Saturday, 24 December 2011

Does the public know enough to condemn or acquit Luis Suarez?

To many, Liverpool’s continued defence of Luis Suarez despite his eight match ban for racial abuse is transparent and shameful. For them, the club is clearly putting petty footballing concerns above the serious matter of fighting racism, indulging their star striker’s bigotry as though it were just another idiosyncrasy. It might just be my pro-Liverpool bias, but I think there’s more to the story than that.

Something that most people seem to have ignored is that Liverpool F.C., its manager and players almost certainly know more about the case than anybody else. There are all sorts of ambiguities and uncertainties about both the incident and the judgement, which only Liverpool, Manchester United and the commission really understand. Since both the commission and Man Utd. have kept silent so far, Liverpool’s statement in response to the verdict is the most direct account of the facts that the public have to go on. Of course, it is hardly likely to be neutral, but it raises a few questions that need to be answered by the official report.

Are the facts in dispute?

The first confusion is thrown up by Liverpool’s defence of Suarez. Much of the coverage of the tribunal suggested that the words uttered were accepted by both sides, and that the case depended on their interpretation, Suarez’s defence hanging on cultural differences. Yet in their statement, Liverpool placed a great deal of significance on the fact that there were no witnesses. Now if Suarez and Evra agree on what was said, it’s not clear why the fact that nobody else heard their conversation should matter. Surely it’s only if there is some doubt about the facts of the event that anybody should find it “extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone”.

Words or intent?

There is an ambiguity in the F.A.’s statement which might have some bearing on the offensiveness of Suarez’ crime. The F.A. claims that Suarez is being punished for using “insulting words” against Evra. But of course, how insulting certain words are often depends as much on how they are said as on the words used themselves. It is unclear at this moment in time whether Suarez is being punished because the words that he used are never acceptable, or because he said them in a way that were clearly intended to be insulting. The former is clearly much more understandable and defensible as it would suggest that Suarez merely erred in his understanding of what sort of language is acceptable, rather than acting in a fundamentally inexcusable way. Liverpool’s claim that “Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said: ‘I don't think that Luis Suarez is racist.’ and that “The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suarez was not racist”, if true, seem to favour the idea that all sides accept that Suarez meant no wrong.

How significant was cultural context?

It may well be that all the talk of cultural differences is a smokescreen, and that Suarez used insulting language in a plainly insulting way. But many of the reports seem to suggest that cultural questions are relevant, and that certain mitigating factors should be considered. For a start, the conversation in question appears to have taken place in Spanish. Secondly, the offensive word used has been reported to be either ‘negro’ or ‘negrito’. The latter isn’t even a word in English.

A number of people have suggested, along with Henry Winter, that “for somebody who has lived in northern Europe for four years, including three years in Holland with Ajax, the Liverpool striker should have understood the sensitivity towards the word “negro”. But Suarez used a Spanish word in the context of a Spanish conversation, that argument hardly seems to apply. Especially if the word used doesn’t even exist in English.

It is possible that the cultural question never really arose in the course of the tribunal. But if it did, there certainly seems to be a plausible defence open to Suarez.

Liverpool need to ‘calm down’

Perhaps I’m being too credulous, but I think that the ferocity with which Liverpool have reacted to the ban is evidence that they genuinely believe that Suarez has not done wrong. However, if that is the case, it would be a good idea for them to pick a line of defence and stick to it. Wide eyed conspiracy theories about how the F.A. wanted to make scapegoat of Suarez make them look paranoid and desperate, even if there is a hint of plausibility to them. Unless they are sure that Patrice Evra is lying, questioning his credibility and calling for him to be banned looks desperate.

In fact, the club’s treatment of Patrice Evra, regardless of Suarez’ guilt and innocence seems shoddy. It is clear that Evra was hurt and upset by what was said, and it would have been good to see some sort of apology for the distress caused, even if it was unintended. Moreover, it is possible that Liverpool’s vilification of Evra is sending the wrong message to fans. It would be good to see the club condemning the sickening abuse Evra has received on twitter from Liverpool supporters.

How guilty is Suarez, and what is he guilty of?

