Why is it so hard to say things? Thoughts on Newspeak, AIDSpeak, and ObesitySpeak

I am not shy about using the saltshaker, and neither I nor anyone else in my family has any sort of problem with blood pressure. That’s because we mostly don’t eat things that come out of packages or from fast-food places (where someone else takes them out of packages) and the salt that is a problem in the North American diet doesn’t come from the saltshaker but from the extreme levels of sodium in packaged foods.

But you will never hear Michelle Obama say that.

There was a similar unutterability to everything having to do with AIDS back in the day. Even when scientists had a fairly clear understanding of the nature of the threat and how it was spread, most “official” speech tended toward a hedging: “we don’t know what causes it, we don’t want to say what’s causing it…” Even today people don’t get tested because they don’t want to know, even though getting tested obviously doesn’t give you the virus…it merely points out that it is there. It seems to point to so much more, though.

Thirty years ago, the official reticence about the virus pointed to what the culture had deemed unutterable–you can’t say that the virus is in “semen, vaginal fluid, blood, breast milk, etc.,” because these substances embarrass us, or that it is transmitted via blood transfusion (because the blood companies would be angry) that it is transmitted by sexual intercourse (because we didn’t want to admit that people have sex, especially not the gay kind) that it is transmitted via dirty drug needles (because we didn’t want to acknowledge that sort of thing either).

So officials alluded to “bodily fluids” and “intimate contact” and people began to think that they were going to get AIDS if an infected person sneezes on them or from a toilet seat or from changing the diaper of a baby with AIDS, or, ridiculously, from cleaning up trash on the street after a gay pride parade.

via wfuv.org
via wfuv.org

I think a similar dynamic with language is going on with obesity in America. Now, I am not one to get particularly exercised (haha) about fatness per se, because I don’t think that the science necessarily indicates that fatness = unhealthy, but rather that fatness is often associated with a lifestyle and diet that IS unhealthy. You can be a daily yoga practicing, praying and meditating organic real-foods enthusiast who neither takes nor needs any blood pressure meds or cholesterol meds nor has diabetes or pre-diabetes or whatever–and still be quite a large person. Fat and healthy is by no means an impossibility.

Still, I think that there is a real health crisis having to do with obesity when it is associated with inactivity and a processed-food diet, such as the case for many of the nation’s poor. I’m talking about what happens when people eat a steady diet of food that comes out of a package: sugar cereal or “breakfast bars” for breakfast, chips and sodas and white-bread sandwiches for lunch, fast food for dinner, with packaged cakes and sodas and the like all through the day.

It certainly doesn’t help that many of those packaged foods come with pictures of fruits and vegetables on the packages, or big claims of WHOLE GRAINS or VITAMINS and MINERALS, so that you think you’re getting something substantially better for you when you eat a breakfast bar than when you eat, say, a banana. It doesn’t help that one of the “victories” cited by Let’s Move is getting places like WalMart and Disney World to pledge to incrementally improve the health of their packaged foods very, very slowly and over time.

I think that there are plenty of people who really and truly don’t know what is making them unhealthy in terms of diet–I think there are plenty of people who believe the health claims that appear on the package of LUCKY CHARMS cereal (yes.) That’s why it is important to me that the government, if it’s going to be in the position of advising people on matters of public health (in my view, a good thing) speak clearly. Not ObesitySpeak. Not HealthSpeak. Facts.

Let’s Move and every other government or industry statement in terms of health perpetuates talk of the “obesity epidemic” in mysterious ways, never naming aspects of the problem clearly. CLEARLY it is a problem when you can go into Olive Garden (or the like) and for a very reasonable price consume two or three day’s worth of processed, unhealthy calories in a single meal–without even realizing it. You may have a vague idea that what you’re doing isn’t exactly good for you, but you have no clear idea of just how bad for you it probably is.

Similarly, federal, state, and city governments during the early days of AIDS seemed incapable of making a clear statement on the matter, and for similar reasons. Vague governmental nutritional advice (which never comes out and says what not to eat or to eat less) is curiously similar to the vague advice to “choose partners who appear healthy” or “limit your number of sexual partners” even as researchers and officials were aware that healthy-looking people may well transmit the virus and that it really only took coupling with one infected partner to become infected yourself. Public health officials in New York and San Francisco knew that bathhouses were a real danger; that the kind of sexual activity that they facilitated was a slow-moving retroviruses’ dream. (Because people can be infected and infectious and yet look perfectly healthy for quite some time, the virus can insinuate its way into many, many, many people very efficiently, particularly in a bathhouse-type setting, which encourages multiple partners.)

