It's funny how things often seem to come in batches. One of those came around a week or so ago: I had four independent conversations about personal responsibilty in three days. After ruminating on them for about a week, I want to talk about some of it here.
The first came out of a discussion about Warren Jeffs and his sub-cult. In case you've been on Mars during this (Jeffs himself was sent to Purgatory (the Purgatory Correctional Facility)), I'll remind you that Jeffs was arrested for arranging "marriages" (a term that has to be used very loosely here) with underaged girls. Setting those charges aside for the moment, the discussion went to the question of whether there's anything wrong with plural marriage if everyone involved is a consenting adult. And that led to the question of whether someone can be considered to be "consenting" to something that's deep in religious or social dogma.
If you've had certain tenets pounded into your head from the day you were born, and you were told that to even consider questioning them would set you up for an eternity of sorrow and suffering in hell, condemned by God for doubting him... can you really be expected to question them, even as an adult? Some do, to be sure, but it must take a great deal of inner strength, and possibly more than most people have. It's rather like the "brainwashing" of the cold-war era (and it was a controversial concept then).
The friend I was discussing it with disagreed. "If we accept that," she said, "then we're all brainwashed by our upbringing, and we can't be held responsible for anything." Her point was that, barring serious mental illness, adults have to be responsible for their decisions and their actions, and they can't hide behind indoctrination to excuse themselves.
In this case, the question is whether an adult woman who's been taught that her place is to be someone's fifth wife can really be said to have "consented" to that when that's what happens. It's difficult enough for women to rebel against our society's secular teachings (about body image and career choices, for instance); it must be that much more difficult when the punishment for straying is a supernatural one.
In the end, though, I think I agree with my friend. I'll grant that it may be a hard row to hoe to choose to turn away from basic dogma, but ultimately it is one's responsibility as an adult to make one's own choices, and to be responsible for those choices.
Another instance of a related discussion was in Orac's blog post about "Breatharianism". It's about a couple of "alties" who are maintaining that one can learn to do entirely without food, and get everything one needs from the air and the sun. And it seems that there've been a couple of deaths, where followers of these nuts actually starved themselves. In the comments section, a reader said...
If some of her "followers" have died, she should be convicted for murder, or at least negligence. There are some people out there who are so desperate for meaning that they'll listen to these wackos and then die. Sure, it's funny that they believe something so stupid, but when people are getting hurt it isn't funny, it's criminal....to which I responded...
You don't think people are responsible for their own decisions? I do. I'll give some slack to people who believe religious hooey that's been jammed into their heads from before they left the womb, but this isn't that.
If I had some disease, and a doctor — a real M.D., with the best reputation in the world, recommended by everyone — told me that I could cure my disease by staring into the sun, shining purple light on my left elbow, or eating only rutabaga skins for six months, I would not believe it without a great deal of research, and second, third, and fourth opinions.
When I did something stupid as a child, my mother asked why I did that, if I said, "'cause Billy dared me," my mother would reply, "Oh, and if Billy dared you to jump off the tallest building in town, would you do that too?" She taught me to take responsibility for my own actions. It's not Billy's fault; it's mine.
So when some nut with a funny assumed name tells you that you can improve your health and well-being by not eating... well, if you believe that, I think it's your own responsibility.
Other versions of the discussion had to do with civil litigation and warning labels, more evidence that we're becoming a society with a "Look what you made me do!" attitude. There's real negligence around, and there certainly are cases where your injury really is someone else's fault. But we shouldn't need the disclaimers that tell us not to try to parachute into your SUV, that driving your car off a cliff isn't a good idea, and that Viagra doesn't stop the transmission of disease.