No. 120

Obesity: Food for the social engineers

STONE the crows! The obese are the new oppressed. Not to mention a new source of self-righteousness among social engineers who seek too save us from ourselves.

Or, in this case, mayors with a motza. Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned big serve soft drinks in the city to save slurpers from sugar. [i]

The response was predictable. Given many Yanks believe the Bill of Rights forbids compulsory seat belts, the generality of opinion wanted Bloomberg back in his box. However, he had supporters who argued that people needed saving from themselves. The 1000 plus following pieces at Google News provides a fair-spread of opinion.[ii]

The Crows are careful when it comes to examining obesity. The last time they did, they copped a caning from people who thought stating the obvious – indulgently eating more than the body needs has something to do with weight gain – was unkind and unnecessary.[iii]

But, being insensitive avians, they have flapped back to fatness, less to explore the origins of obesity than to wonder at the way the rights industry is turning weight into the next big source of jobs, research money and off the scale outrage. And the way the social engineers demonstrate brilliance on F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous measure, by maintaining not two but three contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time.[iv]

On the one hand, they want to outlaw discrimination against the obese, (although in the absence of laws making the less than svelte second-class citizens the Crows think they actually mean prejudice against the portly). Ryan Walter writes:

If we consider the history of anti-discrimination movements in relation to race and sex, legal backing played a significant role in the campaign’s success. Those who want to end fat discrimination, as we all should, may need to think beyond making impassioned pleas to a populace that’s deeply committed to rival arts of living.[v]

On the other hand, they want to regulate some fast food and drink producers and vendors, despite the fact that eating too much of just about anything stacks on the kilos. The generality of social engineering opinion is that processed food high in sugar and saturated fat should be taxed[vi] While some suggest subsidising healthy food punishing producers is more the engineers’ inclination.[vii] One Melbourne Council wants to slug fast food franchises with higher rates.[viii]

And on the third hand (no two-handism here), they see obesity as an illness but require us to ignore the high price its treatment imposes on the community.

Like poverty, obesity is a gift that keeps on giving for social engineers.

Poverty in Australia is impossible to eradicate because as affluence increases so does the measure of relative deprivation. A generation back a family without a basic desktop computer would have qualified as poor – now it will be an I-phone/pod/pad they need. And, if you scoff, you have forgotten the budget measure giving pensioners a free set-top box so they don’t miss out when TV goes digital [ix] As Peter Saunders from the University of New South Wales (as distinct from the contra student of poverty, Peter Saunders, formerly from the Centre of Independent Studies) puts it;

Deprivation exists where people face an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities. These are goods, activities, opportunities and capacities which are widely regarded as essential for those living in a particular society at a point in time.[x]

Obesity is also a source of endless opportunities for people who know what is best for the rest of us. Certainly it is an entirely appropriate subject for science but there is also space for sociologists to research body image, room for lawyers to dream up new anti-discrimination legislation and an arena for the inevitable media studies scholars who can always be relied on to find a way to suggest that everybody but them is gulled by the press.

The contrast between the serious science and the social engineering is stark. Compare, for example, the research objectives of staff at the University of Sydney’s new obesity centre and a project that found people hold “anti-fat” prejudice against women who were fat but are now thin. (Of course the fattists were responding to written descriptions of people, not actual individuals – but that doesn’t get in the way of branding them as bigots.) [xi]

There is another thing that confounds the Crows. While the obese are a protected species, another group – whose lifestyle harms its members and costs the community a bucket of money – is taxed to the hilt and treated as lepers, namely smokers. (Human rights lawyers please note this is rhetoric only. The Crows respect the rights and admire the achievements of victims of Hansen’s Disease).

Why? Here’s a hint. The largest concentrations of smokers are men in the two bottom socio-economic quintiles. Sure, they are urged to give up all the time. But they are constantly told how they are weak and anti-social if they struggle to do it. It’s hardly surprising that they are patronised. Since when did the rights industry care much about poor blokes? [xii]

ENDNOTES


[i] Michael M Grynbaum, “Bloomberg plans a ban on large sugared drinks,” New York Times, May 30

[ii] http://news.google.com.au/news/story?hl=en&q=new+york+time+bloomberg+obesity&gbv=2&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ncl=dNqyIUaxDt6ulFM18O1drP7voFvzM&ei=1ZjJT5q0FaqSiAf6zZTpBg&sa=X&oi=news_result&ct=more-results&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQqgIwAA recovered on June 2

[iii] Stone the Crows 15, April12 2010 @ http://www.thesydneyinstitute.com.au/issue-15/ recovered on June 2

[iv] Roger Martin, “How successful people think,” Harvard Business Review, June 2007

[v] Ryan Walter, “Does the art of living make fat discrimination common sense?” The Conversation, May 30 2012, http://theconversation.edu.au/does-the-art-of-living-make-fat-discrimination-common-sense-6828 recovered on June 3

[vi] Amy Corderoy, “Junk-food tax call for unhappy meals,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 9 2010,

[vii] Jacqueline Williams, “Call for fat tax to encourage health,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 17

[viii] Simon Lauder, “Local council may take on fast food giants,” ABC Radio, The World Today, May 15 @ http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2012/s3503182.htm recovered on June 2

[ix] AAP, “Pensioners to get free boost into digital TV,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 8 2011

[x] Peter Saunders, “Down and out in Australia: the new way to define poverty,” The Conversation, July 6 2011 @ http://theconversation.edu.au/down-and-out-in-australia-the-new-way-to-define-poverty-1812 recovered on June 2

[xi] Press Association, “Women can’t escape obesity stigma,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 1, University of Sydney, “Charles Perkins Centre research,”  http://sydney.edu.au/perkins/news.shtml recovered on June 2

[xii] Cancer Council of Victoria, Tobacco in Australia: facts and issues 2012, 9.1 www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/ recovered on June 2

'2012