With many of us rolling out of bed moaning from the food the consumed on Thanksgiving, I felt a wonderfully depressing fat story was appropriate to get us back into our guilt-ridden regimes. Maria Kang, fitness guru and mother of three, is not exactly the bedside nurse that you would want on such occasions. Kang has been banned from Facebook after she criticized an online article showing plus-size women in lingerie. While this is not a free speech issue involving the government, there is a question of whether Facebook should have taken it upon itself to punish someone for her view of obesity and what she views as an unhealthy lifestyle. More importantly, the controversy raises the issue of the expanding definition of “hate speech.”
Kang is well known for her posting of “No Excuse” messages telling people to work out and eat better. She is in that sense not unlike many fitness advocates. You may recall that Richard Simmons once drove around with a license plate that read, “YRUFAT.”
That is clearly not the message of many medical and health experts who note that people often have a genetic predisposition to weight gain and that the public perception of over-weight people is discriminatory and harmful (including pushing young people toward anorexia and other eating disorders).
However, Kang felt that the article in the Daily Mail embodied a new tolerance of being over-weight that has gone too far in the other direction. She told her followers that “I’m just saying the truth. We’ve become a politically correct society.” She added “The popular and unrelenting support received to those who are borderline obese (not just 30-40lbs overweight) frustrates me as a fitness advocate who intimately understands how poor health negatively effects a family, a community and a nation. While I think it’s important to love and accept your body, I was a little peeved because I think that we’re normalizing obesity in our society.”
As someone who struggles with weight (I’m working on it!), I must say that I am not offended by these words even if I think that she could have been more concerned over the constant drumbeat for people, particularly young girls, to be thin at all costs. However, I was quite surprised when Facebook declared the words to be “hate speech” and shutdown her account.
Facebook said that “a user” complained about the “content of her page” and it was removed by Facebook. They later restored it and called it a mistaken decision, but notably it took not only two days but the challenged post was gone.
The Daily Mail reported on Kang and the original purpose behind the pictures of the “plus sized” women.
Kang says that the site was taken down as “hate speech” by Facebook. It seems clear that Facebook does not consider such statements to be hate speech in retrospect, though I would like to know what happened to the posting deemed offensive. Notably, in San Francisco and London, activists are demanding that denigrating someone as fat should be treated as a hate crime like race, age, or faith. “Fatism” is already banned in San Franscisco in housing and workplaces. The San Francisco law even restricts doctors pressuring patients to lose weight. Now, activists are demanding the same type of protection in London. The effort is part of the Size Acceptance Movement, which probably began with the reign of Henry VIII but was more recently formed to end discrimination against the over-sized. Discriminatory businesses and people (who I presume will be called “fatists”) would be treated the same as people who engage in racist hate speech.
I have written columns on the threat of non-discrimination law and hate speech laws to free speech (here and here). We have also discussed such conflicts in blog postings. This case raises such a concern, though this is private not governmental action. Here one person found Kang’s comments to be offensive and triggered a suspension from Facebook as offensive speech. We are seeing a trend toward narrower ranges of permissible speech imposed in the name of tolerance and pluralism. For free speech advocates, it is a far more dangerous trend than prior censorship from governments.
Notably, Facebook’s definition of hate speech is quite broad and includes “attacks” on the basis for disability or disease:
Content that attacks people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease is not allowed. We do, however, allow clear attempts at humor or satire that might otherwise be considered a possible threat or attack. This includes content that many people may find to be in bad taste (ex: jokes, stand-up comedy, popular song lyrics, etc.).
The definition includes and exception for humor but not political speech. Thus a “bad joke” is protected but not an unpopular view of a scientific or societal issue. In my view, the definition invites objections to content and allows too much discretionary and ill-defined regulation of speech.
As for Kang, I doubt I would agree with her views on weight issues but I think that her voice should be heard and debated on the merits — not subject to an effort by this one reader to silence her because of a disagreement with her views. What do you think?