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In My Words: Personal responsibility the first step in making a safer world

Professor Tom Arcaro argues in a newspaper guest column that relying on legislation or new public policies isn't enough to make corporations protect their workers.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Durham, N.C.) Hearld-Sun and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Professor Tom Arcaro

Personal responsibility the first step in making a safer world
By Tom Arcaro - arcaro@elon.edu

The death toll from the recent collapse of a garment manufacturing complex in Bangladesh now tops 1,100 innocent victims, a number sure to climb as workers clear the remaining rubble from where the building once stood.

At least we know the identities of everyone killed just a few days earlier this spring in a workplace catastrophe closer to home. Fourteen people, mostly emergency responders, perished in a Texas fertilizer plant fire and subsequent explosion whose cause remains unknown.

“Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Who is to blame?”

These same questions were asked about the 2010 West Virginia Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill weeks later in the Gulf of Mexico, and other industrial incidents worldwide that happen every day.

Make no mistake. A far greater number of people are killed and injured around the globe each year from corporate malfeasance than by criminals with guns and homemade bombs. You just don’t hear about them because the number of victims in each instance typically can be counted on one hand.  

You also do not hear about them because unlike gun-related violence, the number of people responsible for corporate crime is many and their identities remain murky. We all know the name Adam Lanza. I couldn’t easily tell you the names of the owners and managers of the garment factory or the company running the fertilizer plant.

And you can be certain that the gun totin’ criminals are far more likely to face prosecution than the corporate criminals where the punishment – if anything – is a meaningless fine.

So how can we who want a safer world push back against the interest of big business? Can passing more laws, particularly those concerned with worker safety and building inspections, prevent industrial disasters?

No, not exactly.

Our large federal or state governments are not the roots of our problems, though the degree of waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of any organization is directly related to its size. True, these governments are among the biggest and most ambitious bureaucracies in human history, but the simple fact is that we live in a complex and dynamic world, and organizing social and political action must take an increasingly large bureaucratic mechanism.

At a very fundamental level, what we need is more transparency, accountability and responsibility, but we must first seek these characteristics in our own lives, certainly as they relate both to our personal relationships and even those with our co-workers. Only then can we demand the same from governments, especially our own, and all corporations, particularly those which have broad international reach.

I am not arguing against big corporations or big government. I am arguing for more proactive work from all of us, we the people.

Those of us privileged to live in the United States with our high literacy rate and access to vast tools of research and communication should add our voices in advocacy of our global brothers and sisters who may be less able to have their concerns heard. The problems that give rise to many of our social ills are a matter of personal action, or a lack thereof.  

I hear loud voices talking about the rights of citizens, notably in recent months around the right to bear arms, but too little rhetoric about the responsibilities we have as American citizens and, perhaps more importantly, global citizens. It is disingenuous to only assert rights but not enthusiastically embrace those responsibilities.

We shoulder the responsibility of staying informed of current events through diverse media sources, of using the power of the vote and the pen to voice our opinions, and of using our spending power to support our more responsible businesses and corporations. The expression “money talks” wouldn’t be a cliche if it weren’t true.

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, great citizens discuss ideas, and weak citizen discuss people. Let us all invest more time in discussing the effective promotion of corporate responsibility and ways we can tend to the welfare of our most vulnerable citizens, and maybe a little less time gossiping about Jodi Arias.

Those that advocate for smaller government are putting more and more trust into the invisible hand of the market to identify needs and address problems. These people, I feel, show too little faith in human agency.

Big government is not the problem, nor is it the solution. An actively engaged citizenry that embraces its rights and responsibilities with equal measure will move us toward a better world that helps protect the innocent from future workplace catastrophes.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
6/11/2013 9:00 AM