Reason Magazine’s website has an article today by Steve Chapman describing New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s tactic of ridiculing his opponent Chris Christie’s weight (among other barbs, Corzine has used an ad showing Christie looking unusually large with a voice-over about him “throwing his weight around.” Har Har.) as politically maladroit. He’s right, but Chapman neglects to discuss the ethical issue involved. Attacking someone for his or her physical attributes is unethical: rude, mean-spirited, unkind and uncivil, a pure violation of the Golden Rule. Suggesting that a person’s worth can be discerned from his or her physical attributes is, quite simply, bigotry. Corzine, a proud liberal, would never dream of attacking an opponent for his race, or a physical disability like a missing leg. But calling an opponent fat in a manner designed to appeal to the bigotry of others is acceptable to him, indeed, acceptable to many. Why is that?
This is an oddly popular form of bigotry for liberals, journalists (I know I’m approaching redundancy here) and media commentators. The most popular target of fat attacks is conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Despite the fact that Limbaugh has been in one of his svelte periods for some time, many newspapers and websites continue to accompany stories about his latest rants with an especially unflattering photo showing him roughly 100 pounds heavier. John Kerry and other Limbaugh critics routinely include physical insults as they respond to his critiques. (They also frequently reference his problems with prescription pill addiction, an AMA-decreed medical malady. Their excuse for this is that Limbaugh has been unsympathetic to drug abusers in the past, an example of the unethical rationalization known here as the Tit for Tat excuse) The junior U.S. senator from Minnesota got his job in part by making liberals giggle with his book entitled “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat, Idiot.” But Limbaugh is just one target of many. The late, liberal Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block always drew the characters he didn’t like—Republicans, conservatives, bankers, “corporate interests,” “industrialists”—as human beach balls, to contrast with his poor, downtrodden, attractively thin liberal archetypes. Conservatives are guilty of fat-baiting too, of course; when they weren’t using Mary Jo Kopechne to ridicule the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, they called him a tub of lard. Conservatives often have a more difficult time getting away with it, because liberals will rise in indignation to condemn such a tactic on the Right, especially if the target is a woman, as when conservative radio talk show Laura Ingraham was pilloried for referring to John McCain’s daughter Meaghan as “plus-sized.” Liberals appear to understand that using physical characteristics to deride and diminish someone is unethical, but believe there is an exception when the fat person in question is “bad,” as in “disagrees with them.”
Here is the sad truth. Many people, liberals and conservatives, are bigoted against fat people, and even those who are repulsed by bigotry based on race, religion or physical malady manage to rationalize regarding excessive weight as a sign of bad character, greed, gluttony, laziness, or, in the most recent trend, having too large a carbon footprint. Good, responsible people jog and exercise, like Jon Corzine. True, Corzine is a millionaire, and studies show that the higher correlation is not between wealth and fat, but rather poverty and fat, but never mind. Though the culture now strongly reinforces the message that it is wrong for a white man to feel superior to a black man, it has yet assimilate the concept that a thin, fit, attractive American isn’t inherently preferable to a fat one, no matter what else the corpulent individual has to offer.
It’s time; indeed, it is past time. I think there is even a case to be made that a fat individual may be overweight for ethical reasons. You can spend a couple hours a day jogging and pumping iron—14 hours a week, 56 hours a month, 672 hours a year—or you can spend the same time on pursuits that benefit people other than yourself, like your family, the poor, or society. Extra weight may be a form of sacrifice, a badge of honor. What justification does Al Franken or Laura Ingraham, or a Hollywood actor who gets paid to be fit, have to question that choice or feel superior? If Oprah Winfrey wants to call herself fat, fine, but who can criticize how she uses her time? She cares about other things more than the scale and the mirror. Good for her.
But that’s just an argument that fat bigotry is unjustified. The primary point is that it is wrong, as wrong as any other form of bigotry. I don’t think Jon Corzine should necessarily lose the governorship because of it, because American culture, so far, has told him that fat bigotry is still tolerated. Still, if Corzine did lose, and lost in part because of his bigoted campaign, it would send an important message—the message is that the “acceptable slur” isn’t acceptable any more, no matter who the target is.