Why making fun of Rob Ford’s weight isn’t cool | #TOpoli

If you don’t mind the idea of a straight white guy talking about marginalizing people and then enhancing it with trite “analysis,” that is.
It was one of those late-night beer-enhanced conversations that seemed like a deep intellectual exercise: is it OK to target Rob Ford for his girth? At the time, I thought, it wasn’t as clearcut as it sounds.
In truth, analyzing Rob Ford’s appeal is something I approach with mixed feelings. Thousands of trees and trillions of electrons have died in that pursuit; whether that’s been in vain is a judgment I leave to others, and to history. Either way, though, it’s not something you can seriously address without bringing in questions of education, of class, of income, and of authenticity. You need to talk about emotion versus reason, and the downtown/suburban divide, regardless of whether you believe it’s a valid construction or not. You also need to consider how messages are transmitted, through which channels, how they’re framed, and how they’re received; in short, the context seems too complex to permit reducing the question to a simple yes or no.
Not everyone follows the news with the same level of detail. Not everyone reads the same story. Not everyone reads the same newspapers or watches the same newscasts or checks the same web sites or listens to the same radio station. And even those who do read the same stories don’t necessarily read them the same way or get the same message from them. It’s in light of those considerations that we need to think about Rob Ford’s message, how it’s conveyed, and how it’s received.
So why would his weight be relevant? Again, the answer depends on the context and what you’re trying to achieve; political analysis might suggest one train of thought, whereas satire and/or standup comedy might direct the conversation in another direction. It’s with the first track that I’m concerned here.
For as long as I’ve watched Rob Ford, he’s made a big deal out of “standing up for the taxpayer.” It’s why the Sun loves him; it dovetails with their own posturing about being the voice of the little guy, the ordinary hard-working lunch-bucket types fetishized by former hockey coaches who make megabucks spouting off during hockey-game intermissions. Rob Ford’s whole political currency is based on that supposed ordinary, regular, working-class street cred.
There’s an argument to be made that his size is a big part of that because, regardless of aesthetic considerations, it gives him authenticity. It’s tied into his I’m-not-a-politician-like-all-the-others, what you see is what you get, plain-speaking, genuine, from-the-heart shtick. And that whole I-say-what-I-think, I’m-not-politically-correct, I’m-not-filtered-through-handlers, hard-scrabble, self-made-man image is what he uses to reach out to working-class voters. It’s the basis for a connection based on emotion rather than reason. It taps into resentment of those snooty condescending downtown elites. It’s not hard to imagine the message: “I’m not perfect. Sometimes I open my mouth without thinking, or drink too much, or flip the bird at people in traffic. And yeah, I’ve got a big gut, and they look down their fucking noses at me for it. I’m just like you!
As we all know by now, however, that’s not entirely accurate. The Ford boys come from money. The whole regular-guy shtick is manufactured. It’s an artificial narrative, created and cultivated for political purposes, and it’s a load of crap. Rob Ford and Doug Ford have about as much in common with ordinary regular working-class folk as Louis XVI. They ignore the rules, they bully and browbeat city staff and other councillors, they meet behind closed doors with deep-pocketed developers, they waste money on expensive and futile consultants’ reports, they dismiss public sentiment, and they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it jumped up and smacked them in the forehead. In light of that, does the fat thing become fair game when it’s so obviously part of that whole contrivance?
There are some who will argue that it’s never OK to make fun of someone’s appearance. It’s an easy position to defend, because it doesn’t need any nuance or shading, and for that reason I was initially a little reluctant; I’m usually suspicious of anything that’s framed in such black-and-white terms. But if you’re going to argue the other way, you need to be able to tie the weight to the artificial narrative as explicitly as possible, and frame your argument, as I’ve suggested above, in the context of class, reason versus emotion, and the downtown / suburban dynamic.
That’s the way I started, at least. But as I’ve been reminded this week, I see things from a relatively privileged viewpoint, so I asked around for a few other perspectives.
The most compelling, for me, was the question of language, perhaps because it’s tied to one of my favourite hobbyhorses: the meaning and power of words, and the quality of public discourse.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose Rob Ford. His appeal to ignorance and shallow thinking, his apparent immaturity and vindictiveness, his divisive and destructive agenda, his threat to our quality of life, his obvious disdain for the city, for culture, for expertise, for people who don’t look and think like him, for complexity itself. All of these are valid grounds for criticism, and they have nothing to do with his weight. Bringing his girth into it detracts from the message; it risks making the discussion about that, and about whether it’s kosher to even discuss his waistline in the first place, rather than about policy or the kind of city we want.
As someone suggested, it’s got parallels in discussions of gender and sexuality. If you don’t like a female politician, one of the worst things you can do is call her a bitch; if you don’t like a gay politician, one of the worst things you can do is call him a faggot or some other derogatory sexualized term. Instantly, the conversation becomes about that, rather than about policy or values or the substance of whatever you’re trying to discuss. Worse, it drags the whole conversation out of the realm of reason and into emotionally volatile terrain where people and ideas are much more susceptible to manipulation and misdirection.
There’s more, however, and it has to do with power and with inclusion. Making fun of Rob Ford for being fat suggests that it’s OK to make fun of anyone else for being fat, and that’s just not somewhere I want to go. Never mind the societal expectations around body image and the collateral damage they do in terms of eating disorders, emotional impact, and self-esteem.
And I don’t even want to try listing the marginalized and disempowered groups that have been targeted, historically; first by exclusion, then by mean-spirited “humour,” then by bullying, and then by … well, you see where I’m going.
I’m not suggesting that we need to engage in pre-emptive self-censorship for fear of offending people. It’s almost a given these days that regardless of the issue or your viewpoint, you’re going to risk offending someone. But there’s a big difference between being willing to address complex issues and being recklessly hurtful. Why alienate people needlessly?
It’s in light of that that I’m coming down on the “it’s not OK” side. Words have power, including the power to hurt. Straight white guys like me can stand to be reminded of that now and then.
Update: Thanks to Emma Woolley for this.
Upperdate: Daren responds.
Upperdupperdate: From John Lorinc. Can’t believe I missed this.
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