News Brief: The Casual Soft Eugenics of Self-Help “Friendscaping” Content
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated. We are 100 percent listener funded so your support goes such a long way. And on today’s News Brief, Adam, it’s been a long, hard year, and sometimes we read in the media that it’s about time to drop some of your loser friends.
Adam: Yeah, so a couple weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article which had been one of a previous article, written by the same person. There have been several other similar articles telling us that we need to quote-unquote, “friendscape:” reject our friends who are bad for us. Now in principle, this can be perfectly good, right? If someone’s abusive or toxic, and maybe the pandemic is an excuse to reset your friends, to say like, maybe this thing is not something that’s worth keeping now that I’ve gone a year without having social connections. However, there is a cottage industry of “friendscaping” articles for whom that is not the criteria, the criteria is, ‘Are these people depressed substance abusers or overweight, at which point they need to be summarily removed.’
Adam: And this was not an obscure clickbait website, this was the holiest of the holiest, The New York Times, so we thought it would be worth breaking it down and why it’s not good.
Nima: Later on this News Brief, we’re going to be joined by Beatrice Adler-Bolton, host of The Death Panel podcast and co-author of the forthcoming book Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto, which will be published by Verso Books in 2022.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Stigma doesn’t just come out of thin air. These traits like, I’m disabled, being disabled is not an inherently bad thing, but through social processes, through media, through framings we take this idea of what a thing is that often has very little relationship to the actual embodied experience, we say it’s bad and then we reproduce that idea over and over until it becomes reality.
Adam: So there have been a torrent of articles over the past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic talking about eliminating friends or sort of regrouping one’s friend group. I guess it’s sort of middle-brow schlock, it traffics well. The Washington Post had an article by Lisa Bonos, “The pandemic is showing us which friendships are worth keeping.” Georgina Fuller in The Guardian, “I have culled my friends to just the ones I value.” And setting those aside, I don’t want to lump those in necessarily with Kate Murphy, those were not as bad as this one, but the one on June the first in The New York Times by Kate Murphy entitled, “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape.’ Re-entry offers an opportunity to choose which relationships we wish to resurrect and which are better left dormant.” Again, this article has been written 50 times already, but she used a criteria that was, the grad school kids call it “problematic,” and we wanted to dissect why it was problematic and why it was bad, but to be clear, we are going to touch on the issue of fatphobia in this News Brief quite a bit — we are actually doing a much fuller episode on that later — but this is sort of a bit of a teaser because it’s timely and we thought this article was uniquely outrageous and worthy of comment, and specifically, we wanted to bring on a guest to talk about it who’s written about it elsewhere and so, Nima, without further ado, perhaps we should talk about what the article actually said and why it has led to such outrage from not just us, but from thousands of people.
Nima: Yeah, indeed, I think you know, it’s important to not present something as quote-unquote “problematic” without just fucking quoting it and that’s what we’re happy to do. So here’s the key part from Kate Murphy’s New York Times published article from June 1, “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape.’” In it, she writes this, quote:
It requires daily or weekly attention to maintain foreground friends, so there are necessarily a limited number of slots (four to six, maximum). Some of those may be filled by your romantic partner, parent, sibling or child. Because they are front and center, foreground friends are the ones who have the most profound impact on your health and well-being, for good or ill.
Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true. You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people. That is not to say that you should abandon friends when they are having a hard time, but it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with, whether on or offline, because your friends’ prevailing moods, values and behaviors are likely to become your own.
Adam: Oh, man, if I audited who I spend time with online that would not be good. You heard me, you degenerates. Yeah, no, this is horrible in about 10 different ways, which we’ll get into greater detail with our guest, but just as a sort of broad recap here we have basically, not basically, she’s actually quite explicitly saying, if you’re around depressed people, you’ll be depressed, if you’re around obese people you’re more likely to be obese, so reject those people. There’s some weird qualifier about how you shouldn’t abandon friends in need or they’re having a hard time, the implication being that these people are all in a hard time, but then she says, but do it anyway. More perniciously, and perhaps maybe overlooked here, is that these features of drinking in excess, being obese and being depressed are contrasted with, explicitly contrasted with the inverse, which is studious, kind and enterprising, the implication being is that those who are obese, depressed or have substance issues cannot by definition, be studious, kind or enterprising.
Nima: They are lazy and they are cruel, and they are dull.
Adam: Using physical issues or whatever they are as a proxy for morality.
Nima: Physical and mental health is set up alongside these traits of productivity and success metrics. We should also point out, Adam, that in the time it took us to record the interview —
Adam: Yes, after we recorded the interview.
