Saturday, November 4, 2006

Out of Control

This morning I was installing a new outlet strip I just purchased, and I noticed the largish “warning label” attached to its cord. It’s made from some rugged plastic material, and prominently on it is “DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG”. Of course I removed it immediately!

But then the ponder set in. Does anyone actually read these tags? More to the point, does anyone who does read these tags learn anything useful? Is there anyone who can read that doesn’t already know everything on the tag?

This particular tag contains 22 separate directives or warnings, plus the lovely headline: “DANGER! ELECTRICAL CORDS CAN BE HAZARDOUS”. Some of them actually make sense (e.g., “DO NOT USE WHEN WET") — but really, is there even a single person out there who (a) would read this profundity, and (b) who didn’t already know that electricity and water are a bad combination? It doesn’t seem very likely to me. Some of them are just nuts (e.g., “Keep Children and Pets Away From Cord"). We have three dogs and eight cats — we’re supposed keep them away from all the electrical cords?

Of course what’s really driving these dumb labels are lawsuits. I’m sure that’s not news to any of you. Nor am I the first to observe the general uselessness of the warning labels, or even that their ubiquity is undermining whatever trivial benefit they ever had. If we actually read all the warning labels and signs on the way into the grocery store, we’d never have time to do any shopping — not that we could buy anything if we paid attention to the warnings!

But these warning labels… They seem to me to be warning us of something completely different than their intent — they’re warning us that our society’s headlong rush away from any notion of personal responsibility or accountability is just plain out of control. This warning label tells me not to drive over the cord. By implication, if they hadn’t told me that, and I was stupid enough to drive over the cord and start a fire, then it’s not my responsibility for having been an idiot. The implication is that it’s the manufacturer’s responsbility for not having warned me. That’s the same general pattern — refusing to take personal responsbility; finding others to blame — as Mark Foley blaming his outrageous behavior on an old priest and alcohol, or John Kerry finding 55 ways to not apologize to the troops he insulted.

In my 50-odd years on the planet, this is one of the more profound changes visible to me in our society. I can’t help but wonder (and worry about) where this takes us. It seems but a small step to a society where a traffic accident caused by speeding and reckless driving gets blamed on the car manufacturer for not having prevented it. Follow that chain of thoughts for a moment… Do you like the result? I don’t.

Anybody have any brilliant ideas how we could possibly reverse course on this phenomenon?

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