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Warning Labels for Hot Dogs, Article Critique Example

Pages: 1

Words: 621

Article Critique

Lenore Skenazy’s piece “Warning labels for hot dogs: Saving our children from a wurst-case scenario?” takes a satirical and humorous approach to the phenomenon of warning labels on commercial goods. The starting point for the text is the suggestion of the American Academy of Pediatrics that a “high risk” label be added to the packaging for hot dogs and other foods that can be hazardous for children as they may induce asphyxia. Skenazy takes a critical viewpoint of such warning labels, insofar as she suggests that the proliferation of such safety measures are symptomatic of a greater societal trend that borders on a certain hysteria in regards to normal aspects of living and life. Skenazy’s thesis is that “perfect safety is an impossible goal”, and by strictly regulating every mundane aspect of human life, what is occurring is actually a de-humanization of life. That is to say, such safety measures ultimately involve a sterilization of even the most common activities.

At the same time, this is not to suggest that the author is against such safety measures. They are certainly to a degree necessary, and she notes that safety labels have become ubiquitous. The author rather appeals to common sense – a trope all to common to such opinion pieces – to carefully delineate the limits of such safety measures. Skenazy’s main point is that such measures always have the danger of collapsing into a pure absurdity, as every aspect of human life, such as the mundane eating of a hot dog, can become potentially dangerous. Thus, this emphasis on regulation is also symptomatic of a certain pessimism prevalent in society, as the author notes: “We started to see everything as potentially unsafe, at least in a worst-case scenario.” This hyper-attentiveness to every detail and the pessimism that inevitably accompanies this hyper-attentiveness is almost pathological. Thus, Skenazy argues for a careful re-evaluation of what is truly potentially harmful and what is not. Skenazy essentially occupies the position that society must be responsible and maintain safety, yet simultaneously not turn this responsibility into a total hyperbole.

Skenazy certainly presents some compelling points. The over-regulation of society is equivalent to some type of neurosis, in which every event is perceived as potentially catastrophic. The identification of this problem in society and linking it to de-humanization is particularly potent, as life is precisely constituted by such mundane events and their potential dangers. Skenazy’s position against this hyperbolic societal response is an astute observation of the absurdities that a society that over-regulates itself inevitably generates. At the same time, Skenazy’s argumentative basis belies the seriousness of her argument. It is an approach that is informed by an appeal to  “common sense” approach and populism, suggesting that such over-regulation are merely the result of laws. She omits, for example, that such populism and common sense perspectives can be equally absurd. For example, Skenazy observes that companies began to place warning labels on all products in order to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. Such lawsuits, of course, are filed by the general populace. Therefore, the average proletariat is as guilty for the proliferation of such labels as any sector of industry. The normal accidents that constitute life are immediately blamed on the societal structure; at the same time this societal structure is used every time something goes wrong, for example, in the form of the aforementioned lawsuits.

Hence, Skenazy’s initial identification of the problem of over-regulation, while compelling, loses the sharpness of its analysis by relying on a common sense approach. What would make her arugment stronger is a more theoretical approach, rather than an appeal to populism and the lowest common denominator. As the cartoonist Scott Adams famously said, “You can never underestimate the stupidity of the general public.”

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