Can Jared Fogle and users of Ashley Madison claim an over-sexualized culture made them behave as they did?
Surrounding my post “Jared Fogle, Ashley Madison, Planned Parenthood and Our Men Without Chests,” much of the discussion centered around the role and extent of culture and how much it can be blamed versus the amount of personal responsibility to be assumed.
In the comments, I was simultaneously accused of granting sexual offenders an excuse to blame the culture, while also holding men to an impossible leadership standard because the culture was overwhelmingly against them.
Perhaps, the misunderstanding lies in an assumption I hold: you can critique a culture as contributing to morally wrong choices, while at the same time, still holding its members responsible for their actions.
Additionally, I believe we all agree with this, even if we don’t realize it. If we are careful to look, I think we can see in three separate areas.1
Parents and children
The dual reality of culture’s influence and personal responsibility shows up rather clearly in culture writ small—parents and family.
We understand innately that children will be forever influenced by the type of home in which they grow up. Sons and daughters reflect fathers and mothers.
However, we also realize that ultimately individuals are responsible for their actions. We can sympathize with a man who grew up in abusive home, but we do not believe he should be able to punch his wife without consequence.
The abusive husband who had an abusive father is both a victim and a perpetuator of violence. Neither of those lessens the reality of the other.
Even the best of parents have a wayward child. And horrible home lives have resulted in phenomenal children. We recognize the influence of the parent, while maintaining the independence of the child as they become an adult.
Slavery and society
We can also see the same dual responsibility in human history. Examining American slavery and Nazi genocide, historians recognize certain attitudes pervasive in culture allowed those moral choices to take root and be culturally accepted.
Yet, we also hold them morally responsible. When the slave holder says, “But we thought they were less human than us,” we rightly dismiss their excuse.
When the Nazi solider says, “But I was just following orders,” we rightly determine they still have a responsibility to obey a moral law that supersedes their orders.
No matter what the culture was in the antebellum South, we are still justified in holding slaveowners morally responsible for their actions. Regardless of the political atmosphere in post World War I Germany, the actions of Nazis are still condemnable.2
Israel and the Promised Land
Even more importantly for a Christian, the idea of a culture being influential, but not determinative is throughout Scripture.
As the nation of Israel entered the Promised Land, God instructed them to destroy the other nations and their idols. In making this command, God was telling the Israelites, “Culture matters.”
He told them to rid the land of the false gods because if they didn’t, idolatry would gain a foothold and grow from there. And that’s exactly what happened.
But did God excuse their behavior because of the surrounding culture? No, He held the Israelites responsible for their actions, even though He acknowledged the cultural influence of the neighboring people.
Israel was wholly responsible for their disobedience to God, but that disobedience was enabled and encouraged by an idolatrous culture they failed to root out.
Individual and culture
So where does that leave us with my contention that Jared Fogle, Ashley Madison and Planned Parenthood did not appear in a vacuum, but rather emerged from a culture that, in many ways, encouraged their growth? I think we acknowledge the influence of culture without asserting the control of culture.
I want to critique the culture because it should be one that restrains evil actions instead of encourages them. To be sure, those committed to doing evil will find a way, but that should not discourage us from attempting to place societal hurdles in front of them (or safeguards in front of ourselves).
A man struggling with pornography may place filters on his computer or meet with an accountability partner. If he truly wants to consume pornography, he can still find a way to do so, but the culture he has created around himself makes it more difficult and gives him additional time to reconsider.
My contention is that instead of creating additional barriers to many sexual sins, our culture encourages them, even if it does so unaware. I believe we should do all that we can to help erect additional cultural barriers and discouragements to viewing the world through a mixed up perspective on sex—that includes, though it is certainly not limited to, encouraging modesty in the way girls and boys, women and men dress.
However, I maintain the individual has ultimate responsibility for their moral choices, even if all of the cultural hindrances have been removed or the societal tide is pulling completely in one direction.
We should work to make our culture one that affirms a right perspective on sexuality, but regardless of our culture, we all bear the personal responsibility for the choices we make.
A culture can encourage wrong actions, but that does not absolve the individual from their responsibility. We can critique the former without excusing the latter. In fact, we must.
1.We could also see this in a fourth area—our own culture. We merely recognize it in some areas, but not in others. For instance, in one comment in the previous post, I was criticized for speaking about the influence an over-sexualized culture had on individuals. Part of that criticism was that my comments were perpetuating a “rape culture.”
The commenter could see the influence of a rape culture—one where men are excused from their behavior because of something the victim supposedly did—but could not see the influence of an over-sexualized culture—one where everyone (man, woman and child) is seen almost exclusively through a sexual lens.
Some on the political left will decry gun culture, rape culture, and police violence culture, but be appalled at the suggestion there are dangers to cultures of sexual promiscuity, government dependency, and secularism. Conservatives can do the opposite.
The truth is that all of these cultures can be present in our culture at large with waning and waxing influence at any given time. But regardless of the culture in which they live or the influences which are brought to bear, the individual is ultimately responsible for their moral choices.
2. This can only be true, however, if we have a moral standard that exists outside of culture. We can only criticize the slaveowner and the Nazi, we can only have authority to condemn the child molester and adulterer, if they violated a moral code that extends beyond a certain time or place.
The responsibility of an individual, even in the midst of an influential culture, is dependent on something beyond instincts, something outside of ourselves, something bigger than the social mores of our day.
This is where Christianity steps in and asserts God’s law that transcends cultures and moments in time. Beyond that, however, it maintains we all have broken the law in some fashion, but Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law on our behalf to offer us His righteousness in exchange for our unrighteousness.