Kage (err, KAGE) over at Tales posted recently about nut-free schools. She strongly supports the idea, given the possibility of an allergic reaction in vulnerable kids. Commenters have been even more adamant, writing “I cannot justify giving my kids what they want at the cost of possibly killing one of their classmates,” “I wouldn’t know how to react if there were actually parents out there that cared more about my child’s life than their child having to go without peanut butter,” and “a peanut butter sandwich will never be worth more than a child’s life.” The reaction at Tales has been overwhelmingly in favor of nutfreedom.
Of course, nut-free schools aren’t without costs. As Tracy M notes in a comment at Tales, this means that other parents have to spend extra time, effort, and money. No more quick and cheap PBJs for the kiddoes — it’s prepackaged goldfish in manufacturer-sealed bags now, adding cost to everyone’s family. The benefit of these choices is that nut-allergic children are able to attend school without fear of exposure to allergens that could potentially kill them.
Essentially, members of the community are being asked to constrain part of their individual freedom, in order to accommodate the needs of certain vulnerable community members.
There seems to be a sense, at Tales, that this kind of sacrifice is proper and appropriate, and indeed that making any other choice — wishing not to sacrifice one’s own choices — would be extremely selfish and inappropriate.
A similar discussion plays out in the bloggernacle at regular intervals, with a different ending. A number of blog threads (many of them at FMH) focus on questions of (almost always female) modesty and body exposure, in contexts such as whether women should be able to nurse in church.
Some commenters or other interlocutors (such as ward members of posters or commenters) make an argument (often ham-handedly) along these lines: Women nursing in church might expose part of their breasts to other church members. This could be detrimental to those church members, especially to some groups like young men. Therefore, women should not be allowed to nurse in church.
This argument has, to put it mildly, not been well received by bloggernacle regulars. The counter-arguments are many: This rule would put a huge, unfair burden on women. This reasoning demeans both men and women. It objectifies women. Taken to its logical extreme, this reasoning supports blame-the-victim responses to sexual assault. Really, men just need to learn to control their thoughts better.
I’m sympathetic to many of these responses. I’ve criticized the anti-nursing argument myself; others, such as most of the commenters and bloggers at FMH, have been even more hostile to this kind of argument.
And yet — isn’t the anti-nursing argument, at its core, just another version of the anti-nut argument? Again, members of the community are being asked to constrain part of their individual freedom, in order to accommodate the needs of certain vulnerable community members.
Yet this time, instead of such sacrifice being seen as noble and proper, the demand for individual sacrifice is viewed as oppressive, and those who suggest it are subject to severe criticism. How dare they suggest imposing such limits on individual autonomy?
What are we to make of this difference?
Can we consistently say that nut-free schools are good (i.e., that individuals should be forced to sacrifice a measure of their autonomy in order to protect vulnerable children against nuts) but that no-nursing-in-church rules are bad (that individuals should not be forced to sacrifice a measure of their autonomy in order to protect vulnerable deacons against cleavage)?
If so, where do we draw our line? (Is it the fact that no-nursing rules feed in to existing gender power structures, for instance, in a way that no-peanut rules don’t?)
How do we decide what are reasonable (or unreasonable) impositions on individuals for the sake of protecting other vulnerable community members?