But bathhouses also made a lot of money for the people who owned them, and, understandably, from my point of view, many in the gay community thought that shutting them down was a form of discrimination, perhaps the first step toward a ‘Final Solution’–especially because ideas of what, exactly, the virus was and how, exactly, the virus was spread still seemed–to the general public, thanks to what journalist Randy Shilts called AIDSpeak (echoing Orwellian Newspeak) so foggy and indefinite.

Similarly, fast food is a huge industry. Soda is big business. If Michelle Obama says, as part of her Let’s Move campaign, that what people really need to do is stop eating processed food and start cooking, people will be all over her for:

1. Hurting big business and

2. Implying a retro vision of mama-in-the-kitchen

It’s not that I think it is all that easy for modern North American folks to start (or to go back to) cooking from scratch if they largely subsist on prepared foods, but even “healthy” varieties of prepared foods tend to have a lot of excess fat and sodium, and mostly eating simple food that cooked mostly from scratch by SOMEONE (not necessarily you) is probably one of the best for your health, with the caveat that the occasional meal at In-N-Out Burger (Full Disclosure: how I love thee!) isn’t going to kill you. But all that is too nuanced of a message for any politician (or politician’s wife) to give, and so we are left with Orwellian vagueness, encouraged to “choose” foods that are low in sodium or saturated fat but never told what those foods are, or, for that matter, to avoid any particular food whatsoever.

I think these two different but related stories testify to the tremendous power of words: that simply to name the facts in a situation–without blaming, without bias, without financial or political interest–is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and yet, so necessary.

(The book to read on the topic of food and nutrition advice is Food Politics by Marion Nestle; on the disastrous handling of AIDS as it emerged, read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts.)

As compelling as I find both these subjects–HIV/AIDS and food politics–what’s more compelling is the dynamic of unsayability implied in Newspeak, Foodspeak, and AIDSpeak.

Why do you think it is so hard to say things?

What other kinds of Newspeak do you encounter? Do you encounter it within powerful faith communities?

Reason, Compassion, and The Need for Darn Good Storytellers.

Some weeks ago the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece praising the hardened, noir heros (like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon) who were “moral realists,” who “assume[d] that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself,” apparently in contrast to young enthusiastic activists who are

“bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.”

Bead for Life artisans.

They (and this is a hypothetical ‘they’ because he’s talking in general terms here) “think they can evade politics,” “have little faith in the political process” and “believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.”

He calls this a delusion. Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy appreciates this critique, adding to it a quote from the ethicist Oliver O’Donovan:

“Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering…it is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action. […] it [requires no] independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.”

Of course it’s important to consider what means are most helpful to help. It’s true that ‘helping’ in unhelpful ways can hurt. But I feel that Brooks’ critique is insubstantial (not being rooted in an actual organization, only in imaginary groups of ‘activists’) and that we need compassion every bit as much as–or maybe even more than–reason.

not very rational.

After all we’re not the most reasonable creatures. We’re actually really unreasonable, most of us, which is why we find characters like Spock and Sherlock Holmes amusing oddities.

Here’s a specific example:

Not long ago Tim and I watched this documentary about HIV/AIDS. At one point, top virologists (folks who worked at NIH and WHO, for example) took a trip to South Africa where they spent some time on hospital wards–huge rooms full of dying people. They were already the world’s AIDS experts, but several of them pointed to that point as a turning point for them in their research: they saw people, and were resolved to help them. In the same documentary, former president Bill Clinton talked about walking along the AIDS quilt, seeing the blocks that represented a life lost to AIDS, and resolving to further efforts in the fight.

Something happens when we connect with a good story, and I fear that in denying the validity and importance of the visceral response, we deny an essential part of who God created us to be.

Why do you think organizations like Heifer International and World Vision have gift catalogs and sponsorship programs? Your $30 doesn’t really go straight into paying for some chickens or a child’s lunch program. But assigning that meaning to your money gives it a different quality. It calls out (rightly!) that quality of compassion, and the good folks at these good organizations use it as they see fit.

