I know I can be a funny guy, but the laughter took me by surprise. During a recent interview, I was asked about my thoughts on personal responsibility. I hesitated a bit.
Those two words can be very charged. Often, the very mention of "personal responsibility" will cause eyes to bug and heads to spin like those of the demon-possessed. I decided to tread lightly.
"I would rather not use the term personal responsibility," I said. "I would like to suggest that all choices are not good choices and that perhaps we need to encourage each other to make more responsible choices.
"Perhaps," I continued, "we should revisit the notion that there is indeed a nexus between virtue and liberty."
That's when the reporter laughed. It was clear the laughter was not a warm chuckle that suggested I was clever or witty, but the kind of wry head-shaking that implied I was out of my mind.
The reporter apologized offering that he meant no offense. "It's just interesting," he said.
What I found more interesting was that the suggestion that people should strive for moderation and excellence should elicit laughter.
I explained to the reporter that humans by their nature are prone to lust, fear, jealousy, anger and a host of other passions. To speak of virtue is to suggest that we are not ruled by our passions. Men of virtue can love wine, women and song, but they love them at the right time, right place and in the right manner.
"But what of those forces we can't control?" The reporter asked. "What of racism? America's inner cities and the 'plight' of young Black men? What possible role can virtue play in their worlds?"
I do not ascribe to the belief that Black folk have survived by accident. We have endured and flourished as a result of the constant striving for virtue in our personal lives, our families and our American culture. To hear others tell it, Black folk should have withered on life's vine long ago. The facts, however, tell an entirely different story.
In the face of far more pernicious racism than exists today, Black men and women managed to honor each other, honor their children and honor their communities. It is only today when we sneer at notions of virtue, when we capitulate to notions that men are weak, slaves to their passions, ruled by their flaws, when we suggest that men are, in effect, victims, incapable of changing their circumstances or making an impression upon the world, that men can celebrate music that disrespects their women, father children and not provide them with homes, shoot each other in the street with abandon, kill babies in utero, label academic success inauthentic and blame it on "forces we can't control."
I know I must be careful not to sound judgmental. That is another one of those words. Who am I to pass judgment on anyone else? Truth is, after all, relative.
Embracing virtue is to embrace the idea that there are many ways of going wrong but only one way of going right — Christ called it entering through the narrow gate. Virtue is something one must work towards every day.
Of course, the knowing snicker on the other end of the phone implies an impotence that is only hobbling. Sorry, but I still don't see what is so funny about that.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles.