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Monday, November 01, 2004

Personal responsibility

The above term is almost meaningless. It's usually whipped out in a debate about social responsibility, and it is used to excuse the speaker's unwillingness to take responsibility for social ills that are the business of everyone in a democracy.

The vapid nature of the term was never more apparent to me than when it was whipped out in a discussion at Alas, a Blog over a post I wrote about how the lives of myself and my friends are markedly better than those of our ancestors, and how much of this has to do with our control over our reproductive capabilities. It was suggested that women could and should put up with it if our access to birth control was taken away, because we still have "personal reponsibility" if we get pregnant or not.

See? It's a meaningless term. What that means is that women could simply slap their legs together and not have sex again if they don't have birth control and don't want babies. Or, more to the point, it means that when women do fall pregnant because they had sex without birth control, we will cheerfully blame them and not worry about it forevermore, because they got what they deserved for being "irresponsible".

This is the impossible choice that women have just been released from--chastity or shame? Celibacy or repeated childbearing? The problem with casually suggesting that someone just take on lifelong celibacy as a birth control method to assuage the right's overbearing desire to control women's bodies isn't just that it's unfair, it's also impossible. Celibacy is unnatural and has never been widely practiced in history and never will be. It's like suggesting that instead of giving people information on how to eat healthy so they live longer, you just suggest lifelong fasting. Hey, a tiny majority of people fast on and off their whole lives--monks, nuns, other religious people. Why not everyone?

To my mind, these debates are extremely silly and slow down progress for no real reason whatsoever. I suggest that instead of getting into high-minded arguments about how all of society would be better if we could all supress our natural urges with the same grace as the Buddha or Thomas Aquinas, we address these issues in a "reality-based" frame of mind. In the real world people, and that includes women for those unclear on the concept, are gonna fuck. Let's just assume that's true because it is. Now how do we deal with the results of that fact?

Watching that documentary that I mention below, the most startling thing was how far up their asses the abstinence-only people had shoved their heads. They simply couldn't acknowledge that people, as a general rule, have sex. All the platitudes in the world have never changed that fact before and they aren't going to start changing it now. But they were just certain that the vast majority of people were perfectly capable of ignoring their powerful physical urges for years at a time, and therefore sexual health information wasn't necessary. And when unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases spread like wildfire, those who asked people to substitute health care with "personal responsibility" refused to take responsibility for the obvious damage their policies had brought onto the community.

12 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Rients said...

"['personal responsibility'] is used to excuse the speaker's unwillingness to take responsibility for social ills that are the business of everyone in a democracy."

Thank you for putting it so succintly!

11/01/2004

 
Blogger La Lubu said...

Right on. Right the fuck on!

I think the way conservatives phrase pregnancy for single women as "she got what she deserved" or "you play the game you take your chances" or "she made her bed, let her lie in it" or....pick your canard of choice...reveals their true feelings toward children. That children are not a blessing, like they smile and say for the cameras, but that children are a hated curse. Hearing statements like that, you don't really need to wonder why the United States comes in dead last behind not just industrialized nations, but many semi-industrialized ones as well, in terms of children's well being.

And for us women, it's still damned if you do, damned if you don't if you're celibate! 'Cuz then you're a freaky, unnatural woman. And ya better not masturbate, either...could have the Texas State Police busting you for vibrators or whatever. Back in the bad old days, women who masturbated "too much" had clitoridectomies....those weren't just for the Third World, y'know.

11/01/2004

 
Blogger Linnaeus said...

Nail, meet hammer. I was waiting for someone to point this out.

11/02/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well... I kinda have to take issue with the idea that personal responsibility is some kind of a red herring or chimera cast out by people who really just want to avoid the issue entirely. Sometimes people make decisions that they simply shouldn't make, and must be held accountable for that. I say this not because of any kind of moral principle of desert, but because there is no alternative: we can't create a society in which it is impossible to imflict harm on people, so if some (rare, hopefully) people do, then they must be personally prevented from doing it more.

My way of looking at it is this: if there's a statistically significant pattern across a demographic, then that's a social problem. If there's a rare, fluke-ish event, that's a personal problem. For example, if (say) 18% of people are obese, and you happen to be too, then that's indicative of a social problem. If (say) 0.1% of people are addicted to heroin, and you are also addicted to heroin, then that's more likely mean you're personally responsible for that. Our society seems to view things a little bit differently: for example, after hearing that, say, an unemployed 22 year-old black male from a poor family has committed a murder, we seem likely to say that's an issue of "personal responsibility," even though he is in a demographic group that is more likely to do that, whereas upon hearing that an upper-middle class white girl goes on a shooting spree, we tend to say "what's our society coming too? What are the root causes?" even though it's a rather flukish, statistically improbable event. That's just about the exact opposite of how I view it.

... but the fact that our society has weird views about personal responsibility and social problems doesn't make either one a chimera, damnit!

Julian Elson

11/02/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note: of course, committing a murder is a bizarre, flukish event no matter what demographic you're in. It just doesn't happen much, and I didn't mean to imply that people who are in demographics that are very, very unlikely to commit murders are so much less responsible than demographics that are very, very, very unlikely to commit murders. But my point in that paragraph was, 1) how personally responsible someone is for something is vaguely inversely related to how widespread it is, and 2) our society seems to take the opposite view, that widespread problems across whole demographics are "personal responsibility" issues and fluke, one-off events are "social problems."

Julian Elson

11/02/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

But that's my point exactly--"personal responsibility", as it's generally used, is a way to blur the distinction between accountability and undue punishment. You cheat on your spouse, and he/she leaves you--well, that's accountability. You have sex just like everyone else, but a condom breaks and you are forced to give a child up for adoption because of it. That's "personal responsibility", aka, undue punishment.

11/02/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the risk of beating a dead horse in Amanda's comments section:

I don't believe in free will. I believe our brains operate according to chemical process, just like our pancreases. My pancreas doesn't somehow choose how much insulin to secrete: it response to signals and such.

To me, then, the moral responsibility shtick carries little weight. Then, there are arguments that both free will and determinism are incompatible with moral responsibility as ordinarily conceived. Either way, I don't really care.

But as a practical matter, if we avoid linking consequences to actions, peoples' brains will, by the same un-free-willed, biochemical process that operate normally, be more inclined to do stuff like lie about their companies profits to cheat investors. Was Ken Lay morally responsible for ****ing up Enron? I don't really care. We should make such frauds have negative consequences, because if we don't, people will be more inclined to do them.

Now, ideally, we should have a society in which bad actions are kept to a minimum in the first place, not merely punished. Many conservatives seem to be confused by this, and regard punishment as an end to itself. This is evident when they say they fear birth control because it would reduce the negative consequences of sex: well, that's kinda the point, isn't it? However, we can't stop everything bad from happening. We may be able to create a society in which 1/8th of women aren't raped, but I doubt we can have no rapes ever. Now, rapists may not be personally responsible for what they do, because humans don't have free will, but as a society, we have to treat personal responsibility as a real thing, in practical terms, even if it it's false at a deeper, metaphysical level.

Julian Elson

11/02/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, okay. I somehow got the idea that you were trying to debunk the idea of personal responsibility altogether. I'll stop spamming now :^).

Julian Elson

11/02/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Exactly--to my mind, the bullshit about "personal responsibility" with birth control is about as relevant as saying that vaccines are not necessary because if you catch the flu, you made the choice to leave the house.

11/02/2004

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amanda: Just had the opportunity to stop by. When I spoke of “personal responsibility” regarding your post, it was because your statements seemed to say that if abortion is outlawed then women will not “[have freedom in] choosing the time . . . [their] children are born, and even in choosing whether [to] have them at all.” I believe women should have the option for abortion. I fail to see how women will be forced to get pregnant if abortion is outlawed as your post alleged.

You also implied that if you had children earlier you would not be doing as well as you are now -- [my friends with children are doing well,] which they would not be doing if they had them younger. My wife is a pilot, the first mother to go through flight school, she is also an MBA. She did all this with a child. The point is you don’t know how successful or happy you or your friends would be if you had children earlier.

Your interpretation of my statements was not the intended result – “It was suggested that women could and should put up with it if our access to birth control was taken away, because we still have "personal responsibility" if we get pregnant or not.” I believe women should have the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. But, saying that without abortion women could not choose when to have children is just rhetoric. It is however an effective scare tactic. I still must be convinced that women would not be able to choose when and if they have children if abortion is taken away. We do not live in Saudi Arabia. Women can choose when to have children.

As someone who grew up in the inner-city I probably have a different view of “personal responsibility” than you. It is not a meaningless phrase that does not invoke consequences. By advocating that abortion will take away a woman’s choice to decide when to have children only exacerbates the problems we have in the inner-city. Picture this – a boy has sex with a girl and does not use a condomn. She says that she got pregnant because the government outlawed abortion. It is the government’s fault not mine that I had this baby. That is the problem with advocating abortion without advancing personal responsibility. Bean posted that she will take responsibility by obtaining an abortion. She should be able to do so, but to say that if she can’t have an abortion she will be forced to have children is disingenuous and makes others believe that without abortion the government is forcing women to be pregnant. That is just an excuse to blame the government for our actions. If the government has the control on our actions regarding reproductive choices then what is next in terms of government control? I am pro-choice all the way, but dislike the rhetoric that dresses up the issue in “my right to be childless.” It’s a good slogan, but does more harm than good in the long run.

JStevenson

11/08/2004

 
Blogger gesticulatively resources said...

I totally agree!

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10/08/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11/07/2005

 

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