Ours is an age of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by the awareness of holding, or of being obliged to hold, two incompatible beliefs or thoughts at the same time. The happier among us achieve the serenity of doublethink, the ability to hold incompatible beliefs or thoughts seamlessly as it were, without any mental discomfort at all.
Nor is this all. We live also in an age of emotional dissonance or doublefeel, which is to say of feeling or having to feel the opposite of what we actually do feel, with or without the additional discomfort of an awareness of our own state of mind. We must rejoice at what we lament, and lament what we rejoice at: all without letting anyone else know that this is what we are doing. Self-awareness is, if not a handicap exactly, at least a burden in the modern world. Perhaps it always was.
There are many subjects on which we are required to hold different opinions at the same time. One of them is obesity, that modern plague that, according to some epidemiologists, threatens to reverse the hitherto continual rise in our life expectancy.
Now most of us believe in our hearts that obesity is the natural consequence of one of the deadly sins, gluttony. When I was young, we had one fat boy in our class who was repeatedly told by teachers, rather unkindly (which is not the same thing as untruthfully), that there were no fat people in Belsen. The gym teacher also insisted that the fat boy tried to jump over the horse, a feat which, though we knew nothing of Newton’s laws of motion or gravity, appeared to the rest of us as an evident physical impossibility; and we understood that to insist upon the effort was mere sadism, an exercise in public humiliation. Cravenly we laughed nonetheless.
The point, however, is that his was an isolated case of obesity. The rest of us were slim. We accepted the fiction that it was something that he called his “glands” that had made him fat, and not what he had eaten.
But now we have grown fat—as a population—because we indisputably eat too much, and no doubt the wrong things into the bargain. If we do not have control over what we eat, however, over what do we have control? To deny that we can control what we eat, and that our obesity is the consequence of weakness of will, is to consider ourselves but automata: and no one ever experiences himself as an automaton, at least not in the overwhelming majority of his conscious life, and therefore to claim for others that status is to make cognitive dissonance or doublethink inevitable.
But while we know, because we cannot help thinking, that obesity is the consequence of moral failure, we are required to behave socially as if we believed no such thing, as if it were a bona fide illness. While believing this, we have to perform yet another mental contortion: we have to pretend that we do not even notice that a person is enormously or grotesquely fat.
Yesterday, for example, I observed an enormously fat young lady lever and wedge herself into a seat on a train that was clearly not designed for such as she. I was not absolutely sure that, having squeezed herself in, she would be able to extract herself without the aid of pulleys and levers. One of her legs was the size of an average passenger. She overflowed the seat to her right and to her left; and to her left, thoroughly trapped against the window of the carriage, was another young woman of what would once have been considered more normal size. I must say that she, the trapped passenger, behaved with admirable sangfroid, affecting not to notice her own predicament or what had caused it. One averted one’s gaze from this woman-mountain, not daring to look into the face that must have lunched on a thousand chips, many times, for fear of revealing one’s innermost thoughts.
The problem arises from our sentimental, but fundamentally callous, overvaluation of the victim and victimhood as the only worthy objects of our compassion. Our first reaction on seeing so whale-like a human struggling on the slightest physical effort, having difficulty with the simplest tasks that the rest of us perform without a second thought, such as walking down the aisle between seats on a train, is one of sympathy. What must it be like to face the world in a constant state of embarrassment at one’s own self-inflicted condition? We feel an acute compassion for her.
‘Astringencies’ from the January edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
But how can we waste our compassion on someone who is responsible for her own misfortune? Are there not enough people in the world who are victims of misfortune, injustice and cruelty for us not to bother with those whose misery is self-inflicted? But since our compassionate reaction to the fat lady precedes rather than follows any reasoning, merely by virtue of the sympathy we naturally feel for the suffering of others, we feel obliged post facto to justify it: therefore we turn her into a victim and deny her responsibility, as being in the same moral boat as, say, a child who is the victim of a bomb dropped on Aleppo.
In so doing, however, we know, though we cannot admit, that we are indulging in dishonesty; our unease when confronting her is at least partly caused by this. She pretends, and we pretend, that her size has nothing to do with moral weakness on her part. Our relations therefore have constantly to be founded on foundations that we know to be of sand.
This is where the Christian attitude, at its best, is superior to most purely secular viewpoints. The Christian does not have to deny the responsibility of the person for his situation in order to compassionate him because we are all, thanks to Original Sin (to a greater or lesser extent) in the same case. But the secular person denies Original Sin and prefers to believe in the opposite: that what is undesirable in human conduct comes from without rather than from within. Thus even one’s own choices are not really one’s own; they have only the appearance of being so. One must search the world assiduously for the sources of human weakness and, having found them, remove them. When all those sources have been found, everyone will be perfect: slim not fat, active not lazy, temperate not gluttonous.
Of course, human existence is complex and cannot be boiled down to a simple dichotomy: either one is wholly responsible for one’s situation or one is not responsible for it at all. The problem of obesity demonstrates this well.
In the Prado in Madrid there is a round panel by Hieronymus Bosch illustrating the seven deadly sins, including gula, or gluttony. This division of the panel shows a great fat man slouching in a chair, clearly eating to great excess. By his chair stands his son, to whom he hands food also in great excess of the boy’s need for sustenance. Not surprisingly, the boy is, on a reduced scale, as fat as his father; and we sense that he will remain fat for the rest of his life, thanks to the habit he has been taught.
And this, increasingly, is the case of children in those countries (the majority) in which obesity is on the increase. Fat parents make fat children: sometimes I think they do so on purpose, to justify themselves, to persuade themselves first that it is an inescapable genetic condition and second that there is nothing wrong with it, it is simply a different way of being and that dislike of it is the merest prejudice.
There are indeed pressure groups that seek to persuade us that fat people are beautiful, and to press that they are not discriminated against, as racial groups must not be discriminated against. If ten per cent of the population is obese, than ten per cent of the surgeons, bankers, social workers, television presenters, and so on, ought to be obese. Fat people should not slim; everyone else should change their ideas of what constitutes human beauty.
The fact is that it is difficult for fat children to grow into lean adults: difficult but not impossible. It is certainly unfair that an additional burden of difficulty should be placed upon some children and not on others. But that is the inherent condition, hard as it is, under which we all come into the world, and the attempt to abolish the condition is worse than the condition itself, which after all is the premise of our freedom.
Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.