An Achilles Heel?

 

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the average person, even if they’re only vaguely aware of Homer’s poems The Iliad, or The Odyssey, even if they are mildly conversant with the story of the siege of Troy and the Trojan horse, even if they have sort of heard of the Grecian heroes Odysseus and Achilles or perhaps the Trojan hero Aeneas, and even if they could pretend they remember that the author -not to mention the stories and characters- may or may not have been reality based… even if this were the case, the colours of their skin and hair probably do not rank particularly high in the recollection. Frankly, I -certainly not a card-carrying member of any historical society- had not given it much thought. Well, none, actually -some things are just not that important, I guess.

And when I think of the way Homer was taught in my freshman class in university, I suppose I merely assumed that detailed descriptions were unnecessary -obviously, they would each look similar to how we have portrayed Christ in all the medieval religious art: vaguely Caucasian. And in my student days, the zeitgeist of academia as well as the rest of western society, seemed to be swimming in what we might now call white privilege. Of course the ancient Greeks were white -I mean, just look at the white marble statues they have bequeathed to us. The fact that they were originally brightly painted was not known -or at least not communicated to most of us in my day.

So, although the article in an edition of Aeon that questioned the skin colour of Achilles, did not shock me, it did make me think about the long held western conceit that the ancient Greeks, on whom we have modelled so many of our democratic ideas, were fair-skinned. Even as I put this assumption into words, I realize that, however unintended, it seems terribly racist. And yet, some things do need to be probed, clarified: https://aeon.co/essays/when-homer-envisioned-achilles-did-he-see-a-black-man

The essay, written by Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, attempts to make sense of what little historical evidence exists from those almost pre-historical times. ‘The poems are rooted in ancient stories transmitted orally, but the decisive moment in stabilising them in their current form was the period from the 8th to the 7th centuries BCE. The siege of Troy, the central event in the mythical cycle to which the Homeric poems belong, might or might not be based on a real event that took place in the earlier Bronze Age, in the 13th or 12th century BCE. Historically speaking, the poems are an amalgam of different temporal layers: some elements are drawn from the contemporary world of the 8th century BCE, some are genuine memories of Bronze Age times… Achilles was not a historical personage; or, rather, the figure in the poem might or might not be distantly connected to a real figure, but that isn’t the point. Achilles, as we have him and as the Greeks had him, is a mythical figure and a poetic creation. So the question is not ‘What did Achilles look like?’ but ‘How does Homer portray him?’

Fragments of evidence exist, but many are fraught with translational discrepancies and contemporaneous social conventions that confuse the issue. For example, at the time, ‘females are praised for being ‘white-armed’, but men never are. This differentiation finds its way into the conventions of Greek (and indeed Egyptian) art too, where we find women often depicted as much lighter of skin than men. To call a Greek man ‘white’ was to call him ‘effeminate’.’

Also, ‘Achilles is said in the Iliad to have xanthos hair. This word is often translated as ‘blond’… [But] the Greek colour vocabulary simply doesn’t map directly onto that of modern English. Xanthos could be used for things that we would call ‘brown’, ‘ruddy’, ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’.’ And, ‘Weirdly, some early Greek terms for colour seem also to indicate intense movement… xanthos is etymologically connected to another word, xouthos, which indicates a rapid, vibrating movement. So, while xanthos certainly suggests hair in the ‘brown-to-fair’ range, the adjective also captures Achilles’ famous swift-footedness, and indeed his emotional volatility.’

‘So to ask whether Achilles and Odysseus are white or black is at one level to misread Homer. His colour terms aren’t designed to put people into racial categories, but to contribute to the characterisation of the individuals, using subtle poetic associations… Greeks simply didn’t think of the world as starkly divided along racial lines into black and white: that’s a strange aberration of the modern, Western world, a product of many different historical forces, but in particular the transatlantic slave trade and the cruder aspects of 19th-century racial theory. No one in Greece or Rome ever speaks of a white or a black genos (‘descent group’). Greeks certainly noticed different shades of pigmentation (of course), and they differentiated themselves from the darker peoples of Africa and India… but they also differentiated themselves from the paler peoples of the North.’ In other words, concludes, Whitmarsh, ‘Greeks did not, by and large, think of themselves as ‘white’.’

This information would be filed in the ho-hum section of our need-to-know list for most of us, I think, and yet, Whitmarsh, in his introduction points out that ‘in an article published in Forbes, the Classics scholar Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa caused a storm by pointing out that many of the Greek statues that seem white to us now were in antiquity painted in colour. This is an uncontroversial position, and demonstrably correct, but Bond received a shower of online abuse for daring to suggest that the reason why some like to think of their Greek statues as marble-white might just have something to do with their politics.’

That there are people out there who seem threatened by knowledge which doesn’t accord with their own confirmation biases is, to me, more deeply troubling than mere disagreement. After all, we can disagree with something without being threatened by it. Disagreement allows for discussion, and possible attempts at rebuttal, using other evidence. Or countering with other interpretations of the same facts. In the end, isn’t it all just a game? An academic exercise which, after the initial flurry of excitement and barrage of words, should end, like all closely fought games, with a glass of wine?

