Topic: Society

The Ethical Obligation to "Suck it Up"

Dawn Larson is not what anyone would call normal. Born with Holt-Oram Syndrome, Larson has undeveloped, barely visible arms and tiny hands that protrude about six inches from her shoulders. She performs most tasks using her feet, but because she has been doing this all of her life, she manages to care for her children, earn a living, and drive a car and generally enjoy life.

Except, that is, when she encounters irrational fear and ignorance, as when workers at the drive-through windows of two separate McDonald’s in the Chicago area refused to hand her the food she had paid for, expressing disgust at her condition and making various rude comments such as “What’s the matter with you? . . . You ain’t got no arms!” and “Oh, no, I’m not doing this.”

Dawn is suing, and the Scoreboard has no comment on that; maybe a lawsuit is part of an appropriate remedy, maybe not. It is tempting to assume from Larson’s account that the McDonald workers involved were not merely lower-skilled workers, as fast-food employees tend to be, but ignorant fools as well. Let us, however, give them the benefit of the doubt. They were seeing something they had never seen before. It was strange to them, and even frightening. They were unprepared, emotionally or mentally, and their response was visceral.

Understood. But having a visceral reaction to something that strikes us instinctively as repulsive or grotesque does not relieve us of the obligation to think about the consequences of our actions and be civilized, kind and respectful. We may, in a moment of anger, have a visceral urge to strike someone. We may have moments when we want to say something cruel, especially if we have just been insulted or hurt. Ethics is the ally of self-control, and tells us when our first, primitive impulses are wrong ones.

When I was in the first grade, some members of my class used to run away from a student who had a rather crudely repaired cleft palate, as if he was some kind of monster. He used to play along during recess by chasing his screaming classmates, but it always bothered me, especially since it was clear that some of the children weren’t fooling: they were genuinely afraid of him because of his deformity, and didn’t want him to touch them.

His classmates were six years old, however. The MacDonald’s workers were not six, and if we are not six or thereabouts, even the dullest among us should be able to discern that any human being who is driving around her children in an automobile and who paid for a meal with a credit card is not some killer freak from the Black Lagoon. Once that rather rudimentary analysis has been performed, all that should be left is to move past that primitive, unreasoning revulsion, because when giving in to the revulsion will hurt other individuals, we all have an ethical obligation to “suck it up”— to do the right thing regardless of our emotions. In this case, the right thing should have been obvious, and not that burdensome: just hold the bag of fast food close enough that this remarkable woman could take it with her feet.

Sometimes it is more challenging. A vivid personal memory:

Once, while serving as a summer camp counselor I was assigned to spend the day with a young boy, about eight years old, who had cerebral palsy. He also was a bug collector, and always carried a jar full of live spiders, Daddy Long Legs, cockroaches and all manner of creepy crawlies. I am not all fond of bugs and spiders, to put it mildly. We were in the woods looking at plant life when he suddenly cried out, “Grubs!” Then he indicated that I was supposed to cup my hands as he dumped the squirming contents of his bug jar into them so he could scoop up the treasured grubs. I would have much preferred amputating my foot. But I opened my hand. I accepted the horrible collection, because I knew it would make a child happy. Intellectually, I knew there was no risk involved, other than having the willies for the next two weeks every time I thought about those things crawling on me. Emotionally, I didn’t want to do it out of visceral revulsion. But the time had come to suck it up, and do the right thing.

Certainly, employers should train employees who deal with the public to react politely and appropriately to those who have disabilities or deformities, but they also should train employees to speak clearly, smile, and know their jobs and rarely do that. This is less a job duty than it is a human one, and ethnicity, economic class or educational status doesn’t excuse treating someone the way Ms. Larson says the MacDonald’s employees treated her. One shouldn’t have to be able to spell her disorder to figure out that saying, “You ain’t got no arms!” is not the right thing to do. Or that recoiling in horror is a cruel indulgence when all one has to do is to hand over the food she paid for—whether she grasps it in her hands, toes, or mouth—and to say, “Thanks, and come again!”

“Sucking it up” can mean hugging a child who has AIDS, firing a subordinate face-to-face, breaking off a relationship openly and honestly, or simply apologizing for something so awful that you know the victim will probably never forgive you. It can mean making the decision to put down a beloved pet, or spending long, grim, boring hours by a relative’s hospital bed. “Sucking it up” is doing the right thing, when all your instincts tell you to duck responsibility, run away, hide, or take the easy way out.

“Sucking it up,” in short, is displaying character. Dawn Larson has been doing it up all her life. Handing her a sandwich isn’t too much to expect.

[The Scoreboard thanks Doug Krentzlin for bring this story to its attention.]

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