Nima: Before we recorded what you are listening to right now, The New York Times updated the article to expunge the offending section and so it no longer says the thing about purging your obese and depressed friends.
Adam: So we’ll read from an editor’s note, June 7, 2021, quote:
This article has been updated to remove references to studies that examined issues related to friendships and obesity, depression and tobacco and alcohol use. The article’s references to the studies lacked sufficient context and attribution and did not adequately convey their relevance to the issues discussed in the article.
So this really cruel and inhumane, vaguely eugenic thing we threw in there, we took it out. Sorry.
Nima: Sorry. Anyway, everyone’s already read it because we waited six days to update it.
Adam: Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? So anyway, yeah, again, I think there was a lot of people upset who fall into the categories of depressed or so-called obese or so-called alcohol and tobacco abuse. So internet outrage works sometimes.
Nima: It’s true. Eventually you’ll get a correction in an article that everyone’s already read.
Adam: After 99 percent of people have already read it, yeah.
Nima: So to discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Beatrice Adler-Bolton, host of The Death Panel podcast and co-author of the forthcoming book Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto, which will be published next year by Verso Books. Beatrice will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Beatrice Adler-Bolton. Beatrice, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Thanks so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure.
Adam: All right. So we’re excited, slash not excited because it’s depressing, but hopefully not too depressing.
Nima: Not so depressing that we have to stop talking about this forever and break up with ourselves.
Adam: Our whole show is depressing. So it’s on brand, right. So The New York Times’ Kate Murphy wrote an article sort of vaguely pop science article in The New York Times on June 1, that caused a bit of a stir on the internet. We argue, of course, for pretty good reason, where she advocates for friendscaping, what is pretty clearly fat and depressed people, we read the relevant section at the top of the show, and people as well who have presumably substance abuse issues. So I want to sort of begin by talking about the underlying science of such claims, she did hyperlink to some studies. The New York Times is not alone, Science magazine, Nature.com, Psychology Today, Washington Post, a bunch of outlets have kind of floated this idea that obesity, depression are contagious and they argue that certain social groups, you sort of begin to conform to their behavior and that as a way of kind of self care you need to cut these people out of your life, either implicitly or explicitly. What made The New York Times article, I think, so vulgar, and created such outrage, obviously, uniquely, for people who have substance abuse issues, depression, or who are called conventionally, quote-unquote “obese,” was that it was effectively a way of saying you need to dump the fatties and the saddies, and this is all sort of wrapped in science and sciencism, which, of course, is your field of expertise. So I want to sort of begin to talk about what is the underlying science behind it for someone who’s listening to this and says, ‘Well, the science is the science, you know, two plus two equals four and that’s just the way it is.’ What is the science behind it? Is it valid and does it sort of do what I think a lot of scientism does — this is an extremely leading question — does it sort of abstract out on a macro level that we’re just sort of a micro self-helpism? I want to talk about these studies, because they sort of seem like cover for what is, PC cover for what is basically like middle school don’t be friends with people who don’t meet the conventional standard of cool.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, I mean, as you’re saying, it’s basically taking these traits that are stigmatized and framing them as this potential social contagion and a lot of the science behind it, it’s not like this is a new idea. There’s actually even a basically identical piece from 2009 that was in The New York Times magazine called “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?” And the first expert that’s mentioned in this article, who is a guy named Nicholas Christakis, is actually the person that this whole article from 2009 is about. So a lot of these studies that are referenced when people forward these ideas are either in the realm of sociology or maybe biostatistics or psychology and it’s usually a combination of some sort of friend group level study about social relations, mixed into a more epidemiological analysis of population health, and I think the thing that’s always really important to remember is that no science is ever neutral, data is what you make of it, and a lot of these studies are either relying on very small cohorts of people or it’s really just kind of people extrapolating conclusions based on data that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything. I think one of the best examples is the study that started in 1984, which was the Framingham Heart Study, which is what Christakis’ whole like deal, all of his work comes from the study, and basically what that did is it just followed a group of people throughout their life and tried to see who was successful, who wasn’t, and there’s this sort of famous story about one friend that fell out of touch with the group, gained a lot of weight and everybody else was healthy and it’s sort of this idea of like somebody who has these traits that are stigmatized or considered to be negative, they’re not welcome in the community and sort of a lot of the science talks about who are we supposed to remove from society?
Nima: Yeah, there’s this real creepy Darwinism part to this.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, I mean, it’s social Darwinism.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. Like this whole ‘They don’t conform, get them out of your friend group,’ because sometimes we hear the term toxic elements, ‘Get them out of your life for your own wellbeing.’
