Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Our Big Fat Intolerant Society

An article in Newsweek addresses the issue of why there is so much prejudice against heavy people in the United States, even though most of the population is either overweight or obese. The authors observe that weight gain is generally seen as a consequence of personal failings such as gluttony and lack of willpower, even though a modern sedentary lifestyle makes weight management quite difficult and many people have a genetic predisposition toward obesity. Some of the hostility toward the obese, they suggest, could be misplaced anger arising from the frustration that many people feel as a result of struggling to lose weight. People tend to attribute their own failings to their circumstances, while blaming others for having made bad choices. And there's also a bit of general mob mentality thrown in, the authors conclude:

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.

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  • "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."

    Yup. And I also think that the battlefield imagery (and the metaphor of autism as a child-stealing monster) leads to the confusion between fighting obesity/autism/etc. and fighting obese/autistic people.

    Because part of why that imagery is so powerful is that it gives whatever you're declaring war on (bad) human-like motivation: "Autism kidnaps children," "Obesity is a killer," etc. And in conjunction with this rhetoric, there's footage of what the writers at Shapely Prose call "headless fatties." Which is *de*humanizing.

    Which could all be exactly what you said :).

    Word verification: phamsma (ooOOOOoooo BOO!)

    By Anonymous Tera, at 5:33 PM  

  • Nice post.

    I'm pessimistic, however, about the prospects of society "growing up". At least not anytime soon.

    Another fact is that when one's personal economic circumstances are bad, we are more likely to look for scapegoats. :(


    By Blogger Club 166, at 5:34 PM  

  • Yeah, we do need to evolve.
    I think there's too much stigmatizing. It's been around for years. Stigmatizing people over mental illnesses or variations, weight, sexuality, race.
    Someone has to be the scape goat, the target, the THEM to their US so they can feel powerful and think, "I'm so much better than these wussy people out there who can't lose the weight, shake their depression, be more like ME"
    It's a miserable aspect of the human condition and we should probably try to be some other way.

    Especially since I am a bit too rotund myself.

    By Blogger Lyn, at 8:54 PM  

  • "Another fact is that when one's personal economic circumstances are bad, we are more likely to look for scapegoats. :( "

    People with the worst economic circumstances ARE scapegoats but I agree this population has difficulty knowing how to treat each other better than how those with more resources treat them.

    Even the attempts at reducing obesity with describing it as a health crisis are done with the goal of increasing someone's profits rather than empowering people. Also, now that most food is produced rather than grown, additives can be used to increase peoples hunger. This is especially true in diet foods.

    Laws can be made by people with resources and industries combine their resources to get laws passed that increase profits with little to no concern of how consumerism can cripple the least advantaged.

    There are also many ways these industries further discourage people from believing that their voice can create any kind of changes.

    Marketing campaigns don't target populations that can afford their products. Instead they teach people what they should want weather they need it or can afford it or not.

    As long as money rules people will be able to buy the way they get treated. Genuine sentiment won't make so much difference to people who are continually exposed to the insincerity of marketing campaigns.

    As with any way that people are unfairly stigmatized, it won't do much good to just show how autistics actually are worthy of respect due to common evaluations. Instead the evaluation process needs to change.

    "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."

    Exactly! The way to stop treating our neighbor as someone who is competing with us is to realize that most of what we see isn't designed to empower much of anyone who isn't already empowered by present standards. No one is going to bring about changes on their own so we need to empower each other in the ways that the market driven symbols we are exposed to in society will never be willing to.

    By Blogger Ed, at 10:17 PM  

  • Stigmatizing is simply another way of hiding ignorance on a subject. To place all people in one category in any situation is not right. Nor a good idea. It can be embarrassing (dennis leary) and down right offensive. I am one who seems to get instantly mad when people begin to act like this, and get that snooty attitude. I get down right angry, which leads me to act just like them. I have realized I am just as bad as the rest if I act like the victim or allow the people I am with to feel victimized. It, for me, has become an opportunity to try and teach and heal. To prove that placing stigmas on any gender, race, culture, click, or any person will get you nowhere. I have found I feel so much better when I find a way to disprove to people like this their attitude towards others. I truly live by the words "don't judge a book by its cover." It has helped me to not be that guy, and too help others to try and drop that notion. But, its an uphill battle everyday, but the people I love deserve it and I will gladly enter that battle with a smile.

