The Modern Progressive and the Myth of Tantalus

There are some things in life that, though they may seem intuitively obvious, are apparently just too difficult for most people to grasp. It seems one of these things is the origin of social norms. A great many (arguably all) social norms arise out of factors rooted in human biology. These norms may manifest themselves differently in response to social contexts, but they still arise for definitive reasons. Because social norms do not arise without reason, it is shamelessly ridiculous to assume that one can simply declare new social norms on a whim.

Consider female attractiveness. It’s a fool’s errand to argue that cultural factors do not influence perceptions of attraction, yet it takes an even bigger fool to think that biological imperatives in no way dictate what we are generally find attractive. Everyone not in denial is well aware that cues of fertility and general health are the most significant factors underlying sexual attraction, but intellectual honesty compels us to also consider the role that status cues play in dictating attractiveness.

It is in the area of status cues that social norms really get room to work their influence. When being pale was a sign of wealth and luxury, paleness played a role in influencing attractiveness. People generally want high-status mates, and so markers of high status in society usually contribute to a person’s overall attractiveness.

Now, it has come to my attention that there is a “Fat Acceptance” movement that seeks to educate people that one can be heavily overweight or worse and still be a beautiful, attractive human being (among other things, of course, but this is the facet I wish to examine here). Given that obesity is neither a marker of health nor fertility (indeed, it generally signals the opposite of those things), the Fat Acceptance movement can only make any headway, albeit a limited headway, if it can make the case that a preponderance of adiposity is a marker of high societal status.

Is it? Not in this day and age. Wealth (a solid marker of societal status) is negatively correlated with obesity. This is but one fly in the ointment of the Fat Acceptance movement. When we also take into account the biological factors that dictate attraction also lead normal humans to seek lean and defined mates, it quickly becomes clear that the Fat Acceptance movement is a self-defeating ideology that will rail against the principles governing reality until it exhausts itself and withers away, like the apocryphal Big Bad Wolf from the classic fairy tale.

So why waste time and energy discussing the Fat Acceptance movement? What worries me isn’t its existence per se, but the implications that said existence implies. The type of people likely to support Fat Acceptance are the type of people willing to believe that social norms of beauty are arbitrarily decided upon. If those people extrapolate that type of thinking to social norms in general (and many of them do), all of a sudden you have a thede that assumes that you can take social norms for granted and alter them without consequence.

Society doesn’t work if you mess around with its norms indiscriminately, the same way a computer program malfunctions if you delete random lines of code. Changes to the societal fabric are not immune from the potential for negative consequences. This does not mean that societal norms cannot be improved and refined to the benefit of society at large, but it does mean that one faces repercussions which can be either good or bad when one attempts to change underlying societal principles.

tantalusThose who fail to grasp this implication can see an effect and assume there is no cause. This critique can be made of many of the progressives who support ideologies like Fat Acceptance. Oftentimes they would better reflect their thought processes if instead of using words like “racism”, “sexism”, or “structural inequality” to lambast the world, they would use a far older and far more meaningful term: “magic”.

Of course, just as magic failed to bring about the development of better scientific technology and material wealth, so too has progressivism failed to bring about better forms of social technology with which to drive society. Progress, it would seem, has thus not truly been made, for while the superficial trappings of societal innovation may seem to be more developed, the underlying drivers of true progress are not. Progress is thus an illusion; smoke and mirrors to hide the lack of positive change underneath.

Discussion of the Fat Acceptance movement thus  merely helps us to see the great irony that underlies the religion of progressivism: when you subscribes to its tenets, you forever doom yourself to have that which you desire to be forever out of your grasp.




7 thoughts on “The Modern Progressive and the Myth of Tantalus

  1. 1irradiatedwatson 07/02/2014 / 11:56 AM

    It may be part of the human condition that the masses understand the world as magic. I can hardly see the improvement science has brought to the average person’s ability to understand the world. Science is wonderful for scientific progress. But technology outpaced mass understanding two centuries ago. We have swapped the magic of nature for the magic of science. Except now people assume that their assertions are scientific because we are in an age of “reason”.

    • Legionnaire 07/02/2014 / 10:03 PM

      A very good point.Our age of unprecedented understanding has lead so many to understand so little. Another paradox of “progress”?

  2. nickbsteves 07/04/2014 / 12:13 PM

    I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” If fashion can be thought of, perhaps weakly, as a “social norm”, I think we have discovered that “social norms” can be invented wholly out of thin air; although certainly of a type that can only bring social harm.

    • Legionnaire 07/04/2014 / 3:20 PM

      To which I would argue that there are fads and trends which may appear random, but have a foundation in signaling games and broader cultural trends. I would also argue that “fashion” is also indicative of underlying cultural context, as well as other factors (i.e. societies in which men adopted pants instead of kilts or robes were those societies with a history of mounted warfare).

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