2011-10-22

Don't Like It? Don't Do It.

Don't like gay marriage? Don't get one.
Don't like abortion? Don't get one.
Don't like drugs? Don't do them.
Don't like sex? Don't have it.
Don't like your rights taken away? Don't take them away from anyone else.

These statements dismiss very difficult issues with very simple expressions. Those who would like to curtail some of these issues typically find them sociologically problematic or immoral. It is oversimplification to simply ask that those that disagree merely opt out. Opting out is not the only method a society can, or should, use to limit behaviors. If this were the case, there would be little need for laws.

Although it may feel morally advantageous to dismiss the complicated issues with admonitions to opt out, are those who recommend opting out as the sole means of relief prepared to accept this advice for their societal concerns? Would they also agree that opting out is appropriate for the following items?

Don't like cigarettes? Don't smoke them.
Don't like incandescent light bulbs? Don't use them.
Don't like corporations? Stop buying their products.
Don't like guns? Don't buy one.
Don't like plastic grocery bags? Don't use them.
Don't like fossil fuels? Don't use them.
Don't like drunk driving? Don't drink and drive.
Don't like profit? Don't pursue it.
Don't like high tax rates? Don't pay them.
Don't like pictures of Muhammad? Don't look at them.
Don't like melamine in your food? Don't eat it.
Don't like slavery? Don't own slaves.
Don't like rape? Don't do it.

It may not be sufficient or appropriate to merely opt out of some or all of these issues. There may be a societal need to restrict or prevent many of the listed behaviors. It hasn't always been apparent to societies that slavery shouldn't merely be an opt out issue. When the liberties of another person are curtailed, as is the case with slavery, there are moral and ethical reasons to not invoke the opt out argument and to have laws that restrict that behavior.

But infringement of individual liberty is not the only area where the opt out argument is unpersuasive. Laws also establish the ideals for a society. Some argue that there is a societal harm if drugs are legalized because it sanctions an objectionable behavior. Feminists make a similar argument for how society is harmed by sexism:
If the vast majority of portrayals of women in the media are of skinny, white, vapid, boy-crazy sex objects with fake breasts, this contributes to a social environment in which women’s worth is determined by their attractiveness to men. It influences young girls looking for role models, it affects how older women feel about themselves, and it justifies pretty rancid behavior towards real, non-fictional women. I am totally into empowerment and whatnot, but it’s hard to buck a trend that’s pervasive, constant, and rewarded. Because I think these portrayals are socially damaging, I think it is my responsibility to call out sexist images when I see them, and ask for them to be changed, whether or not I am consuming the media in which they appear.
Obviously that feminist does not think it is sufficient to merely opt out. She is hoping to influence, guide and affect societal norms. And to the degree she can control the behavior of others, she will. Many university campuses impose speech codes to combat issues such as these. It is not far fetched to imagine the codification of such controls in law.

Society is continually asking "What is it that constitutes the moral?" Immoral behaviors and actions and their social implications concern many people. Certainly the previously quoted feminist is concerned with sexist imagery and its social implications. Many who oppose abortion, same sex marriage and drug legalization are also concerned about the social implications of these activities. Likewise, those who combat the unauthorized copying and distribution of music are concerned about the implications of an entire generation who does not regard this activity as illegal. The industry is fighting a perception as much as a legal battle. But, should music industry lawyers be told "If you don't like peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted material, don't use peer-to-peer sites."?

Many issues cannot be reduced to the libertarian impulse of "I won't interfere with your life; please don't interfere with mine." It may be justified to restrict behaviors when those behaviors are thought to damage societal fabric or infringe the rights of others. One must ask whether a particular behavior should be sanctioned by government and the society. Nobody is forced to use drugs if they are legalized, but societal ideals are established by such laws.

It should be clear that there are activities that people of all political stripes would like to see curtailed or eliminated. As one SCOTUS nominee noted, it is pure mythology to believe that only one side is interested in imposing their morality on a society. All participants in politics want to impose on others as much of their morality as possible. To the degree they have their way in America, it will be through democratic processes. And one or the other's morality will prevail and be imposed.

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