Adam: I think a lot of people would say, ‘Well, yeah, if someone’s abusive or exploitative or walks off over you,’ or some has some sort of bad trait and you sort of hold on to them because of some misplaced loyalty, we can all agree that getting rid of that’s fine and so you read the headline, it seems plausible, but then you read the criteria —
Nima: Well, right. It’s who is deemed to be a shitty friend, it has nothing to do with how people are treating you.
Nima: It’s like who they are.
Adam: It’s who they are existentially or things they can’t control and that’s where you sort of veer into, I think it’s fair to say, the quasi-21st-century, PC eugenics, which they all have science five times in their bio on Twitter, right? Evolutionary biologists, science, science-driven, science-minded, science. Well, okay, man, you seem like you’re clearly covering for something here, which is, you know, sort of pat, self-help, vaguely fascist kind of 101 stuff, right?
Nima: Well, I think that’s the thing. So, how, Beatrice, does this sciencism writing, as Adam has talked about, this kind of pop-psychology, how does it go from just a shitty article in The Times that gets dunked on on Twitter or whatever, we can talk about it on, you know, podcasts, but what is the real danger here? How can this kind of perspective, especially published where it is, discussed the way it is, making it kind of justified for people to act this way, what is the real harm? What is the real danger that this rhetoric poses?
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Well, I think most importantly, one of the really key frames of this article is that it not only is saying that you need to dump friends that have certain traits, it’s also saying that these traits, which aren’t inherently bad traits, like, quote-unquote, “obesity” or “depression,” that these are bad things, and it’s actually like a little too nice to say that it’s quasi-eugenics because you can actually trace the root of this intellectual genealogy, I guess, you know, there’s intellectual heredity that actually goes all the way back to eugenics to the ’40s, this is not a new idea. It pops up again, and again, and again and again, in pop psychology and sociology, and it’s really tied into the way that we produce stigma in society. So, so much of stigma and the things that we think about people that are negative, let’s say, a very common thing that these kind of studies are looking for is, is the cohort going to become disabled? Or they’re going to become quote-unquote “obese?” Are they going to be poor? Or are they going to be dependent on the state? And really, there’s very little difference between the ideology over the years but what you see is it just gets a little more covert, it gets a little bit more dressed-up, but science and the veneer of science has always been used as a way to legitimate eugenics. Eugenics is kind of a way of justifying prejudice with science and what happens is that not only are the individuals who read this piece who those characteristics that are being described and framed to The New York Times, to a global audience as negative bad things that are so terrible that it should warrant your friends to, you know, leave you or whatever.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right. Friendscaping, it’s just friendscaping, such a gentle way of doing it, it’s very humane.
Nima: Well, right, because it’s like prettying up your own space, culling the bad so that yours is nice, and pretty and neat, and refined.
Adam: Because even the analogy is bourgeois, right? It’s your front lawn, it’s the thing that you sort of manage.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, and I mean, it’s very Homeowners Association, you know, and, but not only does it make that individual feel bad, it’s important to look at what it does on this broader level, which is that stigma doesn’t just come out of thin air, these traits, I’m disabled, being disabled is not an inherently bad thing, but through social processes, through media through framings this is the stuff you guys talk about all the time, basically, social reproduction, we take this idea of what a thing is that often has very little relationship to the actual embodied experience, we say it’s bad, and then we reproduce that idea over and over until it becomes reality, and so if you go back to the very beginning of disability studies literature and you have sociology and you have all these ideas going around about stigma, particularly coming from Erving Goffman and people like that, what you’re really doing in real time is creating what’s called a spoiled identity, you know, it’s the idea that this person is somehow inherently flawed, and not in a positive eugenics way that they’re fixable, that there’s a maybe training program that could teach them how to be a good citizen.
Nima: Which is still gross, but —
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right, exactly. It’s still eugenics.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: But no, this is the idea that they’re sort of biologically pre-determined to be this spoiled identity. But that’s not reality, that’s something that we’ve decided, that’s a decision that we’ve made as a society.
