Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Weight of Responsibility

his recent “Point,” about childhood obesity, Mark Hyman gives us a glimpse of what the average dinner consisted of in the Hyman household:

“[W]e ate white bread, pasta, rice, baked potatoes loaded with sour cream, real cheese and real butter - lots of it -- and ground meat with 20% fat. We drank whole milk and soda loaded with sugar. No one touched the salad. We had cupcakes and ice cream for dessert.”

[Insert your own joke about dietary effects on brain development here.]

Hyman’s beef (excuse the pun) is with
Dr. Marion Nestle, a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a leading expert on nutrition. Nestle argues that the food industry’s influence has contributed to the increase in child obesity.

Nonsense, says Hyman, who sees Nestle’s argument as a copout. For Hyman, placing any responsibility with the food industry is ignoring that true blue conservative value: “individual responsibility.” He says that the problem lies with the little chubby rug rats themselves; Hyman argues that if these lazy buggers would just stop surfing the net and playing Nintendo, and go out and play the way Hyman says those of us around 40 or older did when we were kids, there wouldn’t be a problem with childhood obesity.

Let’s table for the moment the fact that Hyman erroneously claims Nestle and others like her place the blame for obesity squarely at the feet of food companies and utterly ignore individual choice. Let’s also table the fact that Hyman’s logic would suggest that those of us around 40 years old and older are not collectively expanding ourselves. In fact, adult obesity is more rampant than childhood obesity. (If you want to see how quickly we’ve become so large, take a look at
this dynamic chart of the growing prevalence of obesity over the last 20 years.)

Instead, let’s focus on that word: responsibility. Hyman and conservatives of his ilk tend to speak as if they’d cornered the market on that virtue. They sure do talk about it a lot.

But the problem comes when they tack on that word “individual,” as if it’s simply part of the concept of responsibility itself. But is it? To explore this question, let’s take a journey to our collective past, one very much similar to the one Hyman takes us on in his commentary.

When we were children, advertising agencies hadn’t spent vast fortunes to figure out exactly how to manipulate us into wanting a certain product. Coca-Cola hadn’t invaded the schools by placing vending machines in every hallway. Real wages were higher and the average number of hours worked fewer, allowing us to have real meals with our families, not warmed up processed food snarfed down in front of a television. We didn’t have high-stakes testing requiring teachers to keep us drilling and practicing, lest we not measure up on a specific assessment. As a result, we had multiple recess periods during the day to run around. Schools didn’t allow advertisers to use our classrooms as billboards or to beam in ads on “educational” TV. We studied the food pyramid. This was before
lobbyists for the meat and dairy industries pressured the government to do away with it. It was before the wholesale sell-out of Congress to food manufacturing lobbyists. Our parents actually had time to take the family on vacations where we learned to enjoy the outdoors. We had physical education all the way through high school. We didn’t have Taco Bell in our schools. Ketchup wasn’t considered a vegetable.

Today is much different. And every change from the way things were was a matter of choice, a matter of responsibility. All are effects of the setting of new and different priorities in a myriad of areas of our culture. And we, collectively, are responsible for the decisions we’ve made as a culture, and for allowing others to make decisions in our name.

So yes, let’s talk about responsibility. But don’t fall into the trap of seeing a conflict between individual responsibility and the responsibility of larger entities. That’s a false dichotomy. It’s a distinction without a difference. Any argument about whether individuals or food companies are responsible for the obesity epidemic misses the big picture: we are all responsible, not only for the decisions which affect ourselves, but for those which affect others. And we are responsible not only for the decisions we make ourselves, but for those we make in concert with others.

It’s not that Dr. Nestle and folks like her don’t want to talk about responsibility; they want to talk about it in all its forms and on multiple levels. They don’t by into the artificial idea that responsibility is only a virtue that should be practiced at a certain level and has no meaning on others.

But Hyman does. Or at least his rhetoric does. After all, to suggest that there’s anything like collective responsibility, particularly for corporations, would get in the way of the unfettered reign of the free market, that entity fills a large space not only in conservative economics, but in their moral vision as well.

And, to echo Hyman, perhaps that’s the real difference.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.31


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