The Things We Moralize

Today I want to look at the things that we moralize and the things that are conspicuously absent from talk of morality and responsibility. We have endless conversations about “good” foods and “bad” foods (designations, it should be noted, that are constantly shifting). We have “guilty pleasures”, “naughty treats”, and “sinful sweets”. And on the flip side we have “clean” foods (a designation, it turns out, that has nothing to do with bleaching your food before eating it).  We have the “best” exercises to “trouble shoot” your “problem areas”. In short, we have morally sanctioned ways to be in our bodies–and we have the opposite of that. As can be seen any time anyone anywhere on the internet has the audacity to not hate themselves for failing to conform to the prevailing impossible-to-attain body ideals.

I have looked, elsewhere, at how good citizenship in the neoliberal paradigm is enacted through the choices we make and our ability to keep our bodies in line while consuming food like never before in human history. Whether this means through highly processed diet foods or through prohibitively expensive local, grassfed meats, we have internalized the message that health–and indeed ethics–are borne out in the things we buy and consume.

Yet the conversation around how and why we consume is conspicuously absent. Because our choices go beyond what we choose to put in our bodies and how well those choices enable us to inhabit bodies that can be read as rational (read: thin, able-bodied, preferably non-racialized, wealthy), and thus entrusted with the responsibility of citizenship through consumption. In fact, it is this focus on the individual level that is so dang problematic with the neoliberal paradigm. We have been tricked into thinking eating large amounts of meat is okay as long as we know the farmer; that eating palm oil is okay as long as the margarine is vegan; that buying a dress a week is okay as long as its manufacturer signed the Bangladesh Accord; that living in large, detached, single-family homes is okay as long as we drive a hybrid and turn off the lights.

The plain fact is that our current cultural obsession with consumption is destroying the planet. According to the UN (we ain’t talkin’ some fringe vegan group here!):

Agricultural production accounts for 70% of the global freshwater consumption and 38% of the total land use. Food production accounts for 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 60% of the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution and 30% of toxic pollution in Europe.

And while every vegan has been gleefully told that harvesting plants kills tiny animals in fields, the fact is animals (the vast, vast, vast majority of which are “food” animals) are fed over half of all of the crops grown worldwide (which should finally put that irritating talking point to bed but doubtless won’t).

And that cute romper from Forever 21 has a sinister secret of horrific labour conditions that have resulted in hundreds of tragic deaths as well as massive environmental damage from the petroleum-based polyester as well as the inhibition of local markets in developing countries as our used clothes are imported and sold for much cheaper than anything made locally could compete with.

But a funny thing happens when you bring up the ethical ramifications of that burger or this dress: people get defensive–even angry. Because in a culture where we enact both our duties of citizenship and our sense of individuality through our consumptive choices, any critical look at those choices feels like an attack. Rather than a conversation about food security and globalization, mentioning the impacts of our new zeal for quinoa turns into discomfort and cognitive dissonance even among progressive, politically engaged people (I won’t tell you where I bought the dress I’m wearing but it rhymes with shmarget). And what often happens then is that rather than getting angry at a system that has duped us into consuming ourselves into oblivion, we get angry at the person who pointed out the ramifications of our $2 hamburger or our $7 jeans.

Because it’s a lot easier to moralize butter (used to be bad but is now good!) vs. margarine (used to be good but is now bad!) than it is to examine how we are implicated in environmental degradation and wide-scale human and animal rights violations. And it is a hell of a lot easier to drive to Whole Foods to buy Ocean Wise tuna than it is hold ourselves and our politicians accountable for the systems that can only work through massive exploitation and devastation.

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