Our Big Fat Intolerant Society
What is it about fat people that makes us so mad? As it turns out, we kind of like it. "People actually enjoy feeling angry," says Ryan Martin, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who cites studies done on people's emotions. "It makes them feel powerful, it makes them feel greater control, and they appreciate it for that reason." And with fat people designated as acceptable targets of rage—and with the prevalence of fat people in our lives, both in the malls and on the news—it's easy to find a target for some soul-clearing, ego-boosting ranting.
The authors also point out that public statements and articles describing obesity as a burden to the health care system have contributed to a widespread perception that the obese are consuming more than their fair share of resources. At the end of the article, health policy expert Deborah Levine is quoted as stating that although the goal of efforts to raise awareness about obesity as a medical problem has been to fight obesity and not obese people, "it's very hard for many people to disentangle the two."
When I read this article, I was struck by how closely it parallels what autistic rights activists have been writing about the "war on autism" rhetoric and the use of cost statistics in awareness campaigns. One might say that the human species has not advanced as far beyond primitive tribalism as we like to think. When social issues are framed in terms of battling against a dangerous enemy, such language incites fear and anger on a mostly subconscious level. We react instinctively as if we were our prehistoric ancestors going to war to defend the tribe's scarce resources against invaders.
It's not simply, as the article suggests, that people scapegoat and attack unpopular minority groups just because we "enjoy feeling angry." Somewhere in the less evolved depths of our brains, we actually feel that we are righteous warriors protecting the tribe. Because battlefield imagery evokes such strong emotional responses, it works very effectively as a tool of demagogues and unscrupulous fundraising campaigns. Logical arguments often fail to have any effect in countering such rhetoric because of its inherently irrational nature.
So what's the answer? Well, frankly, I think our society needs to grow up—to become self-aware enough so that we can avoid being manipulated by propaganda of this sort. With just a smidge more maturity, it shouldn't be too difficult to comprehend that autistics, the obese, and other stigmatized groups are not wicked enemies stealing our resources. Rather, they are our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members—and, quite often, ourselves.