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I originally posted this on a mailing list. I've edited it a tiny bit.

I find how people draw lines between "individual responsibility" and "cultural/societal responsibility" fascinating.

Some examples, involving race, alcohol, and weight

We almost all agree that racism is a cultural phenomenon and a societal responsibility. Therefore we understand a black person's negative reaction to black-face as a rational response to a society that's doing something wrong. Most of us call for stopping the practice of performing in black-face as a solution to this problem, and a way of decreasing racism and increasing equality in society. Most of us would never say out loud "Well, black people irrationally fear black-face; black-face is merely an individual decision, and they should just get over it."

However, most people think that alcoholism is a person's individual responsibility -- even though alcohol use is prevalent in our society to the point where avoiding situations where alcohol is served, and avoiding people who are drunk, takes a great deal of effort and limits one's activities. We expect an alcoholic to take all the responsibility of avoiding temptations to drink on his or her shoulders. OK, he or she can go to a support group to help with this responsibility, but he or she is certainly not allowed to ask for accommodations such as not serving drinks or talking about drinking from anyone but his or her closest friends. We think of an alcoholic as having a disease, not as reacting to something wrong with society. Even though we know that drinking alcohol makes the alcoholic very sick, some/most of us still believe that if the alcoholic has a negative reaction to a discussion of drinking, that reaction is not rational, and he or she should take care of it privately rather than asking for accommodations from others.

Where do we draw the line with regard to weight and food issues, and why? Does discrimination against fat people and the prevalence of weight-loss dieting, anorexia, bulemia, and weight-loss surgery indicate something wrong with society? Or is an inability to deal with society's stuff around food a disease that's the responsibility of the individual and her/his support group and close friends?

I think that fat discrimination and society's weirdness about food are problems with society. Many/most efforts around weight change, and the health problems that result when they are taken to extremes, are reactions to these problems. I think society should be changed to accommodate people of all sizes. I don't think hatred and fear of society's stuff around weight are irrational; I don't think one's choices about weight and eating are simple individual decisions with no social ramifications, and I don't think those of us who are sensitive to this stuff should just get over it.

Others think that while society might have a few issues around weight and food that they'd prefer were different, weight and food are primarily an individual responsibility; that their decisions and others' decisions about weight and food are irrelevant to society at large; and that people who are sensitive about this stuff have personal issues that they should be dealing with in private, not asking for accommodations for.

Sadly (because I'm so darned sick of it), I think it's going to be a very long struggle before there's any kind of consensus about this.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2004 05:45 pm (UTC)
Medical "treatment" to change appearance is possible. So how come one shouldn't be treated for one's race?
(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2004 06:10 pm (UTC)
Well, because people of non-white races tend to have lower incomes, poorer health, and lower IQs.

I think of those things as systemic problems (discrimination, poverty, and biased tests), not problems due to the individual people's genetics or life choices, but alcoholism and weight are thought of as individual problems.

Do you understand what I'm getting at? I'm asking why these distinctions are drawn. How did we decide that race was a systemic problem and alcoholism and weight are individual problems? And are we right? What other ways might there be to look at it?
(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2004 11:00 pm (UTC)
It sounds like you are saying availability drives social changes. I think it's at least as common if not more common for social changes to drive availability.
May. 6th, 2004 06:11 pm (UTC)
Because you wind up with Michael Jackson?
May. 6th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
...a black person's negative reaction to black-face as a rational response to...
...if the alcoholic has a negative reaction to a discussion of drinking, that reaction is not rational, and he or she should take care of it privately...

Hmm, interesting. I parse those responses, the one by the black person and the one by the alcoholic, as emotional: anger, perhaps, or fear, or hurt. I don't think I usually tend to label emotions "rational".

I might label an emotion "sane", as in, "I'd have to be insane not to feel angry about this." But then I think both the black person and the alcoholic are being sane. They're not having the reaction I would have, but hey, they're not me.

So what do I think is the difference between the two? Or, more precisely, why the difference in the ways those two cases are treated?

Maybe because occasional drinking is more fun than occasional smearing of gunk on one's face? Giving up one is easier than giving up the other?

I dunno.
May. 6th, 2004 06:11 pm (UTC)
A "negative reaction" is not necessarily the same as an "emotion." A negative reaction can include behaviors, beliefs, and so on.
May. 6th, 2004 06:12 pm (UTC)
May. 6th, 2004 07:27 pm (UTC)
I think one thing to factor into these excellent questions is that "race" is in fact a myth (although skin color is not), while weight is a fact and alcoholism is a judgment.
(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2004 08:13 pm (UTC)
Just so.
May. 7th, 2004 07:31 am (UTC)
I'd theorize that we're at different points in our understanding of difference based on race (or gender, even) than we are with addiction or size. So, all these social questions might follow the same path ultimately.

Where race was concerned, we had to start by arguing ourselves out of the idea that people who weren't "white" were a subhuman species first, then "take care of them", then defend essential civil rights, and as a result of that come to see racism as a systemic issue (for the most part), which we are still dealing with. Gender issues parallel this.

With addiction, we first transitioned away from blaming/hiding the issue with individuals to an attitude of "taking care of them" and are still, I think, adjusting to that.

With fat, we are still at the point of trying to talk our way out of thinking fat is something akin to subhuman.
May. 7th, 2004 09:29 am (UTC)
Well said! I hope you post something about this in your blog/lj.
May. 11th, 2004 08:06 am (UTC)
I wrote rather a long response (which I really ought to clean up and post on my blog) here: http://www.livejournal.com/users/keryx/33833.html
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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