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Healthy living as a moral duty: well-meaning government campaigns divide society

04 July 2018
The government’s constant emphasis on health and lifestyle is leading to a new social norm: ‘Thou shalt live a healthy and responsible life’.

Well-meaning messages to convince people to adopt a healthy lifestyle undermine social cohesion. The government’s constant emphasis on health and lifestyle is leading to a new social norm (‘thou shalt live a healthy and responsible life’) that unintentionally pits people against each other. People who satisfy this norm (non-smokers or those who exercise, for instance) stigmatize groups that do not (such as smokers or people who are overweight), show less solidarity to them and feel more positive about the two groups being treated differently. This is the conclusion of Dr Susanne Täuber of the University of Groningen from four studies of over 1,500 participants.

Susanne Täuber
Susanne Täuber

Täuber researched the influence of moralizing health campaigns on people who already satisfy the norm. ‘In government campaigns the message is constantly: we all have a choice; you are in control of your behaviour. The result – so whether you look slim and healthy, are ill or super fit – is therefore directly linked to your efforts. A woman who has just given birth and hasn’t yet got her old figure back is judged for this. In the eyes of the group that already satisfies the norm, this mother must be lazy, eat too much or lack discipline.’

Unpleasant dynamic

In its efforts to create a self-sufficient ‘participation society’, the Dutch government is setting an unpleasant dynamic in motion, Täuber warns. Groups are growing apart like a pair of scissors opening ever wider. ‘None of us wants to be intolerant or stigmatize others. But people who satisfy the present health norm unconsciously start to think: I’m doing my best so why aren’t you? You have an unhealthy diet or don’t take enough exercise, which means you create extra costs for our society. That money that the government spends on you because you are so fat is the reason why our schools are underfunded.’

Smoke-Free Groningen excludes population group

Just look around, says Täuber. Smoke-Free Generation, a movement that wants children to grow up in a smoke-free environment, signs are popping up all over the city. ‘Of course it’s a fantastic ambition to make Groningen smoke-free. But given the great difference between the number of smokers in rich and in poor groups in the population, this well-meaning ambition excludes a disproportionate number of poor members of society from the city centre. This doesn’t cross the minds of politicians and interest groups at all.’

Nuance and sensitivity

Today’s government communication inadvertently begs the question of whether or not a person is a ‘good’ person. That really must change, says Täuber. ‘I understand that governments want to improve the population’s health, and I see that many people also want to live a conscious lifestyle. But the message must be imparted with nuance and sensitivity. If you look at reality through a moralistic lens, you only see people who are doing right and people who are doing wrong. That’s what I fear. That we end up with a very unpleasant society, which is not what anyone wanted. It’s up to us to put our heads together and think about how to improve these well-meaning health campaigns.’

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Last modified:04 July 2018 12.34 p.m.
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