03 February 2010

Concern trolling aka civilised oppression

I was a witness to a conversation this week in which a friend of mine made reference to the term 'concern trolling'. I thought this was a great expression, and she used it to describe the mean little oppressive actions - given with a smile - that fat people are often subject to.

As fat folks, we all have stories of public attacks and discrimination, but I think concern trolling is a more commonplace experience, especially that now the idea of being a fatphobe is less socially acceptable in some circles. What used to be overt hatred has been transformed into much more subtle signals of disapproval and disgust.

Perhaps this has something to do in paradigm shifts in public policy that now blame our terrible affliction on 'obesogenic environments' and the like; 'it's not your fault you're like that,' they appear to say, 'but you're still a problem and you still need us to fix you, to make you nice and normal and thin, just like us.'

Concern trolling sounds very much like 'Civilised Oppression' (or Civilized, the term was generated in the US where they spell things differently). This is a concept examined by Jean Harvey and developed in terms of fat by Mary Madeline Rogge and Marti Greenwald in a paper that was published in 2004.

All three authors explain that incidents involving civilised oppression have the following characteristics, they:
(1) are non-peer power-laden relationships, (2) involve interactions that diminish and control the recipient who has little recourse, (3) pose cumulative acts of omission and commission that distort the relationship(s), (4) cause harm or disadvantage to the subject, (5) may be without malicious intent, and (6) are insidious and obscured in routine or daily encounters. (Harvey referenced by Rogge and Greenwald, p.306)

Powerful stuff, eh? Even in this list, without a full explanation, it's easy to see these processes reflected in real life. I bet a handful of incidents just like this happened to you this week already.

Unfortunately Rogge and Greenwald replicate quite a bit of civilised oppression in their paper on civilised oppression! Fat people are very much passive research subjects, patients even, whose experience is mediated by medical professionals in this work. The language used to describe and frame fat experience is really limited by medicalisation, which is no surprising since the paper was intended for a nursing publication. Yet I feel pitied, pathologised, and made limited as a fat person when I read this work because of its framework, even though it is offering me tools with which to analyse my oppression.

Nevertheless, concern trolling and civilised oppression remind me why it's often hard to talk about my work, or my fat experience with people whom I'm unsure will get it. It reminds me how vulnerable I feel when I open myself up in this way, because the faux-kindly comments I might get in return are really not so helpful. It's complicated and draining to call people on their actions when they oppress me in a friendly way, it's easy for both parties to deny that it's happening, it's so covert and minute a lot of the time. Yet it's felt as oppressive all the same, and it's cumulatively damaging.


Harvey, Jean (1999) Civilized Oppression, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Rogge, Mary Madeline and Greenwald, Marti (2004) 'Obesity, Stigma, and Civilized Oppression' in Advances in Nursing Science, 27:4, 301-315.


JeninCanada said...

Thats' some powerful stuff, especially #s 5 and 6. Thanks for posting it!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks JeninCanada, try and read the full paper if you can, it's really interesting.

Elizebeth Turnquist said...

I have to put these terms into my FA lexicon.

You've just given me a great way to explain why "Don't you know fat is unhealthy?" is more of a statement, laden with a variety of connotation, than it is an actual question.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yep. What other terms do you have in there?

Elizebeth Turnquist said...

I'd have to compile the list.I'll put that on my list of things to do when I have down time.