The moral significance of modern food | John kainer


The French sociologist Émile Durkheim took moral questions very seriously. A descendant of seven generations of rabbis, he was to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the rabbinate. Instead, he pursued a career as a professor and established sociology – which he described as the science of morality – as a separate discipline.

In his masterpiece on religion, Elementary forms of religious life, Durkheim argued that once one makes a distinction between what is “profane” (the ordinary and the everyday) and the “sacred” (that which transcends the ordinary and the everyday), one has religion. . Readers of First things might disagree with such a reductive simplification. Yet Durkheim’s definition helps us grasp a deep truth: humans are religious creatures. Indeed, all societies are filled with symbols that point beyond themselves to something else. When the symbols point to something bigger, you have the makings of Platonism. But when they point to something low or selfish, you have anomie.

Usually translated as “absence of norm”, anomie refers to a state of rule where there are no rules. It is not that there is a lack of prescriptions for social behavior, but rather a pervasive suspicion surrounds social prescriptions that have lost their binding authority. Durkheim explored anomie in various social institutions, including marriage, economics, and education. Yet his concept of anomie is useful for studying other social phenomena in which elements of the sacred and the profane operate, including the modern food system.

The modern food system is essentially its own religious system, using a web of symbols and phrases to make moral claims and create its own sacred-secular distinction. “Sacred” foods thus receive nicknames such as “super foods” and are described using the language of purity: “all natural”, “GMO free”, “sugar free”, “gluten free”, “fat free” -free ”,“ top-ten-allergen-free ”, etc.

These sacred symbols adorn the packaging, displays and advertising of food producers, conveying much more than just nutritional information. In all religious systems, the sacred must be set apart; thus wrappers and wrappers, while certainly practical, also serve to maintain the barrier between sacred and secular foods. It should be noted that “profane” for Durkheim did not necessarily mean “dirty” or “unclean”, but rather meant something similar to Augustine’s conception of evil – a kind of deprivation. So it is not that secular foods are “unhealthy”, but rather that they lack the essential quality of sacred foods.

This is compounded by competing claims from various health experts and food gurus who label some foods “sacred” and other foods “secular”. For Atkins and Keto, fat is sacred and carbs are secular. For South Beach dieters, lean protein and low glycemic carbohydrates are sacred, while fatty meat and high glycemic index carbohydrates are secular. For Whole 30 dieters, “whole” foods are sacred, while anything processed, preserved, or with added sugar is secular. Each diet therefore invites its followers to stay pure (“eating clean” is a well-known expression).

Food labels, however, don’t just point out to potential customers, they are also used through clients to signal their moral goodness to their peers. The quality of its food, ingredients and snacks all indicate the apparent goodness of the consumer. This is because the marketing claims of many food companies are designed to make consumers feel good about themselves when they purchase a product. Labels like “fair trade”, “non-GMO”, “organic”, “sustainably farmed” and even “never treated with antibiotics” are not just health claims, but badges of moral significance.

When someone says he only buys fair trade coffee, we are led to infer that he cares about economic justice for the producers and, therefore, that he is a good person. The assertion that he alone buy fair trade is intended to signal that the buyer is fair and equitable, that he cares about the “good” things and that he deserves our admiration. Think about asking yourself why no one is proclaiming never buy fair trade products.

Every meal is now an opportunity to signal one’s moral righteousness, and not just in person, but by posting photos of dishes on social media and using hashtags to fit into the categories we strive to belong to. In the often-quoted words of Brillat-Savarin, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”.

Unfortunately, the biblical meaning of consumption, “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” has been replaced by an anomic conception of consumption where we consume, physically and metaphorically, to display our goodness, our discriminating taste and our informed judgment about it. which is good. Despite all our appetites, we no longer hunger and thirst for justice, but for affirmation of our rightness. There is always more food and more affirmation to be had. While our cup is overflowing, we find that the more we consume, the more hungry we are.

John Kainer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word.

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