    By Anonymous Danon, at 1:07 AM  

  • I think I have something cogent to say on this subject, although just now it seems to be an inchoate mass.

    My family: Was headed by a divorced parent who, because her own mother died giving birth when she was just 2, was ill-prepared and incapable of giving maternal love, attention, or any of the things that mothers are supposed to give, to even one child, let alone four. Of course, all those things were needed by all, and so the competition and sibling rivalry was intense.

    My sisters: Who were 4, 5, and 8 years older than me, were very aware of the ins and outs of this game, while I didn't even know it was going on. They also bore a grudge against me, being the "baby of the family" and the boy my father had always wanted, (except he had wanted some other boy, not me), much enjoyed lying to me and about me, or setting me up for some kind of trouble.

    Our world: Going from microcosm to macrocosm, so long as the necessities of life are not a "given", but must be competed for with all a person can muster - there will always be those who will shoulder out whoever they can, for whatever reason they can justify to themselves, because of their prime directive, "Look out for Number One!" Keeping others down, for whatever reason is just another means of doing that. Ridiculing others for any perceived "defect" is only part of the day-to-day maintenance of their privilege.

    The fatal flaw: Most of them are hiding their own defect, and will not divulge it because that would expose them as "vulnerable". And so they spend their lives masquerading as someone they are not, and so are not loved for who they are. They know that, deep in their souls, but would never let their
    selves know, because then they would also know just how hypocritical they are being.

    Denouement: Most people, though age or misfortune, acquire some sort of "condition" that makes them "different" from the mainstream populace they always considered themselves a part of. They may even be subjected to scorn or ridicule because of it. Blamed for something they believe they are not personally responsible for, either they are utterly confused, the reasons for which blanketed in denial, or - they may begin to comprehend just what it's like to be hated for something they had no control over. They may re-evaluate their positions on a great number of things. That would be good, I guess, though rather belated.

    Me: Because of my experiences, I learned my lessons early, but for most of us, "Ve get too soon alt, und too late schmart."

    Interesting word verification: anteup

    By Blogger Clay, at 1:08 AM  

  • Clay, I once saw a litter of puppies being fed. The owner put the food in a rectangular pan, rather like a trough. The largest puppy immediately stepped into the pan, thus covering up the food so that the other puppies could not get any, and proceeded to eat while walking backward until it had eaten as much as it wanted. Only then did it let the other puppies have anything.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:44 AM  

  • That's just what it was like in my family, "dog eat dog", from crib to casket, though none of the "puppies" have died yet.

    Ah well, he who laughs last, laughs best.

    By Blogger Clay, at 4:25 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Phil, at 6:25 PM  

  • Immature "jokes" in the nature of hate speech will be deleted.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:28 PM  

  • @Clay: Better not tell the authors of Siblings Without Rivalry about your family life or you'd just get a big heaping plate of pity.
    @abfh: About that removed post, I think the removal is all the attention needed in this case. But that's just me.

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 12:23 AM  

  • Sadderbutwisergirl: While I agree with you that the author of an obnoxious comment does not need an explanation, it can sometimes be useful as a deterrent to others.

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:11 PM  

  • @abfh: Thanks for the clarification. Now I understand a little better

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 6:13 PM  

  • Fat people are just lazy. Stop making excuses for them.

    By Anonymous Holly, at 6:46 PM  

  • @Holly: Sorry if this offends your closed mind, but people who say things like "Fat people are just lazy. Stop making excuses for them" are precisely why abfh wrote that post. It is a fact that our culture makes it almost impossible for people to manage their weight. Most snacks that are widely televised on commercials contain an inordinate amount of sodium, fat, and sugar. Most of the consumers (no pun intended) are children and teenagers, who usually get them after either begging their parents to buy them after seeing an advertisement for said snacks or regularly eating them in social situations. There are also biological factors involved. My mother exercises on a regular basis, has a healthy diet, and has well-developed muscles. However, she has been pregnant six times and given birth to seven babies and is the type to gain a lot of weight in pregnancy. She also has a tendency to lose weight in her legs first and her belly last. With those two combined, she fits into the "fat" category visually. It really hurts me when people say that my mother is lazy simply because of her appearance when she works so physically hard in her day-to-day life of caring for seven kids.