Nudging Childhood Obesity

When I was a kid, obesity was not the norm. Admittedly, this was a long time ago, and no doubt I only remember brief and highly selective snippets of the time –modified, no doubt, to serve whatever demands are required in the present. But in these unexpurgated, sketches, I have memories of labeling the occasional child in the playground as ‘fat’. Whoever it was stood out from the rest –ex gregis in the true etymological sense of the word ‘egregious’- and so through the insouciance of childhood, were forever condemned to wear the epithet like a poorly fitting sweater.

Maybe we just didn’t have enough to eat in those halcyon days of early Winnipeg; maybe the winters were too severe and the necessary clothes too heavy to allow the accumulation of excessive girth. But let’s face it, normal is what we see around us. It is parochial. It is the statistics of one box. And yet, isn’t that how we judge: by what we know? If I am obese, and my child is too, then what’s the problem? And if all his friends, and all my friends are large, then how am I to adjudicate another norm? Thin is aberrant, not fat.

I came across an interesting article in Forbes magazine reporting about a study –several studies, in fact- demonstrating the inability of parents to judge whether or not their child was overweight: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/03/30/can-you-tell-if-your-child-is-overweight-most-parents-cant-study-finds/

This is worrisome, to say the least -unless of course you change the definition of what weight is normal… But no matter the norm, health risks for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally increase with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index -which is the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters: kg/m2).

And it is difficult to rationalize the increasing prevalence of corpulence in the population as an evolutionary process. It’s hard to understand how plumpness would be of any survival benefit, or why it would be selected for in a gene pool. There exist islands of controversy in this, of course: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191865  But I think most analyses would suggest that obesity (BMI >30 -at least in North American population studies) adversely influences health and life span. So it would make sense to attempt to correct the issue as early as possible.

As an obstetrician, I am drawn to the idea that management of pregnancy and birth weight are important. I was intrigued by a prediction model I saw reported in the BBC from 2012 suggesting the risks for subsequent obesity of a child could be predicted at birth with about 80% accuracy: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-20509577  I haven’t seen much about this recently, so I don’t know how well it has stood the test of scientific scrutiny, but at least it was an interesting thesis. A start.

Recently, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health published an update on childhood obesity guidelines: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/child-obesity-charts-open-door-to-treatment-1.3014832  It contains the usual admonitions against junk food and physical inactivity, of course, but advocates some innovative strategies, I think. For example, because the circadian rhythms of teenagers have been found to differ from the adults who are teaching them, it recommended starting classes later in the morning and suggested breaks in each class. And walking to school, where feasible, as part of the exercise regime… Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s ‘White Coat, Black Art’ program, while agreeing with the guidelines, detected some downsides to the recommendations however: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/whitecoat/blog/the-cure-for-childhood-obesity-parents-will-hate-1.3014981

The contributing factors to obesity –let alone childhood obesity- are legion: genetics, dietary habits, social milieu, parental influences, environmental conditions, Media, socioeconomic status, and peer group expectations, to name a few. None are solely responsible, but unless there are some counteracting forces –incentives- all are important. Behaviour, habits, and expectations are learned phenomena and it may be something as simple as imitation of parents or friends that starts it off and then sustains it.

When faced with uncountable opponents and overwhelming odds, how can Society possibly succeed in changing things? Well, simplistically, it needs to change attitudes. Change what the majority considers acceptable. Change the mythos. It is slowly changing the acceptability of smoking as a norm; even the legitimacy of drinking and driving is under scrutiny –not only in the courts but also in the minds of drinkers. Some things are just not seen as cool nowadays.

But, given the importance of preventing childhood obesity for the health and well-being of future generations and given the relative lack of success so far, I think we need a new (old?) approach. There is a freshly-named, although age-old practice, termed ‘Nudge Theory’. It is a euphemism that my mother would have simply called manipulation because, although cleverly disguised, that’s really what it is. Wikipedia has succinct explanation: Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. Here are two introductions –take your choice:  http://www-2.rotman.utoronto.ca/facbios/file/GuidetoNudging-Rotman-Mar2013.ashx.pdf or http://www.businessballs.com/nudge-theory.htm

Education, and early identification and treatment of those at risk of becoming obese are obviously important and desirable, but I think we need something more. Something with a proven track record, albeit in different fields. Maybe ad campaigns and directed manipulation –sorry, nudging– would be valuable adjuncts. We are media savvy nowadays, and used as a tool for change, it seems ideal. As long as we are certain of our goals, and the science is correct, I think it is an ethically acceptable approach, and one with great potential.

I did, though, run across a light-hearted, but nonetheless cautionary article about nudging in the Toronto Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/im-an-adult-stop-nudging-me/article20925672/

However, we have to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal. My mother’s manipulation was unsubtle and in my face; nudging is not. If we are going to be successful in stopping the steadily increasing tide of obesity, we need to revise expectations, and change what we accept as normal. We have to alter folkways and mores –in other words the rules that society uses to guide behavior. Nudge them, I suppose…

We need the courage to try novel approaches. There is a quote by Erasmus that is germane: A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit. Okay, so let’s change them. Nudge them. No! I hate the verbal evasion. Let’s mold them.