In his most recent editorial, my colleague Randy Danielson had us consider what health care might look like in the future. While I enjoy envisioning where we could be, I worry about what we have left behind.
I am not talking only about health care here; I am talking about our society in general. All the information and health care innovation have not necessarily resulted in positive outcomes. No, I submit that because of many “improvements,” we have become a society that looks outside ourselves to explain away behavior—primarily bad behavior.
As you know, my editorials have often raised your ire, and many of you have commented, whether you agree or disagree with my view. Frankly, that is my intent: to raise our consciousness about what is happening and to ascertain whether I am foolish to think these situations could (or should) be better. Please bear with me as I rant about the seemingly increasing lack of civility in our society today.
Over the past few months, almost every evening, newscasters have a report regarding the most recent episode of socially unacceptable behavior in either a famous person or one who was previously otherwise unknown. I am amazed at how calmly (and quickly) the wrongdoer avoids taking responsibility for his/her actions by throwing down the “I have a disease” or the “bad childhood” card—as though these are the panacea of penance for all wrongdoing.1
For years, men and women of all ages have committed unspeakable acts of violence, stolen shamelessly from unsuspecting investors, blatantly bribed their way into public office or employment, or defaced public buildings. These actions are not the sole manner of the wrongdoing, however. Verbal abuses abound, in the form of comments laced with hateful epithets and profanities that “would make a longshoreman blush.” Road rage incidents are so common that it seems unusual when you have been spared witnessing (or being the recipient of) one during the daily commute. Most of this behavior occurs with little or no provocation. And frequently, of course, it is explained with the standard retort, “I have this condition,” or “I had a tough childhood,” or “You don’t understand.”
Years ago, there was a professional baseball player who for years cheated on his wife, with multiple partners in multiple states. When finally exposed, he capitalized on the “addiction” excuse. Ah yes, that makes it all OK—a sex addict, not responsible for his appalling behavior because of cravings he could not control. He had no alternative but to succumb to those cravings, which reeled out of control. While he was absolving himself of his actions because of his addiction, the lives of his wife and children forever changed because of his selfish, inconsiderate behavior.
Recently, another professional athlete appeared to blame his gambling addiction, abuse of animals, and other bad behavior on being exposed to gangs and drugs in his childhood neighborhood. The sudden rise to fame, and the stress of having a multimillion dollar pro ball contract, must have been the cause of those behaviors [sarcasm intended].
And there is the well-known prizefighter, famous for biting an opponent, who blames his mother’s addiction on his becoming addicted and his years of bad behavior. Sadly, we seem to accept these claims of “addiction” as disease. We have more than enough diseases without inventing new ones to relieve us of our moral responsibility.
It seems to be becoming commonplace to claim an addiction, but to make no admission of responsibility for the behaviors. The excuses (“There’s something wrong with me,” or “I can’t help myself”) wear thin. When did we become so dependent on finding an excuse for, rather than owning up to, what are usually despicable actions? When did we find it acceptable to invent a disease in order not to take responsibility for our behavior?
To me, these behaviors are nothing more than antisocial acting out—a completely negative attitude toward people and society. In my opinion, people who commit violent acts against others are not diseased, but rather mean-spirited, hateful beings who want their victims to pay for whatever inequality the perpetrator thinks he or she has experienced. I simply do not understand how raping and killing, and then burning down the victim’s home, is recompense for anything. What type of “disease” could anyone ever accept to excuse such behavior?
While there are record numbers of Americans who are classified as having alcohol dependence, depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and other disorders, not all act out in an antisocial or irresponsible manner. We need to stop using the “addiction” as an excuse not to take responsibility for immoral behavior. Many people have had disadvantages in their past—parents who divorced, had substance abuse issues, worked more than they were home—yet they manage to stay out of trouble and maintain socially acceptable behavior.
I am always disappointed when parents, teachers, and colleagues make the apology for the behavior. It is almost as though they are dually embarrassed: first for the behavior, and second because the person who committed the offense failed to apologize. We shrug and accept it, because ignorance is commonplace and the behavior does not represent the family or the organization. In my family, my parents would have had us by the collar, making sure we made our own apology.
I have always believed in the adage “a child learns what he lives,”2 but I also believe that, despite our childhood, at some point each of us must stand up and take responsibility for what we have (or haven’t) done. What we learn is which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. We “responsible” adults need to stop making and accepting excuses for bad behavior.
George Washington had 110 rules that guided his behavior, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”3 The focus of the rules is on courtesy and having regard for the benefit of others rather than our own (a trait not so prevalent today). The message is that manners, etiquette, and good taste are the substance of civilization. I think it is time we revisit those rules, and stop using a label of disease. It’s time we stand up, take responsibility for our own behaviors, and become a civil society again.
Alternatively, we can all decide to become irresponsible and use the disease excuse. I know I have not felt inclined to be responsible this week. I must have a disease—incurable Spring Fever. I wonder whether my bosses will buy that. Would yours? Let me know by writing to NPEditor@qhc.com.
1. Peele S. Diseasing of America: How We Allowed Recovery Zealots and the Treatment Industry to Convince Us We Are Out of Control. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1995.
2. Nolte DL. Children live what they learn [poem]. Available at: www.blinn.edu/socialscience/LDThomas/Feldman/Handouts/0801hand.htm. Accessed March 23, 2012.
3. Washington G. Rules of civility & decent behavior in company and conversation. Available at: www.foundationsmag.com/civility.html. Accessed March 23, 2012.