Adam: Yeah, it’s sort of aggressively anti-humanist. It’s not even anti-left necessarily, it’s anti-liberal. It violates a sort of basic tenet of a lot of religions, sort of the sort of innate humanity of people is valuable. I want to talk about the stakes, because you mentioned how people read this, and you have this sort of cultural and social reproduction, right? Because I think this is one of the things that a lot of maybe passive listeners or media critics will say, ‘Okay, well, who really gives a shit?’ What are the stakes? — is sort of the most essential question we try to establish in the show, because these things, as you mentioned, don’t exist in a vacuum. So I want to talk about some comments I got. I got several comments on social media, that people who had depression or who were diagnosed with depression or self diagnosed with depression, that one of the fears that people have who do, again, who identify as people with depression, is that they make their friends depressed, and that this is something that they have a lot of guilt from, the sense of that they bring other people down, and that this is a primary reason why they withdraw from society, which is one of the worst things you can do for many people, and that this article that says quite explicitly, you know, we’ll read from it again, we read for the top of the show, but I want to emphasize here, quote:
Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true. You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people.
Obviously, studious, kind and enterprising are contrasted with the other features, which we also talked about.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, I love that those are the opposite.
Nima: And directly because it says “reverse.”
Adam: And then she says, “…it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with.” So, if I have depression, right, and I read this, it’s very dehumanizing language, and it has real consequences. I want you to talk about the human stakes, what are those consequences and what can this kind of rhetoric, how can this breadboard be harmful? Because again, this is The New York Times, right? This isn’t Fox News or Newsmax, this is a supposedly enlightened liberal publication.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right. I mean, enlightened liberal publications are often the worst, when it comes to this stuff. Actually, eugenics has a huge amount of traction within the sort of progressive movement, not just in the Progressive Era, but just, it is a popular way of thinking because it’s not necessarily always the kind of doom and gloom, Nazi death camps, it’s also stuff like, as I was saying, homeowners associations, or other sort of beautification projects, and what these things really do is, they signal to the people who are not otherwise, the people who are not dehumanized, they signal to them, the stakes, really, which is that you can’t become depressed, because if you become depressed, you will be spoiled, you will be a burden, and it’s not necessarily true that that’s actually going to happen. But part of the problem is that disability is framed within the social context. So it’s not necessarily that depressed people inherently ruin the social group that they’re in, but if you tell enough non depressed people that a depressed person will ruin their social group, they will reproduce that behavior. So we teach people how to be afraid of disability or be afraid of depression or be afraid of someone who doesn’t look like us, and this is how we teach it, it’s how we show it and so part of the problem is when you see this stuff in really mainstream media and and I think the autism community does a really good job calling this stuff out is oftentimes when the parent of an autistic person commits violence against their child, you’ll see the you know, The New York Times be like, ‘Well, the parent was just pushed to the limit,’ right?
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right and so over and over, you have this kind of pre-foreclosure on these spoiled identities and it’s a way of, I think, often used as a liberal tool to justify reform and intervention, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this epidemic of obesity that we got to deal with,’ but at the same time, when you’re calling it an epidemic and implying that it’s viral, I mean, you are marking people who have that trait as being dangerous to quote-unquote “normal people,” but you’re also marking them as different.
Adam: Because that’s the thing, the one thing that can’t be emphasized enough is that our society hates fat people. You are reminded on a daily basis multiple times that our society hates fat people, finds them to be at best superfluous and it really hates fat women and it seems like this is a very sort of cruel manifestation of that pathology, like you said, when you turn it into a disease and we listed a dozen articles saying ‘Is obesity contagious?’ Now not only is it this thing that we find disgusting to look at and we don’t like, and it’s sort of a blight on our healthcare system, right? It’s always framed as a cancer on society, basically, right? But it’s also contagious, and by the way, if you stay away from them, it’ll make you thinner. I mean, it’s just cruel and that cruelty can only really be rationalized with this veneer of sciencism. That’s the sort of way you do the whole, you know, Sam Harris does all the time when he hangs out with his buddy Charles Murray and they float race science, ‘Well, that’s just that’s just what it is,’ right? It’s a sort of —
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Fact of nature.
Adam: It’s a, you know, everyone who floated race science at Slate.com or The New Republic, when Steven Pinker in 2006 did this in The New Republic, they always say, ‘Well, that’s just where the science sort of leads us and I’m just a science guy, and I just go where the science is’ and it kind of sounds like, okay, well, you know, that’s just two plus two is four there’s nothing we can really do about it. But ultimately, it’s just again, it’s just reinforcing capitalist standards of beauty and telling everyone to fuck off and die, which is not an original idea.
Nima: And just laundering being a fucking piece of shit through science.
