Esther Dyson: Don’t Blame Fat People

Esther Dyson in a 2011 photo by Frank-Jurgen Richter (via Wikimedia Commons)


I think of Esther Dyson as a Geek Queen. She’s a longtime angel investor and prominent public voice on matters technological. (She’s also a former journalist whose description of our current institutional health system as a “calcified hairball” made me laugh out loud.)

In recent years, she’s added the topic of health care and how technology can help us be healthier to her portfolio, and Slate has just posted a provocative piece she wrote after a Medicine X conference at Stanford. Clearly she touched a nerve, with her “Hate the sin, not the sinner” approach to obesity: The post has already prompted more than 700 comments. She writes in part:

To be sure, it is worthwhile to foster healthy behavior, which will lower costs and improve many people’s lives. But how far do we want to go? Where are the appropriate limits when it comes to encouraging good behavior? Can good behavior be encouraged without ever punishing bad behavior?

I suspect that different societies, cultures, employers, and governments will come up with different answers. In part, we need to feel comfortable with the reality that there is no environment perfect for everyone, and there are no perfect people. In a world of statistics, it is 100 percent likely that fewer than 100 percent of people will be happy. We try to mitigate bad luck, but we cannot eliminate it.

In practical terms, though, we would be wise to listen to Collazo’s plea: “I am not a fat blob, having [unhealthy] English breakfasts, who gave herself diabetes. I AM A HUMAN, AND I HAVE DIGNITY.” Collazo identifies the problem for her—and for all of us: “Is there some diabetes that is preventable? I don’t think anyone FULLY knows the answer to that. BUT SO WHAT? Does it mean I no longer deserve dignity if I do get it? If I ‘fail’ to ‘prevent’ it? Should I now be excommunicated from the population at large? Should I be made an ‘example’ to others? Should I be spoken of as a plague? As an unwanted thing in the world?”

We should remember the old saying: Hate the sin, not the sinner. We can attempt to stop diabetes without rejecting diabetics, and to eliminate obesity without demonizing the obese.

In the end, we need to acknowledge the outliers—the people who got diabetes by chance, not by fault. Yes, they may be a minority. But, for the sake of human dignity, we must allow every one of them to claim that statistical anomaly, even as we support each of them in trying to follow the path that statistics indicate could help them to lead healthier lives.

Readers? Read the full Slate post here.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jenny Ellenfritz

    I think being fat is a choice. Vote now if you agree/disagree: http://www.inqu.me/vote#!qid=being_overweight_means_having_no_discipline

  • Marie Pechet

    We encounter judgement everywhere. We assume that someone with lung cancer “deserves it” because they smoked, or that there must be something lacking in the wife whose husband left her for someone else.
    I believe that we do this, often, because we are afraid ourselves. We want to say, “Oh, I don’t smoke so therefore I won’t get lung cancer” or “I pay attention to my marriage so nothing will go wrong. We hear about exceptions but feel they are the exception rather than the rule, and breath a sigh of relief that we’ve covered that base, it won’t happen to us.
    In truth, everyone is at risk for lung cancer – all it takes is having lungs. Every relationship is at risk – we all change and grow. And, even if someone could have prevented it, we only need to look at our own behavior to see that we can improve and that we, too, are at risk.
    Unfortunately, I had that attitude until it happened to me. Now I believe that it can happen to anyone. But not everyone is in that space.
    I love that Esther Dyson can be so compassionate and active without having to actually go through all that herself. I aspire to that!

  • Reasonable?

    Our society is not go at behavior change.
    It is espcially difficult when various regulations make typical interventions (via consumers bearing behaviorial risk via premiums) essentially illegal.