Torture apologists and body stigmatizers

>> Friday, February 12, 2010

Having spent the better part of a decade now listening to people patiently explain why it's a good thing to pathologize the bodies of 71% of the American population in order to improve their health (68% of adults are supposedly "overweight" and "obese," and another 3% are "underweight") I've been struck by a number of parallels between torture apologism and the proponents of body stigmatization.

(1) Both the torture apologists and the body stigmatizers display a curious indifference to the copious evidence that their methods don't actually produce the results they claim to be pursuing. Experts on the subject emphasize that torture is a lousy way of getting reliable information. Similarly, even the most rabid fat-haters have to admit that the evidence is overwhelming that attempts to produce significant long-term weight loss fail in the vast majority of cases.

(2) In each case this produces laughably transparent attempt to put the bar for what counts as "success" pretty much on the ground: Torture apologists point out that it's not true that torture never produces true confessions and actionable intelligence, while body stigmatizers point out that some people do manage to achieve significant long-term weight loss. That both facts are of very limited relevance to any rational cost-benefit analysis of the respective practices remains irrelevant to true believers.

(3) Both subjects feature the use of disingenuous semantic smokescreens: "Of course we oppose torture, and we don't torture. What we support is, under strictly supervised conditions, enhanced interrogation techniques." "Of course dieting doesn't work, and therefore we oppose dieting. What we support is chronic restrained eating."

(4) In both cases, what opponents consider an unacceptable cost of the policy is considered by proponents to be a positive good. For torture apologists, the fact that "terrorists" (never, of course, terrorist suspects, or low-level foot soldiers in a distant civil war, or completely innocent people caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare) are being tortured is a good thing in and of itself, quite apart from whether the torture actually produces any actionable intelligence. Similarly, for body stigmatizers, the destructive effect of stigmatizing bodies that fall outside the 29% of the U.S. population that currently maintains a "normal" (sic) weight is a feature of anti-obesity policies, not a bug.

Torture apologists like torturing people because the people who are being tortured deserve, in their view, to be tortured. Body stigmatizers like to stigmatize "fat" (again, 68% of the U.S. population) people, because they hate and fear fat at a visceral level, and naturally they therefore believe it is appropriate to stigmatize this type of deviance from the approved norm.

(5) Because of a widely held suspicion that people who like torturing people are actually sadistic creeps, people who like torturing people will usually go out of their way to deny that they like torture. They will make a great show of seeing their advocacy of torture as "realistic" and a sign of "moral clarity" in a world full of inevitably tragic choices. Similarly, people who advocate ridding the world of body diversity will make a great show of how they absolutely deplore stigmatizing the bodies they wish to eliminate, and insist that it couldn't be further from the truth that they have anything like prejudice in their hearts (they just want to make sure we live in a world in which everyone is thin).

(6) A certain percentage of torture apologists and body stigmatizers are surely aware that their putative reasons for supporting the policies they do are invalid, but they support the policies anyway, for unstated reasons. Some torture apologists are perfectly well aware that torture is actually counter-productive as an interrogation method if the goal is to produce reliable information, but they support torture for unstated reasons, such as signaling that, as Thomas Friedman once so eloquently put it, under our placid veneer of technocratic rationality, Americans are really violent crazy people who are not to be trifled with. Many anti-fat crusaders are perfectly well aware that there's no reason to believe increased activity levels and better nutrition will eliminate a significant percentage of the 71% of American bodies that they are classifying as being at a pathological weight, but they're nevertheless happy to engage in stigmatizing more than seven out of ten Americans in pursuit of a worthwhile goal, i.e., making people less sedentary and getting them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

(7) Opponents of torture and of body stigmatization will do well to remember that, when reaching out to fence sitters on these issues, it's better to emphasize that torture and body stigmatization simply don't, as a practical matter, work. That both policies are also deeply immoral is of course extremely important and even more fundamental, (any decent person would still oppose torture and body stigmatization even if they did "work"), but it's much easier to demonstrate that a policy is nonsensical even on its own terms than it is to prove that certain means should never be used in the pursuit of "security" or "health."

Update: From Jack in comments:

"I guess this could be read that Paul is saying these parallels mean that both groups of people are equivalent in some substantive way, like hating fatties is morally the same as torturing them. Some commenters have made that association and I suppose it's fair critique given the text.

I took it differently. I believe Paul was arguing that the mental processes involved in both were similar. Whatever defective reasoning allows otherwise smart and (we assume) morally competent people to argue for torturing terrorists, the same defect is at work in the case of stigmatizing obesity. The two are not equivalent things, but the logical fallacy is the same."

I would largely agree with this (individual acts of literal torture are usually going to be vastly more rephrensible and damaging than individual acts of body stigmatization, although severe body stigmatization can quite readily be considered a form of genuine psychological torture by those who endure them), but at the same time it's important to consider that individual acts of literal torture are vastly rarer than individual acts of body stigmatization. Which institution is currently a bigger problem in the USA as a question of social justice is not an easy question to answer.

Update #2: I'm reprinting this reaction from the brilliant fat activist Marilyn Wann with her permission:

I found the comparison of logic/motivations behind torture and weight-loss programs [a] quite cathartic way of thinking about this new "eradicate the fat children" harangue!

I find there's a similarity perhaps in the exasperation. It's as if the situation being dire, or rather someone *feeling* dire about the existence of terrorists or of fat people, justifies extreme/immoral actions. If one whips oneself up into enough of a frenzy of fear about the very existence of terrorists (or fat, or fat people), then it seems reasonable and perhaps necessary to take horrific action, to call for inhumane goals.

I'll try to capture it as dialogue...

"Those terrorists threaten and scare me so much, torture is the mildest thing I can imagine doing to them."

"Fat people distress me so much, I can't look at their faces on television just their headless and jiggling bodies. I want them not to exist at all!"


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