Sunday, February 24, 2013

Word Games: Addiction

The following is a fourteen page article from the New York Times about the junk food industry:

Can you make it through the entire thing? No, probably not; even people I know who are into this kind of stuff post up TL;DR responses to its size, so I wouldn't expect normal people to read it all. But the point of it, and the narrative way of telling the story, are predictable enough for you to probably guess what it says. Junk food is addictive. There is an amazing science attached to getting you hooked on the stuff, and it works so well that the poor consumer becomes a helpless pawn in the game, at the mercy of corporate greed. There are noble scientists who tried to change things on the inside, who hold the businesses accountable for the welfare of the consumers, and who failed due to the horrible pressures of capitalism.

There are also references to changed lifestyles, increased desire for convenience, the death of family meals, mothers in the workforce, and even how children like power, so there's a bit of honesty. And some of the research is just fascinating; did you know that humans prefer a chip that breaks at four pounds per square inch? The notion of "mouth feel" (insert your own penis joke here) has gone beyond the purview of the sommolier and into soft drinks. Ever heard of "vanishing caloric density"? It happens with dissolving foods like Chee-tos, how they trick the brain into thinking that there's basically no calories there, so you just eat the shit out of them.

Damn, they're good. The comments section already refers to "Big Food" with a deeper loathing than we had for Big Tobacco, back when that was the thing.

So, what's the appropriate response? Does the power scare you a bit, make you think that your eating habits are not under your control and that something should be done? Cool. You're probably right about some part of that. So let's regulate the industry to give us what we need instead of what we desire. We can have the illusion of choice, while making all the choices healthier. Of course, some parts of the article made it clear that communicating to the consumer that a food has become more healthy is also a green-light for the consumer to eat more of it, much more. So maybe we shouldn't tell the consumer about the changes in the food. It's a difficult thing, controllable manipulation: if you control the message and let people cut loose, they can go way too far; if you tell them to hold back, you will probably fail because they will probably fail, so you end up demonizing the stuff for the sake of scaring people into doing what needs to be done; if they do hold back and you tell them that they've done a good job, then they relax and go back to going way too far. Also, there are also economic costs if you reduce the consumption, because thousands of jobs would evaporate if Big Food were to do what was right by its customers' health rather than what makes it money. It would have to; the best thing for its customers' health is to simply eat less, period.

How many jobs in this economy rely on something that could be classified as "addiction"? I ask because there is no easy demarcation between addiction and simple enjoyment of something; all good things can be taken to excess, and that's in the nature of pleasure in our brain chemistry. There's nothing uniquely evil about junk food, or cigarettes, or alcohol, or sex, all of which come in for media scrutiny as causing addictions. I can easily say that I'm addicted to music, both listening to it and playing it. And that addiction comes with a cost greater than just the purchase price; there are opportunity costs, every hour spent on music being time that I could have spent working, or studying, or reading up on the heart-rendering plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Should I sue Sony for making my mp3 player or Gretsch for making my drum set, righteously reclaiming everything they've cost me?

Of course not. And we all know, when it's said in a sensible way, that the philosophical issues at play in issues of "addiction" are far deeper than the media makes it out to be, that responsibility cannot be taken so lightly as a subject. The media portrays it like a good-vs-evil proposition, demonizing junk food makers like drug dealers (another group that gets more shit than they deserve). It benefits their story to over-dramatize it.

The thing about addiction is that it has become our way of assaulting over-indulgence, without actually criticizing people for giving in to what prior generations would have simply called a vice. Do we know the difference between an addiction and a vice or habit? Is there any difference, except for the reaction you want to pull out of people when you use it? Because that's a big difference. A vice is a failure on the part of the person who holds it; an addiction can abdicate the consumer's responsibility and therefore be a safe, non-judgmental beginning of a movement. An addiction demands the empathy of the surrounding society and questions who took advantage of this poor soul. And it treats everyone like a child in the process.

Children played prominently in the article, too, because they're particularly helpless. The hard difference in responsibility between an adult and a child has essentially disappeared, but children still have wider eyes and are less threatening and cuter, so they always pull more concern from the audience. And children are, indeed, particularly vulnerable to creating bad habits early on. But the shadow issue slipped into the article when it talked about Lunchables: focus group questioning brought out the reality that moms couldn't deal with the "morning rush" every day before they bustled off to work. They weren't fixing their kids' meals like homemakers had in decades past, and this is one of the main reasons that convenience has become so important in the food industry. That's what two-income households need. Call this an unavoidable evolution of culture, but you have to admit that so many of these issues could be defeated by having one parent stay home and focus on raising the family, looking into nutrition facts, putting time into watching what the kids ate and fixing meals. But no one questions this, not only because of the problems with media critiquing of feminism and workplace equality, but also because of issues like people's economic expectations of income and convenience that are tied to it. Women aren't required to work, but even if they aren't feminists, everyone in the situation likes money and think it can - hell, it should - solve their problems. Issues like that simply aren't to be brought up. Now, instead, we have to trust a for-profit corporation to create foods for us and expect there be no downsides and no need for the consumer to be careful. Really? Who expects this to just work?

What I do like about the article is that it's too long for most readers. It's highly appropriate to me, because while the report looks to be a mild slam against the excesses of consumerism, it actually isn't. It's consumerist itself. The report brings the attention of the people to a problem, and the people cannot solve this problem themselves, because they're addicted. So then the government should get involved; the media made positive mention of Finland's use of packaging regulation for a reason. Thus the media and government dispense justice with a quick one-two punch, packaged by the machine and sold to us, in convenient fun-size portions. Like the junk food it rails against, the short-term pleasure of it hides the long-term dangers of getting used to it, making it a habit, getting addicted to it. A culture that goes long enough without taking the healthy route of making people solve their own problems, of encouraging workable family structure, of pushing people to purchase products from those they trust instead of those who offer the lowest price tag, the harder it will be to un-fuck the situation and create a sustainable system.

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