Adam: Well, rationalizing being a piece of shit by holding up science.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Exactly. I mean, this idea sort of trades back and forth between the sort of quote-unquote “legitimate” science arena and the pop-psychology self-help circuit back and forth from the ’40s forward. Yes, there are scientists at Yale and Harvard and Columbia and all over the place, at accredited institutions of record who have written studies that are racist, fatphobic, ableist, you name it, right? Just because it is science or peer-reviewed doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not free of eugenic logic or cognitive bias or fallacies and what you often see is sort of a collaboration between a biostatistician maybe or an evolutionary anthropologist and a political scientist, because a lot of the root of where the research that backs this stuff up comes from is from trying to understand how opinions move through friend groups, and how social networks can influence behavior because if the idea is that we’re constantly trying to incentivize the right behavior and build the right society through the right combination of, you know, maybe McKinsey and a management tactic and a messaging bill over here, and a press conference there —
Nima: And a gym membership over there.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right, exactly. And this is a major part of constructing the reality and if we allow ourselves to be told just, you know, follow the science without questioning what science we’re following, it’s gonna lead you to some really dark places.
Adam: Yeah, especially with so much evolutionary psychology. That’s one of the primary things that Jeffrey Epstein funded and that’s why Steven Pinker was so close with Jeffrey Epstein because he funded the Edge Foundation and it’s like, where’s the funding coming from? Who wants to reinforce these kind of middle school concepts of dump the fatties and saddies? This isn’t fucking, you know, there are material forces behind these things.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right. I mean, there’s all sorts of types of eugenics but the program that actually you’re talking about, the Epstein sperm ranch situation, that is a literal breeding project, I mean, it’s not even a stretch to say it’s harkening back —
Adam: Tell us about that.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Well, I mean, what he was doing was collecting his sperm at this ranch and he was interviewing women to try and find the right carriers for his seed and the idea was that he was going to sort of populate the earth with little Jeffrey Epsteins because he had this unique combination of smart, wonderful traits and we’d like to tell ourselves that World War II ended and the Nazi eugenics project was over and that was it, and eugenics was gone, but the reality is it just shifted, it went back into the academy, the funding changed a little bit, the Rockefeller switched who they were funding, maybe they decided, ‘Okay, we don’t want to overtly do this anymore,’ but eugenics didn’t go anywhere. It’s remained this ideology that has been supported through academia, and through the public sphere for decades now, and it undergirds all sorts of things from means testing, welfare policies, to trying to determine how we’re going to allocate COVID care or COVID vaccines based on analyzing people for pre existing conditions. I mean, the way that we just foreclosed on the death of vulnerable populations during the pandemic as this implicit reality, that is literal eugenics, that is actual hard eugenics, it’s not just soft eugenics, it’s overt hard eugenics, and we’ve just made new names for it over the decades.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, something really interesting that kind of, what you were just saying made me think is the timing of this, right? This is coming out at the beginning of June 2021, 15, 16 months into a global pandemic, and it’s talking about people who have certain health issues or mental health problems, you really need to just cut the string there, you know, and then it does that as Adam re quoted it that, ‘Look, we’re not saying that if people are having a hard time, you should just cut them loose,’ but that is literally what they’re saying and juxtaposing the idea that someone can be kind with the idea that someone can be fat and that those are anathema, those are directly in conflict. Someone who drinks can’t be studious. Someone who has asthma can’t be a caring, sympathetic person. There’s this weird thing going on that really, I think, as you pointed out, Beatrice, it’s just shifted how this stuff is funded, where it now is focused, and how do you think this constant friend ROI reflection, this kind of self-help psychology that is constantly published in our mainstream media — this is The Times, Wall Street Journal does this shit, Washington Post does this shit — how has that just sort of reinforced the ways that market forces are driving this, kind of turning science into then doubling down, tripling down on how capitalism is working?
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Right. Well, I mean, there’s the obvious point of the fact that this idea has a lot of prevalence within the self-help circuit and there is the obvious market of the books, the seminars, the workbooks, the whatever, all the accessories of the wellness industry, you have that arena, but where this idea is also really common is in the sort of more corporate management consulting side, and it is the foundational principle behind a lot of these AIs or tests that are meant to determine whether an employee could be a good or loyal employee or a bad employee and so what it really does is it shapes the sort of weight that is thrown into how someone’s evaluated. So let’s say you’ve got somebody who says that they’re punctual but they have no relevant skills to the job, that person would be rated higher than somebody who is well trained but is not punctual, and so it actively devalues the labor of those with these stigmatized traits, you know, it’s making these borders, making it sort of unacceptable or unprofessional, and you see this a lot with people just reporting like, ‘Oh, I have curly hair’ or ‘I have natural hair and my boss said I need to straighten it in order to fit in at the office.’ So there’s that sort of baseline devaluation of labor but the other thing that’s important to remember is that the sort of big guys who came up with these ideas in the ’50s and ’60s, as well as like one of the first people to push this idea within the MLM, direct sales, self-help arena —
Adam: That’s multi-level marketing, not Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: (Chuckles.) Yes, thank you. Sorry.
