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December 09, 2019
If you’ve never listened to the podcast You’re Wrong About hosted by Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, you’re missing out. I am absolutely hooked on this show that takes a second look at people, events, and issues from the past and examines them in-depth, generally shattering what we thought we knew. In one of the past episodes that I listened to recently, they tackled the obesity epidemic. Taken on its own, it’s a great episode that tackles everything we got (and continue to get) wrong about obesity, and about being overweight. But listened to within a larger context, many of the principles apply more broadly- for instance how we deal with people who don’t conform to our ideal. As a person who used to smoke and now vapes, and as someone who has often found myself in the position of defending another person for unjust treatment, a lot of it hit home on a deeply personal level.
23:17 Sarah “This is what I can’t get over, this idea that, if well, we make life really painful for people whether they’re poor or overweight or whatever then they’ll be forced to change because they’ll know that everyone hates the way they are and it’s like, I don’t think that works."
That is a really difficult statement to take in; hearing it spelled out in such stark terms is like a gut punch. And it feels that way because one knows it to be true, and happening all the time, all around us, every day. “They’ll know that everyone hates the way they are.” Whether we put it that plainly or (more likely) couch it in terms of concern, that is the message we send to people. That should horrify us.
38:29 Michael “And I think one of the things, one of the greatest and most pernicious myths about this is that we have to shame people for their weight."
Sarah “If we don’t shame people for literally everything that they don’t conform to then, like, how can we expect them to hate themselves enough to change, right, that seems to be what we’ve all agreed on as a culture.”
“How can we expect them to hate themselves enough to change?” Ouch. That sounds horrible. These are oftentimes people we care about and we tell ourselves that we’re just trying to help but really, if you sit with the question- do you honestly believe that the person you are trying to manipulate by making them feel badly about themselves feels ‘cared about’ in the moment? Did repeating the thing that they already knew help in any real way, or do further damage? What is the point in the thing that you are about to say?
I really think we need to examine that. Too often, the person ‘offering the help’ gets a free pass, because of supposed good intentions. But if you are repeating something that a person already knows, or feigning a deeper understanding of a subject than you rightly have in order to make a point, or just taking the opportunity to remind someone that you’re still too uncomfortable with some aspect of them to keep your opinion to yourself- you should be called out. You probably won’t be by the person you’re shaming, but you should be- and you should feel shame.
40:56 Sarah “Well, and, do you think that that speaks to maybe a subsconscious sort of ancient herd feeling where, you know, we are telling ourselves this line of, like, ‘I have to help this person by relentlessly making them feel terrible about their bodies but really we know that if you shame someone into hating everything about themselves and continually undergoing these stress responses, which I also imagine are not great for your health in the long run if you’re forced into fight or flight all the time for no reason but really if you doing that to someone then the message you are giving them is, like, why don’t you f*cking die?"
That last part made me flinch. It sounds like hyperbole. But then I thought about all of the people who vape who have said, “They (the anti-vape community) want us to die.” And I find that extreme as well. Surely no one wants you/us to die. They want you to stop vaping. But that’s not what Sarah says, she says, “the message you are giving them is, like, why don’t you f*cking die?” And that’s the message being received.
In the case of people who vape, they take it quite literally because many see it as a choice between smoking (known to kill half of its users) and vaping nicotine. They’re not going to quit nicotine cold turkey or they would have. So the message sent is, go back to smoking. Except that if you do go back to smoking, we’ll shame you and shun you for that. But you cannot continue to get your nicotine in a form that you enjoy (without the tar and all of the harmful components in cigarettes) because we don’t like that. So you can quit, or you can die- those are the options we want to leave you with. Only the most severe of consequences are enough to convince you, an adult- living your own life, to do the right thing.
And I have spoken with friends and family who for whatever reason (weight, mental health issues, smoking, etc) have taken this kind of pressure in the same way. They have felt that if a person can’t accept them for what/who they are, in the moment, without needing to call attention to it once again, then that person would probably be happier if they just weren’t around. “But I am fat (or sick, or poor)” so if you have an ongoing problem with that, you have an ongoing problem with them as a person. And that can begin to make a person feel like it would be easier for all if they didn’t exist.
That’s really dark but it’s the reality for a lot of people, and we breezily accept that we do this to people because our intentions are supposedly good. (And it’s not them that we despise, it’s something we see them as being responsible for that we hate- surely they can tell the difference. Hot tip: it’s often indiscernible.) It doesn’t get much more perverse than making a person feel like you would rather they didn’t exist because you can’t keep your opinion of them or their lifestyle to yourself. Please don’t hide this behind good intentions.
43:29 Michael “So, being aware of yourself, being aware and asking those questions all the time, is really f*cking bad for you. Like, it’s a form of stress and a form of watching yourself all the time and being really nervous about it. In the same way that chronic poverty is stress on people that, we find this with gay people too, that being in a closet is really bad for your stress system, that it just fries all of these internal circuits that keep you healthy because you’re basically operating in a low level panic, like all the time, and it’s extremely bad for you."
Sarah: “‘Cause you’re living as a pariah.”
That’s a point we don’t often examine. What is the result of making a person feel badly about themselves and continuously judged? What impact does that have on mental, physical, and emotional health? If we’re on a mission to “help”, surely that’s something we should consider. Are we even, in addition to whatever physiological and psychological responses we may be triggering, driving a person to do more of the thing we want them to stop? Worse, are we making them feel like giving up altogether?
Quite a long time I came to a decision that managing one life- my own- would be plenty enough work for me. I do not have the compulsion to interfere in anyone else’s. I expect that everyone is managing the best that they can in any given moment and if they need direction, they’ll ask. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I suspect that’s just human nature. But I don’t offer unsolicited opinions and, more often than that, I haven’t given any thought to what a person looks like, what they’re eating or drinking, whether they’re smoking or taking drugs. I just don’t see it as my purview. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my community, but it doesn’t extend to determining their life course or choices. I suspect that’s saved me from hurting a lot of people and from being dead wrong more than once. (Listen to the episode on obesity- we’re getting a lot wrong, from the individual level right up to public health bodies.)
There are a lot of people weighing in the topic of vaping right now, people with strong feelings- however informed, misinformed, or uninformed. And some of that is leading to legislation that will reduce adult access to the technology. But ask yourself if you’re truly an expert in the area just because you can say, “breathing in clean, pure air is the best option.” (That sounds ridiculous, by the way- none of us is breathing in strictly clean, pure air.) Ask yourself if there is a possibility that you are wrong about the benefits of this technology to people who say that they would otherwise smoke. Ask yourself if your judgment is required in this moment. Ask yourself whether you really need to have a say in what other people are doing with their own bodies and lives. Perhaps most of all ask yourself if kindness and compassion wouldn’t go further.
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