Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Big Deal

"If you hate violence and don't believe in politics, the only major remedy remaining is education."

George Orwell, "Charles Dickens"

In last month's Atlantic Monthly, Marc Ambinder usefully reminded us of the complex and multifactorial causes of obesity, and therefore the oversimplicity and unhelpfulness of the traditionally stigmatizing, "willpower" approach to weight loss. After all, when we consider the epidemic of fat in this country (and increasingly in prosperous nations generally) in recent decades, it isn't human nature that has changed, it is context that has changed. Our thinner grandparents didn't stay thin by means of virtuous self-renunciation; they had no other choice.

Ambinder documented now well-known social factors--sedentary residential and work environments coupled with high caloric content of foods (especially those hawked to children, the poor, and minorities)--acting in tandem to foster obesity. And he made the important point that it is more and more the case that "going with the flow," that is, eating what the Joneses eat, and doing what comes "naturally" in our highly artificial environment, will in fact make one fat. For most of our evolutionary history, becoming fat required either heroic effort or terrific good luck. In contemporary society, remaining thin requires either remarkable discipline or genetic good fortune. This brings to mind Nietzsche's point that many are virtuous merely through timidity.

In decrying the still popular tendency to demonize the obese, Ambinder made the point that in the end, stigmatization just doesn't seem to work very well. Would obesity be even more prevalent if there were no stigma whatsoever, or if fatness were actively celebrated? Well, probably, but at least when it comes to eating behaviors, the extraordinary rise of obesity in recent decades despite active stigmatization suggests that the latter stops working at a certain point. One wonders if such a point might be somewhere around the point at which the majority of people are overweight--it is simply hard to stigmatize the majority, it seems to me.

One can push individual responsibility only so far, to the point where the general outlines of mysterious "free will" can be said to lie. Beyond this point, why even speak of some kind of nebulous "free will" that is supposedly going unexercised in some malfeasance of bad faith? If people endure discomfort, ill health, shame, and stigmatization and still do not lose weight, why pretend that they could if they only tried harder?

Ah, this is where it gets tricky. Ambinder acknowledged that in experiments or other settings where people have (voluntarily of course) been put into extraordinary low-calorie and high-exercise environments for extended periods of time, they lose weight of course. Similarly, if one could pay people $1 million per pound lost, the obesity rate would shrink rapidly. Holding a gun to someone's head will help them to make wiser dietary choices. In this sense, obesity is not like cancer, which does not respond to similar incentives.

But unfortunately perhaps for human nature, numerous studies have shown that even most people who do succeed in losing large amounts of weight only rarely keep it off. That is because in our society of abundant calories and minimal necessity of exercise, and in the absence of genetic luck, it requires heroic effort to lose weight and keep it off. That's where human nature comes in; for the most part discipline and consistency are, by definition, average and not heroic.

This brings me back to the Orwell essay, in which he argued that Dickens perpetually urged a revolution in individual moral behavior rather than a reconsideration of social systems and incentives. Orwell suggested that while such urging has a radical aspect (a reimagining of human moral capacity), it also can be a deeply conservative, implicit embrace of the status quo, for when has human nature ever changed from the ground up and in a spontaneous fashion?

But consider Orwell's three-part approach of education, politics, and violence for social change. Inasmuch as childhood obesity is a significant root of the epidemic, then education about nutrition and exercise, a la Michelle Obama's campaign, can play a major role. Politics could reduce the influence of food advertising, influence consumption via taxation, and increase options for safe and convenient exercise in residential and urban locations.

By violence Orwell meant of course social unrest (assassination as the ultimate force for cultural change), but it occurs to me that violence could also refer to, say, bariatric surgery, of which Marc Ambinder openly proclaimed himself a successful beneficiary. If fat is the enemy, then by all means pressure people to fend it off themselves, and create the conditions in which they can best be motivated and educated, but beyond a certain point, stop waiting for mythical humans of superior willpower. Just cut out the fat, figuratively speaking. Kill it, and thereby begin to transform human nature itself. In that sense all technology is violence, altering the material context of human experience.

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