Bloggingheads.tv threw up an interesting piece last week that begins with a discussion surrounding obesity (The entire segment is titled “The Skinny on Obesity“, but note in advance that the conversation is less focused than the title implies; they switch topics and discuss carbon emission regulations for the last half). I was struck by a number of the claims that were made throughout this discussion and most particularly by the way that later comments contrasted with earlier ones. It is in this contrast, especially given the subject matter, that I believe there is a valuable lesson regarding how we should view answers to the question “What sorts of people should there be?”
The conversation is between Meghan McArdle of the Atlantic.com and Ta-Nishi Coates and begins with a discussion about the subtle ways that living in New York City leads people to become aware of their size in ways that living elsewhere wouldn’t–everything from squeezing into cabs, to walking everywhere, to moderately size servings at fancy restaurants that no one finishes are thrown out as examples. These first comments imply quite strongly that we really are creatures of our environment to the degree that our images about who we are and who we should be will never fully be in our control. The conversation soon switches tracks and Meghan makes two comments that seem to imply that environmental causation of behaviour is out to lunch. Roughly, she claims that there is no obesity crisis and that any idea that there might be is deeply related to some form of classism. This is then followed-up with the claim that food regulations (esp. calorie counts on fast food) are not required because “People aren’t stupid”, meaning that they know what they’re eating and the consequences thereof and thus fully able to pull themselves above the sorts of environmental influence that may exist (Zoom in on these comments here).
That subtle change in the subtext between Meghan’s earlier comments and her later ones is indicative of the kind of mental gymnastics that we are all capable of when thinking about issues that are deeply related to our own conceptions of self and of others: it is easy for us to give ourselves more credit than we likely deserve when it comes to issues of knowledge and rationality. I’m sorry Meghan, but people–not just poor people as one commenter to the bloggingheads posts would like to believe, but all people–ARE stupid.
What I mean by this is that we are all equally bound by the situated nature of our existence when making choices and assessing the state of the world, especially when it includes our own self. Perhaps it is not so much that we are stupid as we are inherently ignorant of almost everything beyond the the context of our immediate existence. Years of work in social psychology by people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky should have at least shown us by now the power that framing has over everyone and it should come as no surprise to anyone that each of us is capable of self-deceptions on a grand scale. A striking example of this are people who suffer from various eating disorders to the degree that they can look at the same numbers and images that other people do, but still “see” something very different in themselves–almost any anorexic you ask will self-classify themselves as being fat even in the face of what other people would count as incontrovertible proof to the contrary (I think the picture and video attached to this post capture this idea nicely with just images and background music). We often label people who cannot see the world we believe to be out there as “mentally ill” or simply as “sick”, but I’m not so sure that people like those the girl in the photo are meant to represent are doing anything all that different from the rest of us when the world is one way but it suits our interests (broadly construed) to see it another; the consequences of anorexics doing this is simply hung out in the world for all to see.
When thinking about the general focus of this blog, “What sorts of people should there be?”, I can’t help but wonder at how strange it feels to ask questions like “Should there be anorexic people or not?” or “Should there be fat people who qualify as anorexics?” because the answer my guts scream is “Of course not!” But when thinking about such a question in the broader context of who we are as human beings and the kinds of contradictory and counterproductive thinking that I myself am capable of I can’t help but worry that my guts may well be very wrong. Worse, in wishing for there to be a world without anorexics I may inadvertently be wishing for a world without anyone even remotely recognizable as human. I know what I’d like this world to look like, but I’m not sure what that world would really look like and this scares me more than a little.
I don’t imagine that I’m alone in feeling this way. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this and the more general issue of whether or not either you or society is ready to take the question, “What sorts of people should there be?” beyond simple gut reactions.