The Big Questions: Why has gun control stalled in Washington? Is it morally wrong to be overweight?

This week's big questions are answered by author and journalist Lionel Shriver


In We Need to Talk About Kevin, you dramatised a school massacre. This week, gun control reform stalled  in Washington. Why?

I’m baffled why even the National Rifle Association would baulk at background checks at gun shows, when checks are already in place for shops. Perhaps staunch Second Amendment defenders see any restrictions whatsoever as a slippery slope. More broadly? Guns confer an awesome power. Americans are uneasy allowing that power to rest solely with criminals and the state. We are heartbreakingly attached to the myth that we’ve the right to overthrow a government grown tyrannical, and any second American Revolution would require firepower. In truth, the Feds are armed to the teeth, and would never capitulate to some upstart militia movement. Look at Waco. The right of the people to overturn their rulers lies solely in the ballot box.

Do Americans put too high a  premium on their freedom?

Americans plaster the internet with detailed personal data, which is harvested by both government and commerce. Unconstrained by judicial oversight, the Department of Homeland Security’s widespread domestic surveillance of email and phone calls post-9/11 has stirred little political outrage. Armed drones wend the international skies and include American citizens as their targets. Meanwhile, the grotesque bureaucracy of tax, regulation, and reporting compliance that burdens business and individuals alike just gets worse. Especially if you add in the freedom to not get shot by some lunatic who didn’t have to get a background check at a gun show, I’d say Americans don’t put nearly a high enough premium on their liberties.

Has America’s reaction to the  Boston bombing been reasonable  and proportionate?

I was glad to see the country united (however briefly), and I was heartened that no one seemed to call for extreme, killjoy security measures at future public events. But I’m always uncomfortable with the obsessive coverage – both domestically and internationally – of violent incidents in America, while Syria, for example, suffers greater casualties every day. Worse, the media is once more bannering the perpetrators’ photos, and combing over their stories will only inspire other lost young men who crave attention to follow the Tsarnaevs’ example.

Why do many young Muslims in the West support a radical or jihadist agenda?

Like Everest: because it’s there. Everywhere and always, young men need something to do with all that testosterone. They yearn for direction and a sense of importance. This jihad business now provides a ready-made identity, a pre-packaged purpose, an instant social and political context, and a script – a marvellous load of waffle to spout, so they don’t have to be especially creative, yet this beguiling rhetoric convinces followers that they are leaders. “Jihad” provides a protocol for your life at an age at which you may be footloose: pray five times a day, tyrannise former friends with monotonous propaganda, buy pressure cookers. The suicidal construct gets you out of figuring out what to do with the rest of your life, while showering your truncated youth with perceived glory. The difference between the attractions of jihad and of school shooting is nearly zero.

Is the decline of the publishing  industry terminal?

Ebooks need not spell the end of mainstream publishing, so long as piracy is contained and their price remains high enough to support authors and publishers. But those are big ifs. Currently, piracy is heavily policed, and my publisher, HarperCollins, hires people whose whole job is to take down illegal websites that disseminate work for free. Should the volume of piracy approach that of online music, writing could rapidly cease to generate a viable livelihood. Likewise, should Amazon succeed in pushing the price of ebooks low enough, publishers will go out of business. So: watch this space.

Do young people spend too much time on social media – and what can parents do about it?

My biggest concern about social media is it is making people antisocial. Indirect, heavily mediated communication is taking the place of the face-to-face kind, and we haven’t changed that much; we still only become truly intimate by talking to each other. I’m struck by the fact that placing a phone call has become such a radical act. It now seems intrusive. Given a choice, we prefer texting or email. Smart “phones” are decreasingly used as phones. We’re becoming afraid of each other. Were I a parent, I’d encourage my kids to see their friends in person. I suspect inviting a friend to your house is also becoming a radical act. Fine, then: let’s get radical. I sometimes force myself to ring a friend rather than email. I’m always glad I did.

Your latest novel, Big Brother, examines our preoccupation with size. Why might young people today be more neurotic about issues like obesity than earlier generations?

We now live in a world of proliferating images – of others on the web (about whose appearances we generate mean, entertaining opinions) and of ourselves and our acquaintances, now that mobiles are also cameras. All these pictures everywhere help focus us on the visual impression we make. Meanwhile, too, both food and fat have come to dominate the media to a bizarre degree (especially television). This all must lead to a paralysing self-consciousness about looks and size for young people, and it’s already bad enough for crusties my age.

EF Schumacher said small is beautiful. Was he right?

He’d better be! I’m only 5ft 2in. More seriously, I do think we need to loosen up our physical aesthetic. Women, especially, have been made to feel inadequate merely for being three-dimensional. That’s even more the case now that models are Photoshopped into biologically infeasible figures that leave no room for internal organs. Small may be beautiful, but amplitude can be gorgeous, too. I’m encouraged by alternative role models like Adele; even Beyoncé has some heft to her. What a relief.

Is it morally wrong to be overweight?

You might make a case that the overweight consume more than their share of resources, both in terms of food and healthcare. But those issues aside, we attach way too much moral baggage to a medical matter. We interpret fat as a character failing. Accordingly, when we put on a few pounds, we feel unworthy – corrupted, weak, and unclean. We’ve not merely overeaten; we have sinned.

Losing weight might make you feel better – it might make you feel more attractive, and it might decrease your vulnerability to diabetes. But it won’t make you a better person. I resist the modern equivalence of skinniness with virtue. It’s that equivalence that makes young people fall prey to anorexia. Anorexics are ambitious. They’re high achievers. They have internalised the association between the slim and the Good. In which case, to reach the absolute of saintliness is to disappear.

‘Big Brother’ is published on 9 May

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