Last Friday, Bill Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher featured a segment in which he pointed out that being overweight carries many health risks and he offered as a solution a return to publicly shaming people:
I watched the segment. And as is often the case on his show, Maher included some decent bits of wisdom and straight talk mixed in with a stew of ignorance and cruelty.
So I was delighted to see James Corden offer a response to Maher on his show. Corden’s monologue was filled with zingers:
“I found it so surprising that he — or anybody — thinks that fat-shaming needs to make a comeback because fat-shaming never went anywhere. I mean, ask literally any fat person: we are reminded of it all of the time…”
“We’re not all as lucky as Bill Maher; we don’t all have a sense of superiority that burns 35,000 calories a day.”
But most importantly, Corden pointed out that shaming people doesn’t encourage prosocial or healthy behavior in them. On the contrary, it does one thing: make them ashamed. And that, in turn, leads to self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. As Corden succinctly put it, “fat-shaming is just bullying and bullying only makes the problem worse.”
Maher is right: being overweight is unhealthy. But that’s about the only thing he got right. Corden, by contrast, hit it out of the park. Don’t we have enough meanness in society? Do we really need people like Mr. Maher to offer his own twisted moral justification for it? I think not.
The thing that angers me the most is that Maher’s commentary exhibits such rank hypocrisy. For example, Maher is a marijuana smoker (a fact to which he makes periodic reference). This is also unhealthy behavior. Should we lead a new charge to shame marijuana users like Maher?
And (big surprise), there is also good evidence that an increase in sexual partners is positively correlated with an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Would Maher advise us to begin shaming those who have more than one sexual partner?
And why stop at individual health? Why not also shame people for unhealthy behavior for the society or, indeed, the planet? For example, what about people who are not carbon neutral, people like Maher himself? Should they be shamed for unsustainable patterns of material consumption?
But Maher has no interest in shaming any of these individuals or their behaviors. In his view, fat people are (if you’ll pardon the lame pun), a soft target. It’s easy to shame people for the speck in their eye, more difficult to come to terms with the shameful plank in your own.