As any well written drama should, the second offering from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has been playing on my mind every single day since broadcast. Most specifically in its representations of the overweight.
15 Million Merits tells of a world world driven by a cycling populous who are in turn driven to distraction by a constant stream of television. It’s on their bikes, it’s in their mirrors, and it’s all four walls of their tiny bedrooms. Those too tired or unfit to cycle are forced into menial cleaning jobs, or into physically abusive game shows. “Game shows” is a broad and light term for situations that see them knocked down with high pressure hoses, force fed food, and derided any time they injure themselves.
Speaking as a former card-carrying member of obese Britain, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see overweight people treated in such a way, nor was I enthused by the viewer responses (acted fantastically by Paul Popplewell, who is very good at making people loathe his face) and how they reminded me of the Coliseum Romans baying for the blood of Christians, or that youtube video from a few years back of someone pissing on a homeless person.
We all hate that which we don’t want to be, it’s an inescapable mental response. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgressions, Peter Stallybrass wrote of the historical abuse of the destitute and the mentally handicapped, and how those sections of society most loathed by a populous represent the facets that populous most loathe about themselves. We go great distances to separate ourselves from them, adding fictional and sometimes laughable characteristics and traits born in speculation and lies. It’s how folk devils are born.
Thinking like that, it isn’t such a surprise that a society existing solely thanks to the physically fit would abuse the less athletic amongst them. If we naturally hate what we don’t want to be, then teaching us what to hate teaches us who to be and who not to be. Making the overweight into targets of hate and ridicule in external media serves to reinforce internal feelings that this is not a desirable situation, that this is not where you want to end up, so keep pedalling, keep eating right, and keep society running.
It’s not a new idea. In George Orwell’s 1984, citizens go through a daily Two Minutes Hate where they hurl abuse and bestial howls at representations of whatever nation-state the Party is at odds with that week. This manufactured hatred drives the populace forward in their work and fires a reactionary pride and conviction in their own country’s righteousness.
Beyond my initial upset at abuses I could have easily suffered myself, my main rising concern is more the ease with which people can be taught to hate. My generation had it ingrained to us at almost every level of schooling that the Nazis were bad people, and Adolf Hitler became as much of a knee jerk response for “villain” and “evil” as Emperor Palpatine or Biff Tannen.
We hated the Nazis not because of who they were, but because of the unspeakable things they did and how we could never imagine anyone with what were regarded as proper values doing the same.History keeps moving on and schools have plenty more unspeakable things to teach, events such as 9/11 which while over a decade old still have much more direct cultural relevance than the events of the 1940s, and provide a much more fertile breeding ground for hate. A crumbling economy teaches us to hate benefits cheats, the rich and the lazy, while health scare after health scare has us loathing and avoiding the sick and the weak. The roving eye of hate moves on, blinks, and moves on again.
Fuck me. Something much more cheerful coming at the weekend, I promise.