With his uncanny instinct for taking bows for making an obvious observation while missing the point, pseudo-comic Bill Maher once again engaged in his favorite topic of fat-shaming last week, this time with a “Eureka!” to share. The U.S. has inexplicably gone from fat acceptance to “fat celebration,” which the HBO wit <gag!choke!> calls a “disturbing trend.”
This isn’t a “trend,” nor is it disturbing, and it isn’t a phenomenon confined to obesity. Bill could have educated his audience—which, as usual, arfed and clapped like the human seals they are—but instead ignored the real problem, which is partially fueled by people like him.
And it’s an ethical one. Society’s goal is to make the human beings within it safe and happy. This requires setting standards, much of which it accomplishes with law and law enforcement, and the rest it pursues by making values, virtues and positive, societally beneficial conduct clear. Society then encourages and rewards those who meet those standards, and shames, disapproves and rejects those who defy them.
Declaring that unhealthy, anti-social, dangerous and otherwise harmful conduct is unacceptable is unpleasant and unpopular. Bill Maher is an outspoken libertarian, making his recent lament particularly hypocritical: libertarians encourage an “anything goes” approach to societal norms, and in many matters they ally with the Left, which has bolstered its political power by absorbing interest groups that have felt unjustly (or too intensely) condemned or shamed by the majority. As a result, many genuinely harmful behaviors or widely varying seriousness that were once treated as unacceptable and a cause for shame became acceptable as a part of “progressive” cant. Promiscuity. Incivility. Infidelity. Kinky and non-heterosexual sex practices. Underage sex. Unwed pregnancy. Abortion. Single parent families. Recreational drug use. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Not paying indebtedness. Accepting charity and government hand-outs.
Bill, being a coward posing as a brave truth-teller, chose one of the least volitional and most widely derided of the rampant “unacceptable” behaviors, because he doesn’t like fat people. He likes a lot of those formerly unacceptable behaviors above, and thus won’t talk about them. However, Maher’s general observation is correct, except that there is nothing unique about how the process of defining formerly disapproved behaviors and conditions up works regarding obesity. Here’s the sequence:
- Some conduct or condition is deemed negative by a societal majority. Sometimes society’s position is valid, reasonable and healthy, sometimes it is ignorant or wrong. At the time, it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish between the two poles.
- Eventually, activists, humanitarians or other groups focus public attention away from the negative features of the conduct of condition and toward the plight of those suffering the effects of public disapproval and shunning. This is often (but not always) part of an appeal to emotion, and a cognitive dissonance scale tactic. It works most of the time, because much of the public are suckers for appeals to emotion.
- Take illegal immigration as an example. Illegal immigrants break the law and steal the resources rightfully belonging to Americans. Libertarians and progressives have relentlessly chipped away at the once almost universal consensus that crossing into our country illegally was wrong and warranted deportation. The news media and activists focused on the problems of the illegals: now, one of the two major political parties and a large portion of the country believe that illegal immigration is “acceptable.” The transformation is not yet complete, and, one hopes, won’t be.
- Unwed pregnancy, however, went all the way. Once it was an object of shame, and this was effective in discouraging unwed pregnancies. But in the Sixties and the Era of Free Love–an earlier manifestation of The Great Stupid—the focus came to rest on the hardships of unwed mothers “for the crime of loving.” Accompanying this recasting were other related formerly taboo behaviors like promiscuous sex and abortion. Being single and pregnant became, over time, acceptable to the point that single celebrities suffered no adverse consequences from being pregnant or impregnating, and a U.S. Congresswoman appeared in public with a “baby bump” and no husband.
- Unacceptable to acceptable, however, is the slipperiest of slopes. When that which was shunned, condemned and an object of shame is declared shameful no longer, what is its societal status? It is “acceptable,” but does that mean that it is as acceptable as the standard it defies? Typically, a large portion of society that has been pressured or cowed into “accepting” is unwilling to go that far, and properly so. Okay, have your sex and we won’t fire you or send you off to an abbey to have your baby, but being married first is better. Okay, we won’t condemn you for smoking pot with your friends, but not being stoned and not breaking the drug laws is obviously better. The norm violators won’t accept that: what is “acceptable but not as good”? It’s a stigma. Hovering in that purgatory above “unacceptable” but below “good” is inherently unstable.
- The next step, then, is making the case that what was once regarded as a toxic condition or conduct is just as good and maybe better than the once-established norm. This is the celebration stage. Using pot is cool–ask Cheech and Chong. Look at all these courageous “immigrants”—aka a illegal immigrants—who have raised families and made lives for themselves, while those privileged white American had it so easy. Listen to all those strong female characters on streaming TV series say “fuck” in almost every sentence. They’re brave and stand up for themselves—they’re better than the submissive women who don’t say “fuck.” Gays were discriminated against and abused for centuries, but they weren’t satisfied with being sort-of acceptable, and why would they? So we got parades, Barney Frank, Harvey Feirstein, “Will and Grace,” rainbows and Pride month. Teachers want to teach kindergartners that being gay is just as desirable and virtuous as heterosexuality, despite the indisputable fact that if everyone embraced that concept, the species would be at risk.
Maher had the perfect example of the phenomenon he disingenuously isolated to obesity staring him in the face, and pretended it wasn’t there. Transgenderism. After being treated as freaks, the transgender community is not satisfied with being seen as “acceptable.” It is actively promoting transgenderism as natural and desirable. And doing this is natural and desirable, for them.
I don’t have a solution for the shame/acceptance/celebration ethics conflict, other than to be far more careful than we are before we remove public disapproval and shame from the equation when a condition or conduct is genuinely harmful to society. Once the conduct moves to “acceptable” status, the next step to being extolled and celebrated is almost inevitable.
More fat people is far from the most destructive consequence.