Nima: Important distinction.
Adam: There’s some overlap there. We have a lot of Maoists who are also into selling Cutco knives. So I didn’t want to confuse.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yes, the other MLM. Exactly. This guy, Jim Rohn, his idea is that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, so you have to be very careful who you select, and he sold this idea of the sort of entrepreneur mindset. So there’s that obvious market for this stuff and it’s definitely convenient to have this social pressure really rise up at a moment where people are really questioning, do they feel safe re-engaging in social activities? Well, what a better way to pressure people to get out and spend money than to say, ‘If you don’t, your friends might ditch you.’ But there’s also the fact that this is part of management consulting and this is part of the sort of proto pre-McKinsey’s and the sociologists who worked on this stuff they wanted to understand how ideas spread between people so that they could control what ideas were spreading, they were incredibly interested in how to socially engineer the most productive workforce, and so often, you know, we have this idea of constantly accelerating productivity, and how are we going to find the data driven way to optimize our workforce and what this leads to is stuff like the Amazon ZenBooth, which is the coffin on the floor of the Amazon warehouse for mental wellness.
Nima: The crybox.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, exactly. And so materially speaking, it’s going to result in these incredible negative social determinants of health for workers across the board, but it also has been this incredibly lucrative industry for those who want to spread these kinds of ideas, and for people who, like Rohn, maybe fell out of a couple bad vitamin direct sales companies to just rebirth himself in a ballroom somewhere in Beverly Hills as a successful entrepreneur who is going to teach you the keys to the world.
Adam: Yeah, because unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into all the sort of threads here, because there’s so many we’ve talked about on the show before, but there is this, it’s all self help, basically, it’s self capitalist, and I think that there are things that were at a micro level, you could say, it seems kind of intuitive, right? Like if I say, yeah, if you’re someone who had a really, really horrible cocaine problem for 10 years, should you be married to someone who’s a cocaine dealer? Probably not the best idea in the world. Seems reasonable, but it’s not a totalizing statement. Now say someone who has this condition, who is obese or depressed or has substance-abuse issues, you should cut them out of your life because it makes you a fucking winner. I think it’s a totally different thing and it’s sort of crossing a line into, not only eugenics, but there’s something extremely bleak about it. I think it offends not just leftist sensibilities, but it does offend liberal sensibilities of how we perceive the idea of penance, or kind of people who can, I don’t want to say change because they shouldn’t have to change, right? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these conditions, sometimes it can be but not always, and I want to talk about the kind of political, you touched on this, but I want to expand on the political stakes here because as many people noted on social media, a lot of people either ironically, or somewhat ironically, they call it cop shit or CIA shit because it’s very short on empathy, and obviously forecloses on any kind of concept of solidarity. What are the sort of the bigger political themes here about how the world of self-improvement, self-help, which again, was very much reinforced by capital city ideology bourgeois ideology, is very much a conservative ideological production mechanism, obviously, like half of these books now are just self-help, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, et cetera, which again we don’t have time to go into but there’s so much overlap here. How does this further reinforce atomization is something we talk about on the show to death, but I want to talk about it in the context of Kate Murphy telling us to sort of dump the losers.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, totally. I mean, it has tremendous political implications, just beyond the stuff that we’re talking about, because what this article is saying is really just it’s individuating responsibility to such an extreme level, right? It’s saying some people cannot change, but you, you can curate your way to perfection, and so this is part of the whole game of sort of playing and moving power around. If we take social determinants of health, if we take the causes, like pollution or housing instability, or chaotic drug use, or whatever, or chronic illness, you know, if we take these situations, and we say, ‘No, no, no, this is not a problem of any sort of failure of the state, there’s no real responsibility here to act or do something, this is a problem of the individual.’ So it places the blame away from the institutions that are actually responsible for these health outcomes in the first place and that’s a good way of buying time for politicians who are really unwilling to act and, you know, by taking this blame outside of racism, or poverty, or ableism, or classism, and saying, ‘No, no, no, no, this is a social problem. This is a very tiny little problem.’ What it does, is it also really, as you’re saying, it discourages solidarity. It’s creating divisions between people. It’s encouraging people to surveil their friends to do cost-benefit analysis on their friends.
