So by now, everyone’s heard about the ludicrous case of the butterball who’s suing the fast food industry because they failed to inform him that shoving lots of cheeseburgers down your gullet will make you a very large and blubbery boy. (He thought “100% beef” meant it was healthy, y’see.) This is, of course, the sort of possibility people raised during the tobacco lawsuits of the 90s as an absurd analogy to holding cigarette makers responsible for the healthcare costs of people who knowingly chose to smoke. “What’s next?” we asked, picking what we thought was an extreme illustration, “suing McDonalds because you get fat?”
I think we need a term for this sort of phenomenon, and I’m partial to “reductio creep.” Reductio creep is the process by which an insane extension of some principle, offered as a reductio ad absurdum of that principle, is soon afterwards realized. The NY Regents Exam’s rewriting of, e.g., Isaac Bashevis Singer essays, excising all reference to Jews(!!), would sound like an exaggerated thought experiment to expose the foolishness of trying to sanitize literature for classrooms. If it hadn’t already happened. (I’m sure there are more, and better, examples — feel free to post further instances of reductio creep in the comments section.) My fear is that the process of reductio creep will accelerate to the point that nothing seems absurd anymore. “What’s that? Cover all sharp or hard natural objects in bright foam padding to ensure that nobody ever gets hurt? Gosh, that is a good idea… hey, Bob, let’s add a rider to that motorcycle helmet law.” Ha-ha, right? Wait for the creep.