This is going to be one of those philosophical posts that may appear to have nothing to do with the focus of this blog at first. Stick with me if you’re interested in bigger picture issues. As I become a more vocal blogger, I think about what I bring to the table. Any solid “do this” or “this is the science” you may get here is only going to come through treating the place like a good bibliogaphy. An Utne Reader of sorts. What I try to offer is the perspective of someone struggling with weight, and health, and trying to navigate the personal land mines of my own psyche, as well as the environment in which I find myself: 21st century America.
One of my central governing angsts, (I don’t think you can pluralize that word, but the fact that I wish to do so probably speaks volumes about me) is my pursuit of honesty. Don’t sugar-coat it for me. Wow, I just realized how appropriate that phrase really is. I get frustrated, even angry, when I find out I have been talked down to or patronized. I once heard a lecture from a former US Congressman who is in some kind of “consulting” role for the gas drilling (hydrofracturing) industry in PA. I am pretty sure consultant is a synonym for paid shill. Like a good politician he tried to appeal to the values and experiences of those of us in the room, at least what he assumed them to be. He ended up delivering such a ridiculous caricaturing of both rural and urban people, I needed an opthamologist visit after all my eye-rolling. I was offended, not because his politics were different than mine, as any of my friends will tell you I thrive on honest debate and love to make friends across the spectrum. No, I was offended by his assumption of how stupid and small minded he must think we are, if this is how he thinks he’ll win us over.
I admit, I have a habit of inferring this kind of thing, where others may not be as quick to assign motive. I had a letter to the editor in the paper many years ago (OK, I’ve had several) where I called out my bank for not using the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in reference to the day they would be closed. They put up signs saying they would be closed for Civil Rights Day. I don’t need a weatherman to tell me how this wind blows. In Central PA, the racism is worse than the south. That’s a whole other topic. But I called them out and accused them of looking down on us, like we were just dumb rednecks from Snyder County who wouldn’t react well to seeing MLK’s name. I expressed offense at their attitude. I talked about how even us rural white folks can, and should, honor the legacy of this man on principle. I went so far as to challenge the bank president to name five other important civil rights leaders without an internet search. If they want to promote civil rights day, I’m all for getting more names like Medgar Evers or Stokely Carmichael into the puiblic consciousness. Somehow, I don’t think that was the bank’s intention. And BTW, I checked again this year: they’ve been back to the proper name of the holiday for a number of years now.
Well, my letter got mixed reviews. There are always people who do not get the satire, and I got a hate letter about how I was being a nasty person calling us rednecks. But I also got an appreciative hand written letter from an old lady in Millmont saying she was glad I called them out to promote it.
Again, I am jumping to an inference here, but the way I saw it, someone had low expectations of us.
The soft bigotry of low expectations is a phrase that was originally coined by a Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson. He is also responsible for the phrase Axis of Evil. The phrase had an original political slant to it, targeted at the discussion on entitlement programs and the reality of urban poverty and who is most affected. But in 2012, even the NAACP was using the term, when Florida reading standards were re-worked according to race. Here’s a great piece by Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts.
The whole idea comes down to this: if you automatically expect less of me because I am ________ then you are bigoted against __________ people. And I tend to agree.
In my first year running, I had some emotional reactions to my experience with what I believed to be this kind of thing. I did a 5k where I was stalked by a course sweeper on a moped. I don’t mind course sweepers, I meet them all the time. But in this race I was not the last person. I know I am dead last and when I am not. There was a teenager well behind me. I kept telling the nice old man to go back there, as the kid was who he wanted. He just smiled at me and kept choking me on moped fumes. By the end of the race, I was mad, and openly so. I am not proud of my attitude. But I can tell you where it stemmed from, and that’s the idea that I felt like I was a target for more supervision because I’m a big fat guy.
How about No Doubt’s reaction to this phenomenon, the song I’m Just a Girl? Gwen Stefani represents the tough chick girl-empowerment to a T, and the lyrics are ironic. Unlike Alanis Morisette’s song, for which the true irony is that none of the things listed are actually ironic. So it’s like meta-irony, and now my brain has collapsed in on itself leaving nothing but a fedora and a fixie bike.
Where was I? Do I have enough examples? Setting the bar lower for someone is patronizing and paternalistic. And it yields bad results. In our church body, for example, we Lutherans are failing to recognize that one of the key factors in the growth of the evangelical churches is not just their rock band style, or simpler theology, but also that they usually have higher expectations of their members. You become part of them, they have a mission for you. Become a Lutheran, and we retain you on the roster of “active members” with one visit to church a year with communion and an offering of record. As my colleague Breen calls it: a buck and a shot. We ask little of our people. Why are we afraid to ask?
What would it look like to set higher expectations and see people meet them?
And that’s where this philosophical point connects with this blog’s purpose. What if our doctors had the confidence in us to give us more facts on nutrition and expect us to do something with it? What if we were expected to treat our food as our first medicine, and to make it a priority, instead of some ancillary commodity that we burn through like a cell phone plan or a clothing purchase?
What if we were actually treated like adults and told the truth? The truth that fat and sugar together are a bad combo, but natural fat without sugar is the natural way that humans are meant to eat. But we can’t imagine you will cut out the sugar, so we’ll totally misinterpret the data, tell you to cut the fat, then pat your head and send you off to fail. Then when you can’t live on low fat, and are fatter and sicker because of it, tell you that you just weren’t disciplined enough and give you a pill to make it all better.
Don’t Get Mad Yet
Who is responsible for these low expectations? It can become a dangerous game of finger pointing, and I don’t intend to do that. We can talk about advertising, but the industry does one thing: figure out what we want and sell it to us. They lie in doing so, but we want them to. Look at our politics. Anyone who doesn’t promise the sun moon and stars, and for no taxes, stands no chance of getting elected. OK, they also invent needs we didn’t know we had, but still, it taps into a fundamental human desire that is probably real with or without Madison Avenue.
Do we blame the media? I will continue to analyze the health reporting, and how they bury the more complicated truth, fail to differentiate between observational studies and double blind studies, and generally treat us like idiots. But really, can we blame the media when we’ve rewarded such offerings as Honey Boo Boo as worthy of our time? When Meet the Press has nothing on Keeping Up With the Kardashians? The race to the bottom isn’t inevitable if we demand better.
So then can we blame the doctors for being prescription-pad happy, or should we ask why our culture looks for answers in pills? The doctors I know personally (which are not many) would love for patients to be proactive, but have had to give in to the relentless tide of quick-fix seekers. Meg had to talk a doctor out of prescribing her an antibiotic in Philadelphia 17 years ago, when her test came back viral. He expected her to be like everyone else and ask for a pill anyway.
Dear reader, you may have begun this diatribe thinking I would settle on an attack on the powers that be and demanding a higher standard, a higher expectation as a default. I’ve certainly complained about THE SYSTEM loudly enough. I love a good rant against THE MAN.
But this is a call to set your own high expectations. This whole cycle is frustrating, but we have to jump in somewhere to be a change agent. All we can control is ourselves. You will be surprised how well people react when you do set higher expectations. My story from the doctor’s office should illustrate that. I may have disrupted the normal flow of things, but my own investment in my health was honored.
I never go wrong with a prophet like this:
The world still stands up & salutes when someone with fire in the belly, who refuses to be a victim, begins doing something. Anything.– Joel Salatin
We can feel powerless against systems. Media, government, advertising, the industrial medical complex. But as long as we do not give in to an assumption of top down priority setting, we are still the primary movers in the marketplace of ideas. We are not powerless. We may be less powerful than we’d like, but we have more power than we realize.
Set your own bar high. Watch the world respond.