Adam: Check their garbage cans for Twinkie wrappers.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, it’s like ‘Let me teach you how to do statistical valuation of life on your BFF, what a great way to start the summer,’ and so what this really does is it really supports the sort of neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility and the dignity of risk and the entrepreneur lifestyle and it also really just sort of bolsters this myth that individuals are where the seat of power and change comes from. Not structural change, just on a one-to-one level.
Adam: We’re all Randian heroes.
Nima: Exactly. Well, as long as, I mean, not all of us, right, I mean, not our fat friends.
Adam: Well not the losers, yeah. This episode is born from the fact that Nima, Beatrice, and I have all been friendscaped for being out-of-shape losers.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Oh, yeah.
Adam: And we’re just bitter.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: I mean, I’m a blind degenerate, so, you know.
Adam: (Laughs.) So yeah, this is self-interested. We’re just bitter.
Nima: Speak for yourselves, man. I’m one of the winners here.
Adam: Oh, you’re a winner. I forgot you’re a winner.
Nima: We’re going to have a separate Zoom conversation after this, Adam. I have some things I want to tell you.
Adam: I tried to hang out with Nima in New York once and he’s like, ‘Yeah, listen, I got a thing — ’
Nima: Yeah. Here’s the thing, buddy —
Adam: We work together.
Adam: You have to hang out with me, you’re obligated to. Yeah, because I want to make sure we’re steel manning here because I think somebody listening to this may say, well look like, people say fatphobia and I think there’s a cohort of people who would roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, what does that mean, being fat is not healthy for you,’ but I think that’s kind of missing the point and also debatable in many ways, which we’re not going to go into that, but the point is, like, maybe this is simplistic, and even a little squishy, but why be a fucking asshole about it? It seems like the thread here is don’t be an asshole and don’t make totalizing psychotic statements about groups of people based on their condition. Can we have a little bit more empathy here, and using the patina of science to basically push middle-school bullying doesn’t seem very —
Nima: But that’s not how entrepreneurial success is born, right? You got to do what you got to do and that’s like, it’s the whole thing here that, you know, Beatrice, I think, you’ve been fleshing out for us here, right?
Adam: People listening would be like, ‘Oh, this is just liberal bullshit.’
Nima: Yeah, totally.
Adam: I want you to address that.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Well, I mean, it has very, very real world implications on people’s lives, right? These kinds of judgments and determinations might seem harmless at the level and from the perspective of someone who it’s not being applied to but what happens in practice in real time is that this stuff translates into real time violence on the other end for these people who are stigmatized. So you have medical neglect, you have exclusion from work, you have exclusion from society, and what frames like this do and really what ableism and fatphobia do, I mean, a lot of people frame it in this sort of civil rights framework of like, ‘Oh, it’s about discrimination.’ Well, it’s actually also about determining who is “we” and who is not “we,” and so it’s also about taking those people who have these traits that we’ve decided are biologically destined to be bad and we are saying ‘You’re not welcome here, you’re not a part of society,’ and throughout, you know, decades and decades in the United States the question of citizenship and who is a citizen and who is really entitled to personhood has been a really key struggle, and fatphobia and ableism, yeah, maybe their identity politics to some people, but it’s actually more of the sort of rhetorical counterpoints to eugenics.
Nima: Yeah, there’s so much deficit framing, and how that relates to othering and belonging.
Adam: Yeah, we can’t afford all these obese people, they’re gonna cripple our economy and destroy us all.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Waste, fraud, and abuse. Yeah.
Nima: Totally. Right. It’s a drag on the economy, it’s a drag on success, it’s a drag on you, it’s a drag on your friend group, it’s a drag on how social network, social relationships interact and so I think that seeing it that way, I mean, really allows us, I think, to see how dangerous this really is. It’s not just some benign, kind of, you know, ‘Oh, think about who you’re going to invite to brunch.’
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, it’s about the monetary valuation of life, right? It’s about taking people and saying, ‘No, you’re not people, you’re less than people,’ and trying to teach other people how to do the same sort of dehumanization themselves. I really love this quote from Marian Fourcade, where she says, “The monetary valuation of life comes, ultimately, from society: not simply from the economic benefits of life, but also from our emotions and our moral assumptions.” And what she’s talking about here is the way that we quantify life and we say, ‘Okay, if someone’s disabled, let’s deduct a couple million dollars from their potential life earnings. How many activities of daily living can this disabled person do? Well, only two? Well, it seems like they may be only worth $100,000.’ We reduce people to this abstraction and of a burden and it’s this scarcity mindset and what it does is it produces state violence, and it produces populations that are marked for early death, and it produces neglect and abandonment, I mean, it’s not just some polite request to be treated as a person, right? This is a threat to people’s survival in real time.
