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Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility

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There is an old adage which states that you do not know how big a tree is until you try and cut it down. Today, as cultural forces slowly destroy it, we are beginning to understand that the same thing can be said about personal responsibility.

Society no longer believes that people ought to bear their suffering with dignity and grace. Rather, it now believes that the problems of the individual ought to be made the problems of the community. Individual problems are no longer the consequence of individual decisions, but come as the result of race, gender, class, and so forth.

The result of this move towards collective responsibility has been the invention of victim culture. According to this culture, non-whites are the victims of racism and white privilege, women are the victims of the patriarchy, homosexuals are the victims of a heteronormative society.

The 20th century is a perfect example of what happens when responsibility is taken from the hands of the individual and placed in the hands of the mob. The twin evils of communism and Nazism – which blamed the problems of the individual on economic and racial factors, respectively – led to the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Furthermore, such ideologies led otherwise decent individuals to commit acts of unspeakable violence. Whilst observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former SS soldier who had been one of the architects of the Holocaust, the writer, Hannah Arendt was struck by the “banality of evil” that had characterised German war atrocities. Arendt noted that the men who conspired to commit genocide were not raving lunatics foaming at the mouth, but rather dull individuals inspired to commit evil due to a sense of duty to a toxic and corrupt ideology.

The Bolsheviks taught the Russian people that their misfortune had been caused by the wealthy. And that the wealth was gained through theft and exploitation. Likewise, the Nazis convinced the German people that their problems could be blamed on the Jews. It is not difficult to see how this philosophy led, step by step, to the gulags and the concentration camps.

The same thing is happening today. The only difference is that those who play it have become more sophisticated. Today people are encouraged to identify with identity groups ranked by so-called social privilege. Then they are taught to despise those with more social privilege than them.

Under this philosophy, crime is not caused by the actions of the individual, but by social forces like poverty, racism, and upbringing. Advocates claim that women should not be forced to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour by allowing them to essentially murder their unborn children. Sexually transmitted diseases like HIV is caused by homophobia rather than immoral and socially irresponsible behaviour. And alcoholism and drug addiction are treated as a disease rather than a behaviour the addict is supposed to take responsibility for. The list is endless.

Personal responsibility helps us take control of our lives. It means that the individual can take a certain amount of control over his own life even when the obstacles he is facing seem insurmountable.

No one, least of all me, is going to argue that individuals don’t face hardships that are not their fault. What I am going to argue, however, is that other people will respect you more if you take responsibility for your problems, especially if those problems are not your fault. Charity for aids sufferers, the impoverished, or reformed criminals is all perfectly acceptable. But we only make their plight worse by taking their personal responsibility from them.

Responsibility justifies a person’s life and helps them find meaning in their suffering. Central to the Christian faith is the idea that individuals are duty bound to bear their suffering with dignity and grace and to struggle towards being a good person. To force a man to take responsibility for himself is to treat him as one of God’s creations.

You cannot be free if other people have to take responsibility for your decisions. When you take responsibility from the hands of the individual you tarnish his soul and steal his freedom.

Freedom from responsibility is slavery, not freedom. Freedom is the ability to make decisions according to the dictates of own’s own conscience and live with the consequences of that decision. Freedom means having the choice to engage in the kind immoral behaviour that leads to an unwanted pregnancy or AIDS. What it does not do is absolve you from responsibility for those actions. Slavery disguised as kindness and compassion is still slavery.

OUR OBSESSION OVER FOOD IS RIDICULOUS

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Sometimes a civilisation can become so sophisticated that it believes it can overcome truth. We have become one of those civilisations. As a consequence of our arrogance, we have come to believe that we can circumvent some of the most fundamental truths about reality. We blame inequality on the social structure even though most social animals live in hierarchies. We believe that primitive people are noble even though mankind in its primitive state is more violent than at any other stage. And we believe that we can change the way human beings eat despite the fact that it is making us unhappy.

It is our modern obsession over diet and exercise that I would like to focus on. This obsession has arisen from a society that is too safe, too free, and too prosperous for its own good. This is not to say that safety, freedom, and prosperity are bad things. Indeed, we should get down on our knees and thank God every day that we live in a country that has these things. However, it is also true that too much safety, freedom, and prosperity breeds passivity and complacency. The hardships our ancestors faced – war, poverty, disease – are no longer problems for us. Therefore, we lack the meaning that these hardships bring to our life. As a result, we have come to invent problems. Among these has been a tendency to render the consumption of certain food as something unhealthy, unethical, or both.

Our modern obsession with food is causing significant personal problems. On the one hand, the ease in which food, especially that which is laden with sugar, is causing a rise in cases of obesity. (Note: I am using the word ‘obesity’ as a blanket term for people who are overweight). It is a uniquely modern problem. Our ancestors never battled weight gain because they were only able to find or afford enough food to keep them and their families from starving. Now the quantity, cheapness, and, in many cases, poor quality of food means that the fattest amongst are also often the poorest. But obesity is less a problem that arises out of food and more of a problem arising from laziness and gluttony. (Naturally, I am excluding health problems and genetic disorders from this conclusion).

On the other hand, however, our obsession over being skinny or muscle-bound is also causing problems. I have seen plenty of people who are clearly overweight. In rare cases, I have even seen people who are so morbidly obese that it can only be described as breathtaking. However, I have also seen women (and it primarily women, by the way) who can only be described as unnaturally thin. It is as though our society, having realised that being overweight is healthy, has decided that its opposite must be good. It isn’t. Just right is just right.

And it’s not just individuals who are subjecting themselves to this kind of self-imposed torture. And it’s not limited to people in the here and now, either. In 1998, The Independent reported that many doctors in the United Kingdom were concerned that well-meaning parents were unintentionally starving their children to death by feeding them low fat, low sugar diets. These children were said to be suffering from the effects of “muesli-belt nutrition.” They had become malnourished because either they or their parents had maintained had become obsessed with maintaining a low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt diet. The article reported: “Malnutrition, once associated with slums, is said to have become an increasing problem for middle-class families in the past fifteen years. The victim of so-called ‘muesli-belt nutrition’ are at risk of stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, heart disease and diabetes.”

Our obsession over diet is really a sign of how well-off our society is. Our ancestors had neither the time nor the resources to adhere to the kind of crazy-strict diets that modern people, in their infinite stupidity, decide to subject themselves to. It is high time we stopped obsessing over food and got a grip.