July 7, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

The ‘No Fault’ excuse for bad behavior

My latest favorite cartoon shows a grungy guy in a sleeveless T-shirt who’s standing on the hood of a car brandishing a baseball bat. The man is explaining through the windshield to the hapless lady driver crouched inside, “Road rage is such a crass term…I prefer intermittent explosive disorder…”

Is this topical or what? Not only is it funny in a mean way, it’s downright illustrative of life as we know it. What used to be mere bad manners has graduated over the years to bad behavior, to “road rage” to “intermittent explosive disorder.” We’ve gone from moral impairment to mental health impairment in less than one generation!

This is but one of many examples of the rationalizations we’re creating for ourselves. To demonstrate not only its existence, but also its acceptability, we have a television show called “Men Behaving Badly.”

And it’s not only men. Both sexes engage in this behavior in those so-called “reality” series based upon doing unto others before they can do unto you. All this in the name of fun.

Now, it’s true that we all start out being selfish. But because babies are helpless new creatures, we realize that they require attention 24/7. They’re also cleverly created by God to be so adorable that we restrain ourselves from harming them due to frustration, sleeplessness and fatigue. We even think their demands are cute.

By the time they’re toddlers, stamping their little feet and saying “No!” to every parental request, the same kids cease to be charming when they display such self-centeredness. But somewhere along the way, parental response to this behavior seems to have changed. Instead of awarding stern looks or stopping the action to express their displeasure, many parents simply ignore objectionable behavior, or divert the miscreant with the excuse that he or she is “a strong-willed child.”

As a result, the message is lost that anti-social, rude or selfish behaviors are not acceptable. Many kids grow up convinced that they can and should do whatever pleases them, having learned to include the wimpy caveat, “as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.” The thing is, bad behavior almost always hurts someone else in one way or another.

The smallest examples can illustrate this fact. Walking anywhere we feel like it down a sidewalk will cause us to bump into others who are thoughtfully walking to the right. Speaking or laughing loudly in a restaurant—not to mention talking on a cell phone—will spoil other diners’ pleasure. Shoving ahead in lines, chewing out salespeople and dropping litter all contribute to ruining someone else’s day.

At the opposite end of doing what we want just because we can are the more serious results: “intermittent explosive disorder” causing people to beat up on those who irritate them; the inability to “bear giving a baby up for adoption,” justifying people who want to abort; or even a strong desire to thwart the other parent, leading to killing one’s own children.

Unpopular as the notion may be nowadays, bad behavior is usually our own fault, not to be dismissed as mental illness or any other “No Fault” excuse.

So, let’s just admit to it and get on with life.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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