The Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice

Over my lunch hour I spotted an article in the Guardian written by Kevin Smith about the furore that erupted when he was chucked off a plane for being “too fat”. In this article, I came across the following phrase:

I learned first-hand that fat people are the recipients of the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice. Racism and sexism will get you ostracised in more enlightened communities, but you can mock fat people all you want.

I realised I’ve heard the phrase “The Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice” a lot, in various different forms, about lots of different things. So out of sheer curiosity I googled the phrase to see what other injustices were being heralded as the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice.

One of the first hits was a comment on a blog about weight, raising the same issue as Kevin Smith:

What about prejudice against fat people – have you experienced it? Do you agree that it’s the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice? Do we blame the victim, and if we do, is it a fair criticism? Can we do better than “eat less, move more”?

The interesting thing I noticed here was the date – Summer 2007 – over 5 years earlier than the Kevin Smith article. So, does that mean that fat people have rightfully held the top spot on the scale of Socially Acceptable Prejudices for more than half a decade?

James Farrell, writing in Irish Central would appear to disagree. In 2010, 3 years later, he reports that American Catholics believe the coveted position of Victims of the Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice is theirs, and theirs alone.

Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice it seems to me in America.

So is Kevin Smith a bit out of touch then? Maybe 5 years ago vilifying someone because of their weight was socially acceptable, but that’s no longer the case?

Except that chronologically speaking, if the America Catholics are right in being the Victims of the Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice, that means that back in June 2007 , fat people were only the Victims of the Penultimate Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice. And let’s face it, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But wait! As time has moved on, someone commenting on the @U2 Forum wants in on this:

If kids are being punished for using the N word in schools, why is the homophobic language allowed?
Because it’s the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice.

So if being persecuted because you are gay is the LRSAP, that pushes Catholics and Fat people down to silver and bronze position respectively.

Hold your horses! Not according to this Editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

Health professionals too often think and behave negatively toward addicts and addiction. In this, we share the attitudes of our society, in which substance abuse is one of the last remaining socially acceptable targets for public discrimination.

So now we know that contrary to what Kevin Smith says, Prejudice against fat people is so far off being the LAST remaining socially acceptable prejudice it wouldn’t even place on a medals table.

Here’s one more that’s bang up to date:

The last remaining socially acceptable prejudice. You can’t discriminate against someone for their sex, age, religion, nationality, skin colour, sexuality, politics, marital status, parentage or social class but it is apparently still all fine and dandy to take the piss out of gingers.

– Comment in description of t-shirt bearing the slogan “Shut it! Or I’ll beat you like a ginger step child” Sold by Meanfellas.com (In “Offensive T-Shirts” section.)

So, according to these upstanding citizens, the Fat People, American Catholics, Gays and Drug Addicts can all breathe a sigh of relief that any Prejudice they encounter is in fact NOT Socially Acceptable. You could argue until the cows came home about the order in which the social ills crossed the collective line of the criteria by which you aren’t allowed to pre-judge a person. But what really matters is that as of right now there is only ONE GROUP left to whom it is still socially acceptable to be horrible. It must be true because the people who run a website selling clothing bearing slogans says so.

So, what are the chances that we could get a consensus between these groups of which of them is actually, objectively speaking, as a matter of fact rather than opinion, the Victims of the LRSAP?

Supposedly, each of these groups is asserting that any prejudice they encounter because of their weight/religion/sexual orientation/drug addiction/hair colour has still got the Seal of Approval from Society. I would imagine they feel that way because the behaviour of Society has led them to believe that Society deems what was said or done to be ‘socially acceptable.’

Someone gets thrown off a plane because the airline staff said they were too fat, and no one around them seems to be morally outraged? I guess that’s because it’s Socially Acceptable. Someone is vilified because of their religious belief, or they face a daily barrage of homophobic slurs, or they are denied health care because the prevalent view is that they did it to themselves, or someone is bullied for having red hair, and no one around them does anything about it? No-one speaks out on their behalf, or confronts the source of the offence, or intervenes in any way? I can see how this would lead someone to conclude that no one actually thinks that This Behaviour Is Not Ok.

So far, I’m happy for these groups to assert that the prejudice they encounter is still Socially Acceptable. But what exactly makes them go one step further, and proclaim that face the Last Remaining SAP? Is it because they are utterly blind to each others’ plight? Do the gingers of the world genuinely think that no one believes it’s still ok to call someone fat? Do all fat people hold that drug addicts have nothing to fear from those who believe that addicts bring their problems on themselves and therefore aren’t entitled to healthcare? Do drug addicts believe that any time a gay person gets attacked because of their sexuality someone will leap to their defence because no one lets that slide any more?

And how might you feel if you are an overweight, gay, drug addicted, ginger haired American Catholic? There’s no question that you are going to face some pretty unpleasant behaviour from the rest of the human race? But for which of these qualities will you feel that you have no one who will fight your corner?

The idea that there is only one prejudice that is socially acceptable seems ridiculous. In certain circumstances, people will consistently disappoint. Society accepts (by which I mean allows to happen and/or fails to challenge) all manner of despicable prejudices which are demonstrated through actions and inactions constantly.

Of course there are people who are sometimes prepared to stick their neck out for someone else, and on occasions will face down prejudices where they encounter them. But for a lot of the time, humans as a breed will do no such thing – either blinded by their own prejudices, paralysed by fear of retribution, or otherwise rendered inactive by their own apathy.

A lot of the time people aren’t very nice, especially when an opportunity comes along to either actively make someone else’s life worse because you don’t like, or don’t agree with something about them. Or when you witness someone being victimised and don’t do anything about it. I’m fairly confident in asserting that most people are guilty of one or other of these – and probably both.

So what’s my point?

I’m generally misanthropic, and I spend a fair amount of time thinking people are basically stupid, mean, cowardly, selfish and jealous. So that isn’t my point.

Quite a lot of people disagree with my assessment of human nature and like to focus on the positives. That’s fine – good luck to them. That’s not my point either.

My point is this: why is each of these groups suggesting, at least rhetorically, that Society as a whole is wise, generous, brave, just, and kind-hearted, except when it comes to the particular characteristic for which they are attacked?

If they actually believed that position – that Society as a whole condemns all other forms of prejudice – then I can see the logic in demanding that the last socially acceptable prejudice also becomes socially unacceptable.

I find it hard to believe that they do actually hold that position to be true. So would they be better off joining forces and ‘embracing’ my misanthropic world view? Are we likely to see more social change if we accept the enormity of what still needs to be done? Or is it more advantageous to kid ourselves that we are nearly there?