No Fun Allowed 2: A Puritan Triptych

I have hesitated a week before publishing this post because I have serious reservations about whether or not I am right. I do not like to speculate on the motives of others, but sometimes the question has to be asked.

Last time I was wondering out loud whether some of our public moral causes were really just discreet forms of class warfare. For example, beautiful and influential people like to whip up “outrage” over things like smoking, but poor people suffer more from the resulting cigarette taxes.

You can argue that things like obesity, substance abuse, or teenage pregnancy are habits that poor people have a harder time shaking than rich people, so it is a sad inevitability that our cultural shaming should fall more on them. You can say that these are part of the vicious cycle of poverty that we want to break, and we are even helping the poor by shaming these behaviors. Poor people are victimized by tobacco companies and McDonald’s. By shaming the smoking and fatty foods, we are saving them from exploitation!

I am sure there is some truth to what you are saying. But I wonder if your motives are mixed.

About ten years ago I was sitting on the steps outside of the Science Museum in Boston. I had recently entered the seminary (I never made it to ordination, thank God) and was trying hard to be a good and proper seminarian: dressing nice, shaving daily, and quitting both smoking and swearing. I was wistfully watching two young men my age smoking cigarettes a few steps down from me when I heard from behind a high pitched “cough-cough” sound. I turned and saw a young boy pretending to cough to show his disapproval of smoking in public. The boy’s mother beamed a smile down at her cute little Pharisee and he smiled proudly back at her.

The class distinction between the pairs was glaring: the young men were obviously working class; the mother and son obviously wealthy. You could read it in their clothes, skin tones, accents and manners. You also could read it in the moral disapproval and smug superiority of mother and son (so very Puritan and Massachusetts! So painfully Cambridge!). Fortunately, being a seminarian and a representative of the Church (and not wanting to get arrested and sued) I fought down the urge to walk over and slap the little shit upside his head. Sadly, I also fought the urge to walk over to the smokers and bum a cigarette off them in full view of the mother and son, Roman collar and all. After all, I had to “behave myself”.

I get some of the same vibes from current crusade against childhood obesity. On TV it is always skinny people taking advantage of… uh… I mean, reaching out and helping (yeah, that’s it!) fat children making them do exercise in front of millions of people (nothing humiliating about that) as they charge sponsors for advertisements (exploitation? what’s that?).

It is always the rich and powerful people in government telling poor fat people that they do not know how to run their own lives, that as the parents of fat children they are bad parents, and that skinny people are superior people.The only solution is to give the rich, powerful and superior people in government even more money, power, and superiority. How convenient!

Well, skinny people are superior to fat people in one thing: the appearance of physical health. That’s it. And there is more to life than health, and there is more to health than looking skinny. (Oh, and the fact that in America we associate fat with poor, and there is nothing worse than being poor!)

As a nation we like to throw conniption fits over teenage girls getting pregnant. Some buttoned down conservative types will recommend more education in the virtue of chastity (NO FUN ALLOWED!). Others will insist on more access to contraceptives and abortion (because you can never have too much). But why do both sides treat teenage pregnancy like it was the end of the world, the greatest of all evils, the worst thing ever? Because statistically, teenage mothers are poor, and poverty is what we as a nation are really terrified of.

Back in the day, girls were under a major social pressure not to get pregnant, to be prudent and put off sex until she found a decent guy who would be able to take care of a family. Some girls followed through, some didn’t. Cheap contraceptives changed that mentality, but among the upper classes the fear of pregnancy is still strong. (Ironically, teenage pregnancy actually rose with the advent of contraceptives, because the sex-now mentality caused by contraceptives is wider than the actual use of them.) If a rich or middle class girl does get pregnant, she has the “choice” of abortion, but that choice is really a compulsion; she is under major social pressure (and personal pressure from her father and boyfriend) to terminate the pregnancy whether she wants to or not, for fear that she end up like one of them, like some black or Hispanic welfare queen, and there is nothing worse than that! She has sinned, not against Jesus, but against Money and Class, gods who never forgive.

Maybe the girl would have made a good mother. With a supportive family, she and her baby probably would have turned out just fine despite the rocky start. But Puritanism and Phariseeism usually win out over things like love and family support.

Karl Marx would instantly identify these moral crusades as nothing more than underhanded ways for the rich to control the poor. Marx of course takes his ideology too far by making it the interpretive principle of all human realities. But I think Marx was right about class creating consciousness: what social classes tend to think is right and proper are usually just the things that give them some kind of social benefit.

Smoking damages your health, and so may obesity. Having a baby when you are young and unwed will complicate your life. But since the shrill moral crusades and intense social pressures we create are totally out of proportion to these things, is it reasonable to suspect a hidden motive?


  1. “But since the shrill moral crusades and intense social pressures we create are totally out of proportion to these things, is it reasonable to suspect a hidden motive?”
    Perhaps. But the hidden motive is about bringing down costs to the state – healthcare problems and therefore associated costs for obese people are huge, and young women who get pregnant and become mothers before they have finished their education or had the opportunity to join the workforce are more likely to end up on state benefits or low paying jobs.

    However, if you think that leaving people to rot in a state of ignorance is preferable, with the serious health problems and generally lower quality of life that obesity brings, because it’s patronising to give people education and choices about health and nutrition (just save that for rich people), then I would question how much you value education and access to information for the general population, or indeed a responsible approach to consumption.

    “Maybe the girl would have made a good mother. With a supportive family, she and her baby probably would have turned out just fine despite the rocky start.” Maybe. And maybe she didn’t have a supportive family. Maybe if the girl had had the opportunity to finish her education she wouldn’t resent the child who didn’t ask to be born. Maybe if the girl had received decent sex education and access to contraception she wouldn’t have found herself in that position. The world is full of maybes – but you have no need to turn any of the speculation into a ‘probably’.

    1. Are you from the United States? Have you witnessed the way (some) people here go into hysterics over smoking and teenage pregnancy? Or the maudlin sentimentality combined with subtle bullying over obesity? Trust me, it is not over costs to the state. Our welfare system is small relative to our 19 trillion debt. These manifestations of puritanism are ways to hate on poor people while feeling like you are morally superior.
      And I’m all in favor of education, so long as it does not consist of bullying, fear-mongering, demonizing and emotional exploitation.
      My “probably” was derived from the condition of a supportive family, and I think that is a reasonable one. The point isn’t about what the best legal or social structure should be in place for girls in such a situation, but to point out that the blanket histrionics about the evils of teenage pregnancy are silly.

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