Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Yet Another Turn Off: Give Me a Break Today

I love comments from folks on my posts (well,when they're not spam...). And ongoing readers will know that I am never averse to responding to comments. But there hadn't been many comments recently -- maybe I wasn't writing anything controversial, I don't know. Then I posted on Eric Schlosser and McDonald's, and what do you know? Four comments! I responded to them at some length, and then realised that I wanted to say a bit more, and say it as a post in its own right. So here we go.

First, to you four: welcome to Gower Street! Allow me to register my surprise that all four of you seem to have taken my post as the opportunity to join blogger. What a surprise! (By any chance do you four know each other?)

Thank you for your thoughts.

I find it odd -- and rather dismaying -- that each of you decided to focus on Mr. Schlosser's 'background' (each of you used this very word). In terms of logic, this is called "argumentum ad hominem", a logical fallacy. That is to say, one cannot defeat someone's argument by saying bad things about that person; any number of things might be true about Mr. Schlosser, but that has no bearing on whether or not he is right. This kind of argumentation is a distraction. (For a biblical example of this, when Balaam's donkey spoke, Balaam did not discount it because it was a donkey; he did not "consider the source".) If Schlosser takes a position you disagree with and think is wrong (on decriminalising marijuana, for example), that does not mean that his facts (or motives) are instantly suspect when it comes to, say, the number of adverts on TV devoted to fast food. We need to focus on the truth of the matter, not distracting side issues.

I say that I am dismayed, but it is not just because you four -- independently of each other? -- slipped into the same problem. No, I'm dismayed because it seems rampant today. You hear this sort of thing all the time in relation to Bill Clinton, for example: because he lied about Monica Lewinski you can't trust him on anything. And this kind of sloppy thinking is not limited to those on the right, either: you hear the same sort of thing about George W. Bush: because he lied/ cooked the books/ was culpably misinformed about WMDs in Iraq, then how can we trust him on anything? And these two are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this (believe me, for me to even invoke their names makes me feel as if I've constructed straw figures).

More than that, I am dismayed that you four have changed a disagreement with Schlosser's arguments into insinuations about his moral character. And the allegations you make are unsubstantiated, or only vague and suggestive. Is Schlosser "sensationalist"? If so, does that preclude him from telling the truth? Does it mean he necessarily distorts facts? Or does it mean the topics he addresses are surprising, thus causing a 'sensation'? If he does indeed propose reforming the American justice system (v-v drugs, etc.), what arguments does he raise? How are those arguments right or wrong? Or does simply raising a question about the justice system make someone of bad character?

Moreover, I think that blaming the food industry is part of it. They are not merely "communicating their message". They spend millions of pounds, millions of dollars every year to persuade us to buy their food. My point about more people globally recognising the McDonald's arches than the cross: while that can be substantiated, the point is not to blame McDonald's, it is simply to put into perspective just how driven and effective their marketing is. I mean, gosh, we've had 2000 years; they've had, what, 60?

Or I'll tell you a personal story. We rarely eat fast food. My 4-year old daughter has eaten at McDonald's, maybe ten times in her life. Maybe a little more but not much. When she was something like one and a half or two she could identify the McDonald's golden arches, and say she wanted to go there. Is their marketing to kids effective? You tell me.

Like my brother said to me in an e-mail: we wouldn't even be having this conversation if, instead of every five minutes talking about a burger and fries, fast food marketers started talking about how cool it is to eat salads and how being healthy is fun and makes you popular. How awesome would McDonald's look in 20 years if they singlehandedly led a huge push for health for children?

Yes, of course we are responsible for ourselves as well. I'm pretty tired of the argument that says we shouldn't talk about or demand improvements from other parts of society because we ought to take responsibility for ourselves. I don't know anyone who is criticising a fast food chain and saying that it is all their fault. (And if anyone is, they ought to know better.) But to say that it is not all their fault doesn't mean that they have no responsibility for what they say and so. And part of being responsible for ourselves is being responsible for our cultural environment, making discerning choices and demanding changes when they're needed -- like marketing to impressionable children. And part of being personally responsible also means being moderate in your intake of certain things: fast food, tobacco, alcohol, sweets, and so forth.*

We are shaped as people not simply by our wills, but by our environments. So why not do something to shape that?

And if anyone is not yet persuaded at the size and power of the global culture industries -- McD is only the tip of the iceberg here, but a big one** -- then I heartily encourage you to read The (Magic) Kingdom of God by Michael Budde. He does an excellent job of describing the environment in which the church is trying to form disciples, and the pitfalls that we encounter in the face of media and marketing. (This was, you will recall, my major point in the original post.)

Finally, the (often implicit) argument that our concern should be primarily or solely on ourselves and our children and not on others (such as McDonald's) actually supports the idea of legalisation of drugs and the spread of pornography. (This is a common libertarian point.) After all, if my responsibility is for myself only, then why should I worry if someone else is getting smoked up or watching degenerate filth in the privacy of their own homes? If, on the other hand, you don't think this is just fine, then perhaps McDonald's -- or other places, too, I don't mean to single them out over, say, Burger King, or whatever -- might be fair game for legitimate concern, too?

* And lest any of this sound like I wish to outlaw fast food or some other non sequitur, I assure you, if you haven't gotten the point of my post it is this: 1) certain marketing practices ought to change and 2) notice the sort of environment that the church is in; how does it effect us in our formation as Christians? Although I don't tend to eat fast food, I have no desire to get rid of it, but rather to encourage moderation. Britons are learning this, thank God, as sales of fast food and greasy or sugary snacks have fallen, and sales of whole grains and fresh fruits and veg are up.

** How big? Last year, McDonald's reported revenues of $20 billion (£11bn), setting a record for the company. That sounds like a lot -- and it is: it's larger that the Gross Domestic Product of Costa Rica. If it were a country, it would have the 80th largest GDP in the world. (Of course, the real big boys like Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil dwarf McDonald's -- and most other nations, as well.)

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