Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Discrimination Semantics

Today’s post by Patricia Cohen to her Thinking Cap blog, circulated through the ArtsBeat site of The New York Times, directed my attention to a recent publication by the American Sociological Association.  The title of the article is “Weighty Concerns;”  and the authors are Samantha Kwan, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston, and Mary Nell Trautner, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.  While the entire article is behind a pay-wall, the abstract is still worth considering:

Fat stigma and size discrimination are big issues in a culture that’s more and more overweight, but less and less tolerant of obesity. The authors consider how the legal system has regarded these discrimination claims and how they might evolve in the future.

What concerns me is that, perhaps for the sake of abstracting, we have a pile of key phrases all heaped into a single sentence:  “fat stigma,” “size discrimination,” “overweight,” and “obesity.”  This creates the “semantic hazard” that they may all be taken as synonymous;  and I would suggest that such synonymy may be a key factor in the issues of discrimination and public health that this article claims to examine.  From my point of view, the biggest problem probably has to do with whether or not the general public recognizes the distinction between “fat” and “obese.”  As is the case when we consider the opposite extreme (the adjectives “svelte” and “anorexic”), the latter explicitly denotes a pathological medical condition that is best examined in terms of public health practices.

Having read the article, Cohen notes that the authors “maintain that one can be fit and fat;”  and I would not dispute this point.  The question is whether such fit people are subject to discrimination and, if so, why this is the case, even if their fitness means that their condition probably has little to do with matters of public health.  Furthermore, there are probably cases in which the source of discrimination has more to do with short-sighted business practices than with the proposition that (in Cohen’s words) “America’s individualist ideology means that fat people are blamed for their size.”

Consider coach seating in airplane cabins, which, on many flights, has reduced space to a volume that would only be comfortable for Mary Lou Retton.  I am sufficiently tall that I have to deal with this problem.  However, I have never felt that I am subject to “height discrimination;”  and I would guess that those taller than I would feel the same way.

There is also at least one factor that makes it almost impossible to attempt any sort of control study on the propositions raised by Kwan and Trautner.  This is the hypothesis that people tend to be more inclined to discrimination when they are struggling to endure the consequences of hard times.  The targets of such discrimination can be totally arbitrary.

Think of the scene in Ship of Fools in which a mild-mannered old Jew must share a cabin with a pompous nationalist (and borderline obese) German.  Initially, the German, who has obviously bought in to the “gospel” of Mein Kampf, tries to pretend that the Jew does not exist;  but they ultimately progress to a point of having a civil conversation.  During that dialog the Jew makes the point that the world would be a much better place were it not for the bicycle riders.  Looking puzzled, the German asks, “Why the bicycle riders?”  The Jew replies, “Why the Jews?”

In circumstances when everyone is poised to blame somebody, researchers need to be very careful about what they choose to call discrimination and why they make that choice.

No comments: