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Forcing fat jokes on starvation diet no laughing matter

9/16/2015

It’s one of those moments that cements a friendship, reveals character in a longtime pal, makes you happy to be riding shotgun in his car.

My friend Matt, a Cedar Rapids native now living in Texas, pulled up to a stop sign in Florida. We looked to our left and saw an overweight woman who was slowly, but with great apparent determination, jogging down the sidewalk. Each labored step she took seemed as if it required her to summon deep forces of willpower. But she fought it.

“Good for you,” Matt said through a rolled-down window with clear admiration for the woman’s resolve. She produced a cloud-clearing smile. He surely doesn’t remember saying that. We just headed on to breakfast. Matt’s like that.

Not everybody would see a grossly overweight woman exercising near a major Florida highway and react that way. To some, her mere presence in a public space is a spectacle, fodder for easy-reach humor, finger-pointing, ha-ha-ha-ing.

I’m not into fat jokes. I’ve never found them particularly amusing, and generally (with the exception of ones lobbed at the self-styled, larger-than-life Chris Christie, whose girth is essential to his political stagecraft) think people who reel off fatty ditties are saying more about their own insecurities than anything else.

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But should fat jokes be scrubbed from the Internet?

Do I want the purveyors of big-body humor, what some term “fat shaming,” tossed from the town square?

No. I feel the most American when I hear things with which I disagree. When I’m offended, or find a comment or joke eye-rollingly wrong, I feel, well, free. Really free.

But the forces of political correctness, intent on purging any discomfort, hurt feelings or challenges to self-esteem, want fat jokes on a public starvation diet.

And for a while in the last weeks, in some high-profile places, the “body acceptance community,” as it identifies itself, pressured no less than YouTube and Google+ to pull comedian Nicole Arbour’s satirical “Dear Fat People,” a frenzied (and extraordinarily witty) video.

In the introduction to the six-minute video, Arbour acknowledges she’s about to offend people who carry around weight issues.

“What are you going to do? Chase me? … I can get away from you by walking at a reasonable pace,” she says, mocking her would-be rotund pursuers with a Frankenstein impersonation.

She slays the complaints of accessibility for fat people. “Yeah, but I couldn’t fit into a store. That’s discrimination. No, that means you’re too fat.”

Arbour’s rationale is that the zingers will motivate obese Americans to lose weight, which will lengthen lives.

“Are you going to tell the doctor they’re being mean and fat shaming you when they say you have heart disease?” she asks in the video.

Maybe you find Arbour’s commentary tasteless, vulgar, cruel — all three, perhaps. But you should be more concerned about any censoring of Arbour’s humor.

Seen big picture, the yanking of Arbour’s speech makes it easier for people with authority to chase challenges to them from the public arena under the guise of political correctness. That’s dangerous. Satirists are the special forces of democracy. They humble the powerful. Yes, and it’s unfortunate, but sometimes the vulnerable get dusted up a bit on the comedians’ way there.

Read Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”

To further religious purity, ISIS imposes strict rules on behavior and speech.

The super-softies of Seattle and San Francisco, the teacup millenials who crack at the slightest slight, the smallest of encroachments into their selective-truth, self-esteem bubbles, hardly rival ISIS. No one’s been beheaded in front of Google or Amazon.com for heresy. Yet. But the tactics of the jump-at-any-offense do-gooders are recognizable in the operations of some of the world’s extremist groups.

Today, you may be with the Great American Feel Good Everybody Army in its march against fat shamers or gay bashers or racists. But tomorrow, or the next day, or the week after that, if the censors prevail, essential discussions will be silenced, or rerouted to more obscure, less-accessible corridors of American culture. Then life here begins to look a little too much like what we purport to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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