Moral Turpitude

by digby

Amanda Marcotte has written a very interesting post about the nasty campaign against Dr Regina Benjamin for allegedly being too fat to serve as Surgeon General. Aside from the very dubious claims that a bigger woman can't possibly be a good role model for good health (which Marcotte dispatches quite convincingly, I think) there is another issue brewing around all this that we should all be concerned about.

Nobody disputes that morbid obesity is dangerous to people's health and that something very strange is happening in our culture with so many children and adults rather suddenly becoming much larger than in the past. Some of the early science suggests it has something to do with the processed nature of the fast food nation as well as the overabundance of available food and sedentary lifestyle, but nobody knows exactly what's going on. Whatever it is, it's startlingly quick in evolutionary terms and there are a lot of questions to be answered before we have any idea of the full cause of the phenomenon.

But naturally, society's moral scolds are using this health crisis as yet another reason to use others' "failure" as a sign of their own righteousness. They are, in other words, using this bizarre, sudden change in human physiology as an excuse to label others as morally inferior.

Everyone who is overweight should exercise more, eat smaller portions and healthy foods. Nobody disputes that. But the scope and speed of this change in weight, especially among young people is far less likely to be attributable to moral weakness or a wholesale change in human nature in just 20 years than the fact that the food supply and daily habits of Americans have changed radically. At the very least I think it's logical to assume that it's more complicated than vast numbers of people, including half the children, have turned lazy, gluttonous and morally deficient overnight.

Yet, as Marcotte points out, there is an increasing tendency to see all of this as yet another opportunity to marginalize and shame certain segments of society based upon appearance:

By saying this, I’m not making any health claims about weight. That discussion, while interesting, is beside the point of this post. It’s enough to know that most people strongly associate health and weight. So when disingenuous sexists start to bellyache about the dangers of letting fat women out in public, they get traction, because it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to suggest that not being perfectly healthy is a moral failing that should be punished with social disapproval, shaming, ostracism, and lowered access to society. Of course, we double down on fat people, and triple down on fat women, because of plain old prejudice, but this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Smokers, people who don’t eat right, and other people with poor health habits are also considered morally inadequate, if harder to judge because they’re harder to spot. The fetish for health management is, I suspect, a large reason that the anti-vaccination movement has taken hold. People who want an edge in the moral olympics of prevention are inventing counterintuitive (and anti-intellectual) shit to do in order to win as the bestest, most deserving of good health.

This is a tiring game in American life, going back to the Puritans, and it's one which particularly chaps my western, MYOB sensibilities. In fact, everyone should be wary of this one. When it comes to bad health, let's just say that equating it with bad morals is a very dangerous thing to do --- unless you think it's impossible that you might get cancer or have a heart attack, that is. Illness has a funny way of equalizing a whole lot of things in life and it pays to keep in mind that even the most moral among us are all going to die someday too.