Ultimately, even if we accept the F.A.’s decision, there is a lot more we need to know before we judge Suarez and those who support him. The first key question is whether the facts of the case are in dispute. The second is whether Suarez is being punished merely for the words he used or for the suspected intent behind them. Finally, does the F.A. buy the portrait of Suarez as a confused foreigner mistaking the mores of his new country, or was his crime more serious?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A (cautious) defence of ‘fattism’

Modern Western societies condemn the obese as monstrous, but the truly deplorable are those complicit in the bullying of the overweight. That’s the conclusion of David Haslam’s recent condemnation of contemporary attitudes to fat people. He doesn’t explicitly draw the link, but it is clear that Haslam intends his article to make us recognise discrimination against the obese alongside more commonly acknowledged forms of prejudice, like racism and sexism. The most alarming piece of evidence that he produces is the way that the overweight, like victims of sexism and racism often internalise the contempt in which they are held, coming to see themselves as sub-standard and worthless:

researchers have found that children as young as six years old, even those who are overweight themselves, use words like “lazy,” “stupid,” “cheats,” “liars,” “sloppy,” “naughty,” “mean,” and “ugly” to describe their obese peers.

Haslam doesn’t seem to be arguing directly for any legal intervention. Rather, he seems to want us to reconsider our social attitudes. However, I am not sure that a social norm of condemning the obese is necessarily a bad or a wrong one. I think it would be unquestionably a good thing if racism and sexism were to end, but I’m not so sure about ‘fattism’. This is because of two crucial ways in which being obese can differ from being black or a woman:

(1) The obese have some capacity to change the relevant feature i.e. to lose weight

(2) Being obese is almost certainly worse than not being obese.

In other words, a big part of the reason why racism is bad is because it is unproductive – a black person cannot stop being black – and arbitrary – there is no reason to single out black people for condemnation rather than white people, because black people are no worse than white people. My suggestion is that the social humiliation of the obese is neither unproductive nor arbitrary, because it exhorts fat people to take an action that they are capable of taking, and which it would be good for them to take.

Both of these premises need some argument. Premise (1) is likely to be controversial because it appears to suggest that fat people are responsible for their own plight. This is explicitly rejected by Haslam who emphasises the significance of childhood and upbringing, over which a person has little control. However, premise (1) does not depend on the assumption that a fat person must be fat out of any fault of their own. Rather, all it claims is that however they got into this position, they have the ability to do something to get out of it. For sure, it is likely to be easier for some than others. But it seems to me extremely unlikely that there are many people who are literally incapable of losing any weight.

The second premise is less obvious to me, even though Haslam appears to concede it. He lists the problems of obesity: “a dysfunctional metabolism, insulin resistance, chronic illness, and a shortened life”, as if to acknowledge how much worse off the overweight are. Yet it could be argued that obesity is a valid lifestyle choice – that there is a legitimate question over whether avoiding unhealthy food and taking regular exercise are genuinely worth the health payoffs. If we think this, then the obese have not erred or failed in any way, they just have different values or preferences to thin people. But if obesity is seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice this has radical implications – it means we can no longer treat obesity like a public health problem, that government campaigns against it are illegitimate. It means granting real license to be fat.

If we accept, however, that the obese can and ought to alter their situation, this suggests that the stigmatisation of fat people isn’t all bad. For obesity to be fully socially acceptable would mean that people lose a powerful incentive to lose weight and make their lives better. Yet even if this the case, it does not imply that the current situation, which angers Haslam so much, is justified. Even if fattism has some beneficial consequences, there are three big reasons why we might still want to oppose it.

The first is that it might be disproportionate. It is perfectly plausible and consistent to think that fat people should not be treated the same as everybody else, but that they should be treated better than they are at present, and that current practices go too far.

The second is that fattism might be counterproductive as a strategy for combatting obesity. It might increase a person’s sense of powerlessness and induce fatalism. It might cut them off from support networks which might otherwise aid them in losing weight. It could foster low self-esteem, and lead to comfort eating. Rather than incentivising weight loss, picking on fat people might make them even fatter.

Finally, there is the possibility that there are far more effective and efficient ways of getting people to lose weight. For example, it is likely to dietary norms or the relative cost of different foods contributes more to obesity than the social acceptability of being overweight. In that case, it is likely to be better to focus on those levers than the ones that depend on cruelty and hurt feelings.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Writing in other places

I've just realised I've only posted to this blog twice in the last three months, which is certainly not the sort of discipline it was meant to impose on my writing. And of course, I realise how disappointing my absence must be to my legions of fans. I've not been totally lazy, though - I've written a couple of articles for other websites which might be of interest:

The first is a piece co-written with Puneet Dhaliwal for Ceasefire in which I argue in favour of 'professional philanthropy' - seeking out high earning careers (such as, controversially, banking) in order to donate large amounts of money to charity - as a strategy for fighting poverty. Find it here.

The second is a book review for the Oxford Left Review discussing Jonathan Wolff's book Ethics and Public Policy, and more generally, whether political philosophy ought to be concerned with practical questions of policy at all. Find it here (on page 79).