“Excuses change nothing, but make everyone feel better.”
— Mason Cooley
“Where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself and society’s responsibility to ensure that others shield her?”
What do you think these words could be referring to? What evil does the questioner suggest is lurking out there that society needs to come to grips with so you and I will be safe?
Nuclear war? I agree. A society should place the responsibility on its own shoulders to protect us all from nuclear holocaust. How about serial killers? Another good guess. The FBI spends a lot of time and resources taking responsibility for making sure that you are safe from the Hannibal Lecters of the world. What about an outbreak of bird flu, E. coli, or some other deadly disease? Right again. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has your back covered.
So which of these mortal dangers is that opening question asking about when it comes to how and when society should step in and make sure that you are okay?
The answer: none. Guess what the culprit was that spawned this quote. I will give you a hint. The quote comes from a ruling by a United States Federal Judge. Still wondering?
The perpetrator so dangerous that protection from it may require the collective power of our entire society is —
— a McDonald’s Hamburger.
Just think. It took a judge in United States Federal Court to figure out the answer to that question. Why? Because two girls were overweight and claimed that McDonald’s was responsible for their eating habits. The attorney for the plaintiffs argued that McDonald’s food was “physically or psychologically addictive.” From that perspective, the poor girls just did not have a chance. The Golden Arches reached out and grabbed them, pulled them in, and force-fed them.
But common sense — and as we shall argue — the created order, prevailed. Part of the judge’s opinion held that “if consumers know (or reasonably should know) the potential ill health effects of eating at McDonald’s, they cannot blame McDonald’s if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald’s products.”
Thank you, Judge, for bringing some sanity to this picture. But it begs a bigger question. How did we get to the place where someone would even think that they could sue a hamburger chain for their weight problem? Was it the permissive sixties that did away with personal responsibility in our culture? Was it our belief that humans are basically good and it is our poor environment that causes us to make mistakes? Was it permissive parenting that taught an entire generation to think that nothing is its responsibility — nothing bad that happens is ever my fault? Was it the psychologists who said that to discipline a child might hurt his self-esteem? Or was it all those hamburgers we ate that made us think this way?
Actually, as much as we like to talk about how far society has gone astray, blaming others is not a new problem created by twenty-first century America. Though we do seem to have perfected blame as a cultural and legal art form, it is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, it has been part of human nature from the beginning of time.
History, the bible, folktales, songs, psychologists and philosophers often point to a fundamental flaw in human nature: we fail to take responsibility for our own lives.
We shift the blame, and the responsibility, to others. It is just a part of who we are, and it has been that way from day one. We did not learn it from our environment, although our environment can augment it. Instead, we bring it into the world as a tendency that comes with being human.
Now, certainly we have reasons why we do not take ownership for our own behavior and lives. Shame and fear, for instance. No one ever said that we blame for no good reason. Even the girls in the McDonald’s lawsuit had struggles and determinants that were making self-control difficult for them. There is no doubt about that. Perhaps they felt ashamed, powerless, or afraid. Anyone who thinks they are going to help an overweight person by just saying, “It is your choice. Stop eating,” has either never been overweight or has never worked with many overweight people or addicts. External factors do influence our behavior.
But, the fact that there are reasons that drive us to do things, and the question of whether we are responsible for what we do with that are two very different matters. The bottom line is this: No matter what reason drives someone to overeat: whether it’s stress, McDonald’s advertising, boredom, lack of education, a bad childhood, or whateer, there is still a reality: if you overeat it, you will gain weight. The “why” you did it, no matter how valid, will not solve the problem. The same thing happens in peoples’ lives every day. When we succeed in blaming someone for our problems, we still are no closer to a solution for them. Still, we do it anyway to make ourselves feel temporarily better. And when we do, we still have the problems.
If these girls had won their lawsuit, it would have been the worst thing that could have happened to them, for it would have reinforced the belief that someone else was in control of their behavior. Thus, it would have gotten them no closer to solving their weight problem.
It may have helped the girls feel better in some way to have been awarded a big settlement for McDonald’s having made them fat. They might have temporarily gotten over some bad feelings about being overweight. I don’t know them, so I can’t say. But, I can say one thing: they would not have been one step closer to being a normal weight. Not one ounce. Not one fraction. Why? Because they are the only ones who can do anything about the real problem. They are the only ones who can refuse to eat the burgers. They are the only ones in control of that. And in the end, it is all about control. That is ultimately the only thing that matters.