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 7:30 PM  

  • Sadder,
    Fat slobs always moan and groan about the slightest bit of work they have to do. If they'd go out and do some jogging with their legs instead of running their mouths, the weight would come off.
    I'd like to run behind them with a cattle prod to encourage them.

    By Anonymous Holly, at 8:39 PM  

  • @Holly: All I'm going to say about your ugly offensiveness and hate speech is this: The only times other than this that I read of anyone using a cattle prod on another human being was of the Aunts in Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale brandishing cattle prods to use on women who were being "re-educated" into lives as subservient Handmaids. They were also used by police officers in 1960s Alabama against African-American protesters in the civil rights movement. In a nutshell, you are not in very good company in your thinking of how human beings deserve to be treated, especially those in minorities.

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 9:24 PM  

  • To that list I would add the Judge Rotenberg Center and its use of electric shock on its "students." And that is exactly where dehumanizing language leads. Real human beings end up getting seriously abused, while otherwise decent and ordinary folks look the other way because they don't see the victims as being at all like themselves. The moral reasoning parts of the brain get short-circuited, you might say.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:10 PM  

  • I was talking specifically about cattle prods, but gosh darn it, abfh, you really hit the nail on the head for why it's so darn wrong. Because dehumanizing language may look relatively harmless compared to sickening things like the JRC and concentration camps, but the former is often a main factor that leads to the latter. Even joking about or lightly mentioning the possibility of serious harm towards other people is a serious thing indeed.
    As I mentioned before, most of the unhealthy snacks sold in the US are consumed by children and teenagers. This leads to a higher risk of obesity. Research has shown that the majority of overweight and morbidly obese people were overweight in their younger years. In fact, most foods in the supermarkets are surprisingly unhealthy once you look at the nutrition labels! And with some of them being considered healthy and bought a lot by adults, what else would you expect other than a rising obesity rate?

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 1:48 AM  

  • My bullshit detector tells me that "Holly" is only Billy Cresp, aka Lurker, in drag. I understand he's been dressing up as a "Nancy" of one sort or another for some time, just to get away with making outrageous statements. It's a real sickness, and it ain't autism!

    By Blogger Clay, at 3:21 AM  

  • Nah, Clay...

    That's John Best's style of 'communication'.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E., at 5:37 AM  

  • Oh, good grief. *rolls eyes* Didn't abfh say something against talking about either of those two dorks here?

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 9:22 AM  

  • Yeah... if you see any more trollish comments, guys, please don't respond. I'm just going to delete them.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:46 AM  

  • Sorry, abfh. I'm gonna put up a post-it to remind me. I do kinda enjoy exposing the bugger, but I suppose I can live without it. ;-)

    By Blogger Clay, at 2:02 PM  

  • You can always expose him on my website forum, Clay! He can't get in there.....neither of them can!

    Sorry, ABFH - just leaving the message. Carry on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:04 AM  

  • Timelord said:
    "You can always expose him on my website forum, Clay! He can't get in there.....neither of them can!"

    Um, since he can't get in there, how could I expose him when he posts as someone else, or anonymously? ;-)

    I've visited your blogs, left a comment or two, you could return the favor. My policy is "Known trolls of the autistic community will be immediately deleted (unless they amuse me)."

    By Blogger Clay, at 2:42 PM  

  • I meant expose him to a receptive audience - and he wouldn't know it.

    I've been meaning to visit your blog but I've been busy and I only have so much time to get to read blogs. At present I'm pretty much limited to Best's, here and Corina's - with an occasional jump to Harry's and Cube Demon's. I can't even get to Mitchell's as of late. That's why my blog on him hasn't been updated for awhile.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:55 PM  

  • The last post was on how Mitchell wrote about me writing about his stuff on neurodiversity and how it's crap. And another thing that he wrote about me was that I was 15 years old. That's crap. I turned 16 on July 7th and if he's going to use my age against me, he should at least get it right.

    By Anonymous Sadderbutwisergirl, at 7:59 PM  

  • "That's crap"

    Mitchell talks bollocks, period. Especially when he talks about other people... without bothering to get his bloody facts right. He's a shit.

    Nuff said, methinks.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E., at 1:11 PM  

  • More than enough said, David!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:13 AM  

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