Taking offence over every little thing and forcing people to walk on eggshells is a very worrying modern phenomenon, says Alex Proud
Last week, I read a remarkable piece in The Guardian. It was by Amy Roe, an American woman who said she’d been “sweat-shamed” in Starbucks.
If, like me, you were previously unaware of sweat-shaming, allow me to explain.
Ms Roe had been for a long run, prior to entering Starbucks and was sweaty. Someone else in the queue commented on this. She felt a bit awkward. End of story, right? Not a bit of it. A few minutes later, when she got into her car, she realised that this was no ordinary social interaction:
“Eventually the caffeine kicked in and it hit me: I’d been sweat-shamed. Sweat-shaming is when someone points out your sweatiness as a way to signal disapproval. Like its counterparts, slut-shaming and fat-shaming, sweat-shaming is aimed mainly at women, who are actually not supposed to sweat at all.”
I know, me too. Let’s start with thesheer solipsistic ridiculousnessof this. Going into a Starbucks drenched in sweat is yucky. You created the problem. The other person in the queue was probably a bit grossed out. Perhaps they were a little bit rude. Perhaps you were a little bit sensitive. I don’t know. But what I do know is that, if anyone, male or female, was drenched in sweat next to me in a coffee queue, my natural reaction would be “eww”. Most people shower after exercise. It’s one of those social things, like using deodorant or brushing your teeth.
But actually this had me thinking. I’m pretty sure I’ve been called out for having BO before. I’ve certainly been called out for farting. Back then, I took it on the chin and admitted liability. I’d farted. My bad. But now I realise that I was the victim. I’d been fart-shamed. Of course, if I were a woman, it would be a hundred times worse because women are not supposed to fart at all…
This brings us to sweat-shaming being aimed “mainly at women.” What? It has nothing to do with your gender. Nothing at all. Using your definition, I have personally been sweat-shamed a number of times. I have walked into pubs after running (or brisk walks) and had people have comment on my sweatiness. In fact, were I so inclined, I could take offence at a woman trying to “own” sweat-shaming. As a group, men sweat far more than women and our sweat smells considerably worse. I’m pretty sure that a sizeable majority of both genders find guys’ sweat grosser than girls’ sweat. So, please, stop trying to muscle into one of the few remaining areas of legitimate victimhood left to us men. Although, I suppose I must concede a grudging admiration for the pretzel-like logic you have used to make thisutterly meaningless incident into a feminist thing.
OK, on to the important stuff because, believe it or not, there is a needle of seriousness hiding in this haystack of utter stupidity. I think The Guardian is a great newspaper – and a necessary check to the overall right-wing slant of the British press. But I also believe that Comment is Free can be a kind of left-wing zoo full of special snowflakes, all trying to desperately to out-victim each other or find new niche reasons to get upset. Here are few samples. Barbecue is an American tradition – of enslaved Africans and Native Americas. I Dread The Day My Daughters Poos Get Smaller. You Might Not Think You’re Sexist Until You Take A Look at Your Bookshelf. You get the idea.
It’s very easy to laugh these off as navel gazing, largely-imaginary rubbish. But actually, I think they are a real problem. I may not believe in sweat-shaming but I am a liberal and I support all sorts of progressive causes. The standard defence of this sort of guff is that it’s the thin end of the wedge. Yes, sweat shaming might be trivial but if we ignore the sweat-shamed today, we ignore the fat-shamed tomorrow and we’re all racists by the weekend. It’s a kind of “First they came for the socialists” argument.
However, in real life, I think it works the other way. Right-wingers had a field day with this stuff – but the trouble is, it allows them to treat huge swathes of the Left as one great big, over-sensitive PC joke. By giving things like sweat-shaming credibility you actually undermine far more important causes. So, Ms Roe’s inability to shrug off a minor, quite possibly imaginary, slight is, in fact, powerful ammunition for those who have their guns trained on things that actually matter.
More generally, taking offence over every little thing and forcing people to walk on eggshells is a very worrying modern phenomenon. Recently we saw Warwick University’s Students Union bar the ex-Muslim human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking because it was concerned she might offend Muslim students. The ban was rescinded after a public outcry, but it’s still a very nasty development at an excellent university in a western democracy. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned but I believe that questioning religion is exactly the sort of thing that British universities should be doing.
This, of course, is one of the Left’s great Achilles heels. They often wind up allying themselves with very dubious groups and taking very dodgy positions because they worry so much about offending anyone. But by doing this they offend moderates. Sorry guys, but the day you start arguing against free speech is the day you have people like me shaking our heads and saying, “Well, I suppose I agree with some of the Conservatives’ policies…”
Back to sweat-shaming and I noticed that Ms Roe conflated sweat-shaming with fat-shaming. The latter is interesting and instructive as it demonstrates the great problem with the whole anti-shaming movement. On one hand, I don’t believe that anyone should be bullied for being overweight. But on the other, I despair whenever I see accusations of fat shaming being used to shut down arguments and demonise people, who often include medical experts. I’m overweight, but you know what – I would rather be called fat a thousand times than live in a world where we all have to pretend that morbid obesity is just another, perfectly acceptable “positive lifestyle choice”.
Sadly, though, it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a serious, evidence-based debate about obesity and health. And this is the problem in a nutshell. A fair chunk of the current Left-wing discourse (what the right often calls “resurgent PC”) seems to be about creating an atmosphere where it’s impossible to have a proper discussion for fear of upsetting someone and being cast as a bigot by their supporters. Thus, things we desperately need to debate, get ignored. In a funny sort of way, it reminds of how the American right have made the climate-change debate about everything except the facts.
So I suppose all I’m calling for is a bit of common sense and a return to some of the resilient, take-it-on the chin attitude that we Brits used to pride ourselves on. As for Amy Roe, she’s American, so I suppose I’d suggest that she takes a nice cool shower and calms down. If this sounds patronising, it’s not. I’m not sweat-shaming her. Rather, I’m speaking as a fellow human being who perspires heavily. Believe me, Amy, I’ve struggled with my own sweaty demons my adult entire life – and I don’t like seeing you being stupid-shamed.