaton fueled by black rage? We know psychobabble gurus tell them they have to accept themselves, but must they also accept blame?
Beyond these questions of personal responsibility lurk questions of social responsibility with tremendous implications. A society is only an aggregate of individuals. If none of them is accepting responsibility, if each is only harnessing his or her potential to achieve so-called self-actualization, then everyone is as blameless for what happens outside themselves as they are for what they themselves have done. You can't be responsible for the world if you aren't responsible for yourself.
We may be awfully close to living in such a society--where there is as little sense of civic responsibility as there is of personal responsibility. In America lately, as in America's courtrooms, there is always someone else to heap blame on: Republicans blame Democrats, whites blame blacks, blacks blame whites, the failing middle class blames immigrants, and everyone blames the government.
Last week, we got a brief, unexpected lesson in free will. We could look to Grant and to Mickey Mantle, who poignantly confessed that he had misspent his life in boozy fog, to see how, after having created a self, one must, finally, take responsibility for it.