Stef (firecat) wrote,

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social responsibility and individual responsibility

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.

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