You can't win with these people

A common theme I've touched on here are the ways the culture of fat stigmatization works to engineer the discussion of fat issues to conclude its own rightfulness. I want to focus a little more on this, but I should stress that this isn't about tactics to respond to these points. Rather, its about understanding that we can't.

This doesn't mean we do nothing, mind you. Quite the contrary. We do, however, need to be conscious of how privileged viewpoints structure debates to enshrine their views as inevitable. We must be aware of how fat shaming works to assert the authority to write the rules by which fat is to be discussed and how those rules are crafted to ensure their perspective will reign supreme. We cannot respond because any response is invalid by definition. Its not about working within this system, but staying mindful that this whole system needs to come down.

None of this is unique to the efforts of fat activists. My interest here is to look at the rules of discussing fat, but these techniques are invariably employed by the powerful to marginalize the marginalized and disadvantage the disadvantage. The tools of privilege are widespread, but that never obliges us to acquiesce as they might demand.

The Cost of Admission is Admitting You're Wrong
People in power love setting ground rules. These are the basic, guiding principles that surely we can all agree on. Not so coincidentally, those basics are the fundamentals of their viewpoint. For them to take you seriously, though, they insist that you acknowledge them.

"Surely, we can all agree..." is a common formulation of this. You'll often hear it repeated to you as if it were a mantra. Even after you've clearly disagreed with the thing that surely we can all agree on. Which is actually a good demonstration of the cost of admission. Until you've agreed, you won't listen to you, so of course they didn't hear you disagree. If they do hear, then they might tweak it to "Surely, you can't mean..." to emphasize that you didn't actually just express something they disagree with. Why, don't you realize what the cost of admission is?

For fat activists, this most commonly manifests as a demand to endorse a declaration of poor health for fat people. Surely, we can all agree that fat is bad. Surely we can all agree that fat people shouldn't be fat. Surely, we can all agree that fat children are a scourge on our planet. It has an institutional role, too. When scientists gather to discuss "obesity", the requirements to be recognized as an expert on the topic has nothing to do with scientific understanding about fatness. Rather, you have to be a weight loss researcher. Skeptics in the medical establishment are routinely shut out from discussions because no matter how much they know on the matter, if they aren't in the business of selling fat people on the promise of thinness, then they necessarily can't be an expert on fat people. Actual fat people, of course, are the least valid perspective. The fact that experts on fat people are called "obesity" experts exposes another tactic.

Write the Dictionary
Most of our society thinks "obesity" is a perfectly ordinary word to reference fat people. Likewise "overweight". Indeed, these aren't just appropriate, these are the nice words. What you use to demonstrate your sympathy for fat people. In truth, they are extremely loaded words that are structured to support fat stigmatization. We think "fat" is an insult, but not a word which explicitly defines us by a perceived failing? Or a word which trades of perceptions of authority to mark as diseased?

Controlling the way people talk about things is a way for powerful forces to maintain control. We see this in those who decry "political correctness". How dare people seek to define themselves? How dare people not just accept whatever we want to call them? The privileged seek to craft the vocabulary so that it presumes their privilege. From infantilizing terms for women to otherizing terms for racial minorities. Its about imposing a definition to keep people from defining themselves.

"Obesity" has a particularly apt counterpart in "homosexual", a word also widely accepted to be without malice when its anything but. Both are examples of "scare Latin" where words that seem authoritative are used to dehumanize a group of people. It is about enforcing our outsider status with words that make our lives sound like a disorder or a disease. Obesity isn't even neutral in the Latin. The word a description of the assumption that fat people overconsume. Which is the point of fat stigmatizers. Getting us to use their dictionary is getting us to admit they are right.

Define Neutral
Both of the last two topics are about how the powerful try to define the discussion to their favor. Its not just about defining us, though. Its also about defining the parameters of the discussion. Its not enough to demand we use words that define us as diseased or as moral failures. Its also about insisting that such judgmental words are actually unbiased. It feeds into a larger tactic of defining what is neutral and what is the middle ground. Its all about establishing acceptable viewpoints. If the unbiased viewpoint is, itself, biased, this will only disadvantage the other side.

It carries strong advantages. It allows one to appear magnanimous in offering to compromise for everything they wanted in the first place. The debate about fat often takes this form. One far end of the debate calls fat people evil and calls upon draconian tactics to punish anyone with an unacceptable body. The opposite far side are people who say its okay to accept one's body without self-loathing or apology. Those are NOT two sides of the same coin. But by setting the respective goal posts here, the side of fat stigmatization is profoundly advantaged. Pretty much everything moving away from the "radical" side of fat acceptance is going to be fat stigmatizing to some degree. By making fat acceptance the extreme boundary of the discussion, they ensure our failure. Then people who merely say fat people should be subject to social stigma and workplace coercion seem measured against the people calling for us to be fined by the government and have our children taken from us. Defining moderation to serve your ends is a powerful tactic in the self-affirmation of fat shaming.