I don’t see that as a problem.

OK, compassion doesn’t stand alone. It isn’t the final goal.

But it’s a really good place to start.

Do we need people on the Spock end of the spectrum to see that relief and development are run effectively? Sure we do.

But just as much as we need them, we need people–good storytellers!–to help us give a darn.

knowledge/power: conspiracies & coverups in the time of cholera (& famine)

{Part Two}

So yesterday I asked whether it is better not to know about the suffering that is in this world that we might not know about or encounter in our day-to-day lives. After all, most of us have obligations and cares that rightfully consume most of our time and energy. Why read news stories, blogs, or books that tell us about terrible suffering?

For me, history is often instructive and comforting. And I think that history proves the proverb I shared yesterday–

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

–or, at the very least, shows that knowing is often an important first step–that knowing the needs of the poor is good.

Not so long ago, I watched this documentary about the Russian famine of 1921. When crops failed, and millions were facing death by starvation, Lenin (for various political reasons) refused to request/accept aid from other nations, the writer Maxim Gorky issued an appeal to the outside world in the form of newspaper advertisements, some of which caught the notice of world leaders–including one Herbert Hoover–who organized a massive relief effort that saved many, many lives.

Someone read that newspaper ad and did something about it.


And in this series of lectures I’ve been listening to, the delightful professor tells a story of conspiracy and coverup–that was perfectly true: that Naples, Italy, had an outbreak of cholera that they did not want to openly acknowledge because of the colonial and economic associations of the disease: it is a disease from the global South, and it is a disease that disproportionately affects poor people. As a result of the coverup, more people died than would have had the authorities addressed the epidemic and handled it with the knowledge and resources that were available at that time.

Had people been equipped with knowledge, lives would have been saved.

The famine I referred to yesterday–the one that took place in Malawi, the one that William Kamkwambe lived through–was yet another event in which government officials either didn’t know about or refused to acknowledge the reality of the famine until most Malawians were already on the brink of starvation. (Source here.)

Again: knowledge + timely action could have saved lives.

And so it is with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Myths and misinformation proliferates, and with it the virus that has created more than 10 million African orphans.

So knowledge is power, and power is knowledge–thus, knowing the troubles of “the least of these” has inherent value.

But of course, we are not talking merely about knowing. We’re talking about knowing that involves some kind of doing.

If we know that it would cost no more than $30 billion to give everyone in the world access to clean water, but half the people in the developing world still don’t have it, that knowing doesn’t help much.

If we know that most of us throw away more food per year than some people eat in that same year, but don’t do anything, those people still go hungry.

But if we don’t know, how can we even hope to do?

We need to know.

{Tomorrow we’ll talk about some things we can do: how we can ‘eat with joy’ in light of our global neighbors.}

World AIDS Day

I’m delighted to be attending a World Vision AIDS breakfast this morning, where I’m also meeting one of my fellow her.meneutics writers, Jennifer Grant (who is the author of this lovely adoption memoir) in person for the first time!Coincidentally, I happened to be reading Margaret Kim Peterson’s Sing Me to Heaven this week, which is a memoir of her marriage to Hyung Goo Kim, who died from AIDS just four years after they married. It is an unusual, beautifully told, and deeply redemptive story, and (occurring, as it did, in the mid-90s) it reminded me how different the face of HIV/AIDS is today. Antiretroviral drugs have changed the disease from a sentence of death to a manageable illness, for those who are able to access them.Unfortunately, for many in the developing world–especially on the continent of Africa–the ARV drugs are completely unaffordable, which is tragic in many ways, not least because ARV drugs significantly reduce the spread of the virus, especially the mother-to-child transmission. And, as Melissa Fay Greene tells so well in There is No Me Without You, HIV/AIDS in Africa has resulted–and still results–in many, many orphans.I was very young when a family friend lost his fight against AIDS in the 1980s.  I remember seeing him in the hospital lobby, clutching his IV pole and looking so tired, and then being told a short time later that he’d died.

Probably you have your own memories from those (relatively) early days of the virus. ARVs have made it easy to forget what AIDS once meant.

But let’s not forget what it still means for millions.

Visit World Vision’s HIV/AIDS resources here. There’s lots of information to explore, free downloadable resources, and opportunities to give toward their HIV/AIDS efforts.