Adam: Although having basic humanity would be nice. But yes, it is not just about sort of, you see this a lot because a lot of these people are, you know — surprise, surprise — a lot of them are TERFs, and you see this, which also has this kind of hard sciencism to it, but you see this a lot with, well what difference does it make, pronouns, whatever, there’s, like real-world consequences to having, you know what I mean, one’s gender identity affirmed and confirmed by society. It’s not just a sort of precious liberal distraction. It has real stakes, and a lot of people don’t get that.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re totally right and I love the work of Jules Gill-Peterson on this and what she writes about is how really we use these attacks on language and on surplus and marginalized populations as a way of framing affirmative rights that the state has never had, you know, it’s like, we’re really saying in this that we’re trying to build the rhetorical support to legitimize maybe, who knows, it could be any number of things from friendscaping fat people out of your life to revoking health care access to fat people, because they’ve quote-unquote “done it themselves,” or there’s a biological destiny, or there’s this kind of interplay where biological reality can be fixed and verifiable when it’s cherry-picked to try and forward these eugenic austerity mindset ideas, or it could be, you know, measurable and impossible to understand when it could possibly lead to giving trans people healthcare that they fucking deserve.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, the fact that there’s literally a job called forensic economist, I mean, literally, in our legal system that, you know, if someone is seriously injured or possibly is killed or dies, like in court, their potential life earnings are calculated by people called forensic economists to figure out what possible compensation would be and so it’s exactly what we’re talking about, right? What is the monetary value of a life, and I think it will be no surprise to listeners of Citations Needed or Death Panel podcast — shockingly — these forensic economists take the, you know, victim’s race, ethnicity, gender, other aspects of their identity into account when calculating what the victim would have earned throughout their lifetime, and so, you know — shockingly, again — white male victims routinely receive higher compensation than people of color, certainly women, and this is just more of that. But Beatrice, you have been so kind to stick with us this whole time, before we let you go, I would love for listeners of Citations Needed to hear a little bit more about your podcast, Death Panel podcast, which you describe as a podcast about the political economy of health, Beatrice, tell us more about Death Panel.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Yeah, I mean, well, obviously, the name is appropriative, we are not actually the death panel who decides who gets to live and die, but you know, one of the things that we tackle often are the sort of pervasive myths of healthcare and scarcity and the political economy of health, which have existed for a very long time. So a lot of that is analyzing policy, really getting into the absolutely minute details to crack it open and really say, what is this even saying? So recently, we did a great breakdown of public-option proposals, because that’s been brought up in the news again recently, and you know, what a public option really is, is not the kind of third way that it’s proposed to be but it’s not this middle ground, right? It’s this bigger, larger statement about fixing the ACA, they’re not trying to fix healthcare in the United States. So yeah, we get into a lot of that stuff. It’s myself, my co-author on Health Communism, who’s also my partner, Artie Vierkant, and then our collaborator, Phil Rocco, who is an actual political scientist and he’s a federalism scholar. So we really get into the way that funding and state funding and fiscal federalism and eugenics is the support for so much public policy.
Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Beatrice Adler-Bolton, host of The Death Panel podcast, which everyone should check out, and co-author of the forthcoming book Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto, which will come out next year, 2022, through Verso Books. Beatrice, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton: Thank you so much, it was so nice to hang.
Adam: Yeah, I think the issues surrounding eugenics and quasi-updated eugenics are interesting, because it’s like a lot of what we discussed in the show is that many of these political currents don’t go away, they’re simply rebranded or watered down or kind of given the veneer of science and sciencism. So this was an example.
Nima: Well, right, that you can kind of turn chattel slavery into Jim Crow, into mass incarceration, just like you can turn eugenics into fatphobia and friendscaping.
Adam: Yeah. Which is, of course, not to say that Kate Murphy is on the same plane as the, you know, 1912 skull-measuring society, we’re not saying that, just to be clear.
Nima: That would be unfair.
Adam: That would be very unfair. But many of these concepts live on through different iterations, and indeed, when you see them in the kind of soft tones, the kind of Starbucks tones of The New York Times, it’s just jarring, right? You’re just reading this, you’re like, ‘Wait a second, she just said to get rid of the fat people and depressed people in your life.’ This was advice I learned in the sixth grade.
Nima: Well, and that your fat friends are obviously also not your kind friends. That those are mutually exclusive.
Adam: Well, that too, yes.
Nima: That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are so inclined, and we hope you are so inclined, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated especially as we are 100 percent. We will be back very soon with another full length episode of Citations Needed so stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, thank you everyone for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.