The De Facto Factor
Its not just the middle that gets defined, of course. So do our viewpoints. Numerous arguments will be smeared on sight as a de facto attack on thin people. Do fat activists actually attack thin people? No. But we sure do de facto attack them. We don't actually do anything, but promoters of fat stigmatization define much of what we say as thin hating in practice. Mind you, their ACTUAL fat hatred isn't actually hating, but we sure are oppressing thin people a lot for a group with so little power. We actually say a lot of really outrageous things when we aren't actually saying those things.

If you affirm a desire to stop hating your body and you have a fat body, this becomes a dangerous effort to promote obesity in our nation's children! Sure, you didn't say anything like that, but you de facto said it by refusing to hate yourself. Not hating yourself becomes the same thing as force-feeding toddlers crates of Twinkies. Recently, I said that I wouldn't accept that having hypertension meant I was unhealthy. People regarded this as a de factor renunciation of any and all medical treatment for high blood pressure AND an effort to force other people to have high blood pressure as well. I didn't say anything even remotely close to that, but lots of people insisted confusion because of what I de facto said.

Dismissing people based on these kinds of "de facto" definitions is a way of silencing people and it works to further their established parameters of discussion. If we don't cooperate by being as extremist as fat haters, they'll say we did anyway for the sake of symmetry. Its like complaints of "women hating" or "discrimination of whites" as being the practice of feminism or the civil rights arguments. Those also used de factor presumptions to radicalize an opponent who was stubbornly being reasonable. Reasonableness, after all, is the exclusive domain of fat shamers.

Motive Matters
The invocation of reasonableness, anyway. For the privileged, good intentions are the most powerful cleaning agent. Any manner of abuse can be metted out so long as you didn't mean to be abusive. Why, they aren't homophobic! They are just concerned for their souls. You didn't mean to be racist. You were just being opportunistic. As long as you didn't "mean it", you can get away with anything because motive is all that matters.

Fat shamers enjoy little more than flattering their sense of righteousness with their good intentions. Doesn't matter that there is a whole cliché about the folly of good intentions, they stand by it as completely absolving them from any responsibility for their actions. Fat shaming isn't even a thing because they didn't mean to shame us. They just meant for us to know how we are destroying our lives, and the economy, and the planet. How can it be stigmatizing to call us an epidemic? Don't we know they just want to help?

Reliance on the supremacy of "motive" is a means for invalidating much of what we will have to say. By their definition, most of our arguments are necessarily wrong because they aren't how they would define themselves. Sure, they get to define us, but we are obligated to accept their own self-image as infallible or we just don't want to talk seriously about how fat people are what's wrong with the world. Its not like they wanted us to feel bad about that. They just don't really mind if we do. We are what's wrong with the world, after all.

What about ME?
If fat stigmatizers are especially disinterested in engaging with what we have to say, there is a reliable stand-by of false equivalencies to make us answer for the tragedy of thin stigmatization. We talk about fat shaming, and it won't take long before some wails "what about the thin people?!?" and starts derailing the discussion with a litany of slights against thin people.

Of course, thin people can be treated very poorly. But why should every discussion about how fat people are mistreated turn into a discussion about thin people? Its about centering all discussions on the privileged group. Fat people are abused? Well, thin people get treated exactly the same.

They don't. Again, this does not mean that there isn't abuse of thin people that is completely unacceptable. There is and its absolutely worth discussing. That doesn't make it "exactly the same", though. Saying that is a pretty sure way to show you don't really care to listen to what fat people are talking about. We saw that repeatedly in #thingsfatpeoplearetold. We've got story after story of unimaginable indignities but I read some websites where people responded to it by insisting that treatment of thin people was just as bad. It can be bad, but "just as bad" is not really a respectful place for a privileged group to come from when responding to a marginalized group's stories of disrespect, discrimination, and dehumanization. What most of these people were really saying is that their mistreatment really mattered because they didn't deserve it. Unlike the fat people. They didn't want to seriously discuss the dehumanizing treatment of thin people (which, in truth, often comes from the same sources as fat shaming). Like those insisting on a "White History Month" or "Men's History Month", its not about engaging but about derailing discussions they don't approve of.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but that's what these all get back to. The status quo doesn't engage with marginalized groups. It dismisses them. You can't win with these people, because they wrote the rules just to make sure you lose. So what do we do?

