|Photo Credit: Morgue File by Mantasmagorical|
For this week's Team Ambiguity post, I'm going to look at what I think is one of the most interesting things I have encountered in the last several weeks: the idea that mere exposure, under controlled circumstances, to images of organic foods, can make people behave more judgmentally and less compassionately immediately afterward. This article by Diane Mapes in Health on Today discusses a study conducted by the Psych Department of Loyola under the leadership of assistant professor Kendall Eskine. For the study, 60 undergrads were divided into three groups, one of which was exposed to clearly marked images of organic food, one images of unhealthy comfort food and the last (the control group) images of food that were neither particularly unhealthy nor organic. The groups were then asked to make moral judgments on depictions of various moral breaches, which they rated from one to seven. After that, they were asked to volunteer for a bogus study, delineating the amount of time they would be available. The results were that people who had been looking at the organic apples and spinach were more likely to condemn and less willing to help. The nicest people? Brownie viewers. The results, apparently, are due to a phenomenon called "moral licensing."
I will admit that I can't help but view this result with a certain amount of snickering satisfaction. Having lived for years in a place where people acted with regard to iced cookies like they were Fred Phelps at Richard Simmons' funeral, I enjoy a certain amount of Schadenfreude when the moral perfection of Whole Foods shoppers comes into question. I say this, though, as a woman who both purchases a weekly farm box from a local organic farm and is growing her own organic produce. It has often been my observation that the privileged position of being able to buy one's own health food at a store can sometimes produce snobbery and total lack of sympathy for those whose disposable income and priorities do not find them spending $8 a pound for grass-fed beef. But the fact that just looking at pictures of organic food would produce a similar result? That's kind of astounding.
The framework for a Team Ambiguity post is that we (Team Ambiguity) take a deeper look, past shallow assumptions, easy answers and side-taking. In each discourse we consider, there is a body in the living room and all the conversation is about the weather or the wine. Our job is to examine the body, identify it and try to say why it is there. I will throw some ideas out, but the rest is up to you. The magic happens in comments, so you're going to want to make sure and hit "Subscribe by email." Here is my take so far:
The Left Leg: This isn't about organic food. Let's just start from that point, so the conversation can get really interesting right away. Kenneth Eskine, interestingly, already knows this. Organic food is something that we associate with a kind of correctness that we either accede to or rebel against. For some of us, perhaps, pesticides and factory farms are wonderful advances of human technology, but, mostly, we see them as necessary or unnecessary evils. We give in, we stand up or we compromise. Perhaps, we don't care. But the association remains. So what was this Loyola team really testing? Perhaps, in organic food, they found a perfect symbol to access the real question of moral licensing itself. Do our associations with what we think is right automatically predispose us to act like asses? Would we get the same result with exposure of the right demographics to pictures of babies worn in slings or nursing, people praying or meditating, people doing yoga, or eight ounces of fresh water?
The Right Leg: There's right and then there's right. I keep coming back to the thought that there is a profound difference between buying a bundle of organic spinach at Whole Foods and growing your own spinach and an even greater difference between those and teaching people in a desert wasteland to grow their own spinach using permaculture. I can't make out how and if any of this factors into flashcards of organic food and moral ratings, but, when I reflect on the most obnoxious organic foodies I know, what stands out for me is that they are consumers, never farmers. And I'd say this holds true across the line. The religious folk who stand around throwing words of stone are never the same ones in the ghettos not just saving souls but lives. We can't afford judgement when we are placed in the fray. If we have energy to condemn, it is symptom of inaction and apathy, not moral elevation.
The Left Arm: Are we what we see? If we are immediately and objectively influenced by the vision of an apple with an organic sticker, if this sight makes us subtly and temporarily a different human being, what does that say about the rest of our media selections? I find I cannot regularly read anybody without having them show up in my writing. Does Gregory House in some way inform who I am as a human being? And does this mean I have to stop watching True Blood?
The Right Arm: Is sin the best avenue for virtue? The fact that the comfort food viewers were the least judgmental and most helpful has gone largely unremarked in the articles I have read on this subject. But what does that mean? In the presence of those items which we enjoy but which make us feel less than something less than righteous, it seems we become the kindest. Would Christmas be half as much fun if we served beet salads and sprouted quinoa? Apparently not. And doesn't this hold true in life in general? Humility is often the catalyst for giving. Exhibit A: Alcoholics Anonymous. Only a sinner can give of themselves in this particular way and only if they never forget what an utter and complete waste of space they once were. The never-forgetting is essential to the impetus to be there for the next sufferer who drags themselves pitifully in the door. To forget is to become indifferent. It's the wrongness, not the rightness that breeds love.
The Body: Be very, very wary of your moral associations. How then do we proceed? Whether we are reacting to the inherent virtue of organics or merely the inherent virtue of apples, we need to stop and check ourselves. There is nothing wrong with organic food. In fact, in terms of certain kinds of organic food–locally grown, personally grown, using bio-intensive methods–I would argue that this is the direction we should be looking as a species if we want to preserve our planet and feed the hungry. But what do we think it means about us? Exercise is also good, but it isn't charity. It doesn't buy us any freedom from moral obligation. Mediation and mindfulness practices are ultimately selfish if we aren't using them to make the world a better place.
I think we associate the consumption or personal practice of notions we have labeled as "good" with doing good. You can't purchase morality at the store. At best, you can excuse yourself at times from participation in the worst of a destructive system. You can support a farmer, a businessman. This does not make you a good person. It makes you the owner of a bar of chocolate labeled "fair trade." The work of being a good person is done with others, in the practice of compassion and the gifts of our time and talent to the people and causes that we love. It demands presence, not to oneself, but to others. And you can do it with an apple as well as with a brownie. As long as you remember that the apple is not some sort of moral coupon that buys you out of loving others.
Now I want to know: What do you think? Faith in Ambiguity is open to all view points, especially dissenting ones and those that think they don't matter. The rules of discourse dictate respect at all times. Chime in and share widely.
Reason.com by Baylen Linekin: Do Organic Consumers Shop Exclusively at the Jerk Store?
Martin Cizmar at Chubster: An Idiot Walks into a Farmer's Market
Do Good Deeds Make Bad People? by Clot, Grolleau, Ibanez
Images are used according to allowable terms by Morguefile.