Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Shame and judgment

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In one of his on-air rants, comedian Bill Maher suggested that "fat shaming" should be brought back. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of outraged push-back, but perhaps Maher has a point. And not just about fat-shaming, but about shaming generally.

But, before you jump to the conclusion that I am one of those insufferably smug and annoying fitness scolds with the metabolism of a hummingbird, who you might find nibbling kale chips while jogging and hectoring strangers with unsolicited health advice, let me disclose up front that I am myself, well, "big boned" or "husky." Hell, some might even say "stout." OK, alright already then, "fat," OK?

I have thrown a few adoring glances in the direction of a cheeseburger or a flagon of ale, and I am sympathetic to those who may on occasion succumb to the siren song of junk food. So, I am not suggesting that the plump and portly should be targeted for ridicule and abuse, or pilloried in the public square for the smug amusement of the gaunt and self-satisfied.

Still, being fat is not healthy, and it seems that we have taken the whole "nonjudgmental thing" to the extreme and to the point of being enabling.

We live in strange times when social media "body-positive fashion influencers" demand that not only should their obesity be overlooked, but that it must be celebrated as somehow desirable or "sexy." We have recently witnessed demands that fantasy events like the Victoria's Secret fashion show must now include fat models in order to be inclusive.

Online, in this everyone-gets-a-trophy era, we are treated to the spectacle of grotesquely fat "influencers" displaying pictures of themselves scantily clothed or nude, and expecting to be praised as "sexy" or "brave" for this narcissistic display. And anyone who declines to praise this appalling spectacle, or who opines that it is not attractive, is denounced as a mean-spirited "hater," or worse, as "judgmental."

The old tale of the "Emperor Has No Clothes" has morphed into a troubling tangent.

Let's be honest. Do you truly want to see me in a Speedo strutting my stuff on the sands of Pismo Beach? Or would you rather that I remain modestly draped, and these influencers stay shrouded in their muumuus?

These strident demands for affirmation are just seeking an Orwellian fiction. No one really finds these people attractive or sexy. They just maintain the fiction because it is socially expected, and they will be criticized for shaming if they don't. Sort of being "shaming shamed," if you will (things can get pretty complicated when you are militantly nonjudgmental).

Perhaps, as Maher suggests, the concept of "shame" should be revisited to discourage undesirable behaviors. Consider unwed motherhood. When I was growing up long ago, there was a lot of shame associated with getting pregnant out of wedlock. We had the now-quaint institution of the "home for unwed mothers" to which pregnant girls would disappear until after they delivered their baby. Cruel? Certainly, but that is what made it effective in discouraging teenage motherhood.

With all the social pathology associated with single-parent homes, perhaps the comeback of such shame might be beneficial in reducing the number of such births and the associated suffering.

Smoking is an example of a behavior that has been effectively shamed. Increasingly, smokers are seen as, at best, weak victims of self-destructive behavior who are exiled to patios and sidewalks, where they huddle in wretched knots of self-loathing addicts and get their shameful "fix." And there is no shortage of militantly self-righteous anti-smokers to remind them of their transgression.

Drug addiction? While the fashionable current narrative of the opiate epidemic is that the addicts are the hapless victims of giant pharmaceutical companies who are somehow forcing them to take these drugs, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that drug addiction is usually not something that you just "catch" like the flu. It involves choices. Choices that might be discouraged by social shaming, rather than celebrated.

Certainly, some shaming is still widely endorsed. For example, consider racial bigotry, or at least the overt displays of it. In older times, racism was routinely expressed, and racial slurs like the "N-word" casually used. These days, in reasonably educated circles at least, using racial slurs is seen as ignorant behavior, so that the speaker would be shamed as "low-class," and not someone whom others would emulate.

True, while this social inhibition may be superficial and might not reflect the true feelings of the individual, having the wider society adopt such cultural mores is a step in the right direction, and hopefully hearts will follow.

We have become too nonjudgmental, and the power of shaming could be utilized as it was in earlier times. We humans are social animals and seek the admiration of others, or to at least avoid their scorn. Rather than enabling self-destructive or undesirable behaviors trying to be "kind," or using the heavy hand of the law to penalize them, we should try unleashing social approbation on those behaviors we wish to discourage. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney who lives in Pismo Beach, and rants on the issues of the day at every opportunity. Send your thoughts through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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