While we would be helpless to try to constructively engage fat stigmatization, that doesn't mean we can quite ignore it, either. We just shouldn't expect to be constructively engaged and plan accordingly. In many ways, they free us up to not worry about what they have to say by so readily saying the same things and doing the same things and generally not respecting us. We have no motivation to make concessions to fat shaming even on tactical or pragmatic grounds because no such bargaining will be accepted. Sure, the status quo may pretend to bargain, but that's just another tactic to define us away. They'll allow fat people to have ill-defined "glandular problems" so long as its understood that's next to no one and that they only pity them, not respect them.

We have every reason to stand our ground and demand the radical changes that fat sitgmatization's failures demand. I don't think that necessarily means exaulting idealism above all else, mind you. For instance, it shouldn't matter why someone is fat for fat shaming to be wrong. It does, however, matter to the people doing the fat shaming AND what they assert is genuinely wrong. While what we demand is radical change, what we are confronted with is still there and in some ways we must respond to it on its own terms, if just to reveal those terms to be a false foundation. They think fat is absolutely a choice AND that it matters. Neither is true, so both are worth confronting and refuting. There will never be the time fat shaming is willing to bargain to limit fat stigmatization for those who weren't born this way. We saw this demonstrated with gay bashers who've skipped that step and acknowledge that LGBTQ individuals didn't choose their sexuality but insist they must be shamed anyway for their own good.

Radical change is possible. The massive social shifts of the 20th century show us that. There is still a long way to go to advance idealism and equality, but change has taken place. This is not cause for complacency but it must embolden us to keep demanding more. Fat stigmatization enjoys widespread casual support and fat activists lack the financial backing and social support of fat shaming, but this was once true of other marginalized groups who are making change happen. We will, too. We won't win on their terms, but we can win.


biomechanical923 said...

(Full disclosure: I am writing this as a fat, white, male, so you can consider any privilege that you think goes along with that)

I agree with ALL points of this except for the "What about ME" section. I believe that marginalization and shaming are equally bad regardless of who it's being used against.

When a non-fat person tells me "you need to start eating less", that's equally as ignorant and insensitive as a non-thin person saying "somebody needs to feed her a fucking sandwich" (which I hear all the time). The point is that in every situation, somebody is judging somebody else's body, and disregarding their autonomoy with the assumption that they know what somebody else "should" look like.

The fact that one form of marginalization and shaming is more widespread than another form has no bearing on how bad it is. If we start saying "their shaming isn't as bad because it doesn't happen as often / isn't as socially expected" then we are only marginalizing ourselves from other marginalized groups, (playing oppression olympics, creating a circular firing squad, etc)

(Reiteration) As a fat, white, male, it is my opinion that fat spite against less-fat people is just as ugly as thin spite against less-thin people.

Brian said...

Things can be equally bad without being exactly the same. Social stigmas and context can't be divorced from body policing so the body policing of a privileged body is necessarily not the same thing as body policing of an unprivileged body. Body policing is wrong. Period. But that doesn't mean all body policing is exactly the same. Nor does it justify imposing upon discussions of fat stigma.

As I said, the stigmatization that does occur of thin people is completely unacceptable but the "What about ME?" thing isn't even about that. Rather, its about hijacking discussions about fat shaming to center the discussion away from concerns about fat stigma. Rather than engage with the discussion at hand, they try to impose another discussion on top of it. That discussion might well be worthwhile, but the intent isn't to have that discussion as much as to shut down an unwelcome discussion. Pushing back against such tactics is not about saying that body policing of thin bodies is justified. Its pushing back against the tactics employed to silence the expression of a marginalized group. "What about ME?" thrives as a rhetorical device because it counts on people being intimidated into accepting the recentering rather than risk being accused of promoting something which might be wrong. We need to recognize that such an accusation is groundless and we can respect the need to discuss wider issues of body policing of all bodies without having those discussions repeatedly brought out to further marginalize discussions about being marginalized for having a fat body.

notblueatall said...

I need to print this and read it whenever a situation arises so that I can not only be prepared and well informed, but also cool my jets when the privileged start their railing. Thank you, sir, for always having the right words. =0)

Maryjane Heyer said...

Thing is, when a thin person hears, "she needs to eat a sandwich," she can proceed to get affirmation for the goodness of her thin state from almost any quarter. When a fat women hears, "fat bitch!" she then gets to hear in the common culture that it's perfectly reasonable for people to be angry at her for being fat. neither insult is ok, but one exists in a vacuum, isolated, and the other doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Though I understand that thin people experience negativity and insensitivity, and fully agree that it is just as wrong, I am with Brian when he says that is it by no means the same. There is a big difference. I have never heard threats of a child being taken from a family and put in a foster home to fattened up because they are naturally thin or small for their age for example. I have never heard stories of doctors blaming thin people's illnesses on being thin and refusing to treat their completely unrelated problems unless they first gain some weight. The same? No. No. and No.

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