The Adolescent Age of Information

the brain with a matrix-style overlayIt might seem like the Information Age has been fatally corrupted with the election of our current POTUS, but I’m here to say that even though we have taken a few (okay, several) steps back, the work is far from over, and the future remains bright. What we as a culture suffer from now is the inability to deal rationally with the trove of data that is released upon us at every moment of our waking lives. Like children struggling to navigate the new responsibilities of independence, we have not yet figured out how to regulate our impulses in favor of deliberation and sound judgment. We give in to spontaneous reactions to “breaking” news without having all the facts, then vehemently defend our ill-conceived opinions due to the devastating effect admitting a mistake would have on our pride and self-perceived identity. Plus, it’s just easier to lump every headline under umbrella categories for which we’ve already formed opinions. And while there is no stopping the information (short of self-quarantine, which I do endorse in regular doses), we will get better at processing and evaluating what we hear. We will adapt. Reading and learning is hard. As adults, we are (will be) more willing to take on the challenge.

If this sounds like a problem we have faced all throughout history, it is. We humans have always been a gullible folk, and we believe whatever is easiest to believe. The difference today is the pace at which we encounter new information. Instantaneous global communication has created such an anxiety that careful consideration seems antiquated. Pause is no longer efficient, there’s just too much to take in. And, by the way, this is a problem for people at both ends of the spectrum of impressionability – those who don’t believe anything, and those who too willingly believe everything. Neither group has a healthy relationship with truth, although at least they are easy to spot, each often castigating the other for their polarity. We would do well to avoid both.

What you know best becomes what you know to be the best. Maturity has never been easy and won’t be now. Beliefs and opinions are often dependent upon incidence by default, and this bias is extremely difficult to overcome. You are very likely to identify with the political party and the religious denomination of your parents because you’ve had more exposure to those ideas than any others. This is already well-known to be true in the general terms of politics and religion, but what about more nuanced categories, such as science, media, education? Your level of exposure to an issue has enormous bearing on your ability to decipher the news and filter the fake from the real. If you have limited knowledge about a topic, your natural inclination is to find some association with knowledge you do have, basing your judgment on a larger theme of discourse. This coping mechanism is not without merit, for our understanding of one realm does and should inform our understanding of another. However, we should be sure to appreciate complexity and the consequence of unique variables. And now more than ever, we have access to the tools necessary for objective judgment. Listen to those who spend their lives working on an issue, look for consensus, and be willing to admit ignorance.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. This brings me to a primary lesson I keep coming back to in my studies: humility.  It takes far more courage to admit when knowledge is lacking than to scream in protest when your stance is contested. We just haven’t yet found the courage to learn rather than scream. This makes our present situation all the more difficult, but we’ll get there. Slowly, perhaps painfully, knowledge will eventually win out. It always does.

 

 

Forgiving Hypocrisy

 

cave-canem

“Beware of the Dog”, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (1st century CE)

Advocacy is a tricky thing, especially when you are trying to condone a behavior. I have lots of opinions on how we should act in relation to food, but I don’t mind admitting that I am often a hypocrite, and you should be too. So long as there is no encroachment upon the freedom of another person and you aren’t trying to claim glory for righteousness (both of which should be avoided anyway), I don’t see anything wrong with voicing an informed opinion about something and yet, at times, acting counter to that opinion. If involuntary, the transgression should be met with leniency and reflection, but it’s also worthwhile to revisit our established prejudices voluntarily from time to time in order to reevaluate the merits of our stance, even if that means behaving in a way you don’t generally prescribe. Occasionally acting outside your comfort zone is a good thing.

For example, I have long advocated for an avoidance of highly processed foods, by which I mean those that are artificially packed with salts, sugars, and fats in order to create addictive bliss points. (The reasons why are for another post.) Still, as everybody knows, the best ketchup is Heinz (obviously), and I’ve given up any pretense that I can make my own ketchup that tastes just as good or replace it with something “healthier”. I’ve tried both, and probably will again, but neither have come close to Heinz. This is one instance when I would be denying myself the best of its kind if I were to commit to a relentless adherence to my message. So while I am all for avoiding highly processed foods as a general rule, there is no need to be an ascetic. Moderation in all things means limiting your consumption; it also means not eliminating your consumption. Avoiding indulgences makes them more enjoyable when they are consumed. Being a hypocrite has its perks.

Forgiveness of hypocrisy is especially important in today’s culture if we are to remedy divisive discourse. The succinct and inciteful nature of social media often favors extremist remarks as a means of capturing the attention of a reader. Complexity or vacillation is vilified for showing weakness, and so arguments become simple and rigid, cavalier validations for the like-minded rather than invitations for worthwhile dialogue. Make no mistake, inflammatory headlines are extremely effective as click-bait. They are also extremely ineffective in the dissemination of accurate information. There are often real and valid concerns hidden underneath, but since they suppress rather than encourage a constructive exchange of ideas, messages that may be moderately valid needlessly suffer under the strain of rigidity. We can do better as both authors and interlocutors.

My point is that I see no reason to shy away from making claims about our relationships with food for fear of sounding like a hypocrite, nor do I see any reason to adopt extreme stances in the pursuit of readers. I try to avoid absolutes in an effort to deliver a message that is accurate, helpful, and accessible. Rather than asking yes/no questions, I tend to ask TWE (To What Extent) questions. I love complexity and intricacy and I cherish my good fortune that allows me the luxury of inquiry. Moreover, I am flexible. Except when I’m not.

Further reading: Scientific American, on how charges of hypocrisy can stifle meaningful dialogue.

 

Hello, World!

vincent_van_gogh_1853-1890_-_wheat_field_with_crows_1890

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890

Our personal relationship with food is the most honest expression of ourselves that exists anywhere in our lives, for our most fundamental philosophies and opinions about life are represented in how we choose to fuel our bodies. More than our religious beliefs or our jobs or careers or hobbies, more than our homes or what we put in them, even more than what we wear or how we look, what we eat is the essence of who we are, just as Brillat-Savarin famously quipped two centuries ago.¹ Food is life and life revolves around food, no matter whether you are more interested in simply abating the annoyance of hunger or seeking out the creations of the world’s best chefs. For both extremes and for everyone in between, our food choices tell the genuine story of our identity.

This is not only true for individuals, but for each and every grouping in which people associate with one another, from nuclear families to neighborhoods and nationalities. The effort we put into planning a meal is intrinsically connected to the government’s deployment of tax dollars in the food system. I am interested in how the variables work together, and the implications of change. This blog will be where I confront these issues.

So, the plan. I am a ponderer. I like to take time to prepare and think things through. A reasonable expectation for myself is to make a weekly post (HA!) on something I find interesting in the world of food. There will be categories, of course, but I presume they will take shape as the posts accumulate. I will cite sources, resulting in a list of trusted news and reference sites (and other media) in order to ensure that my musings are based upon good evidence. I also welcome constructive dialogue, if anyone is inclined to participate. Ultimately, I want to contribute to ongoing conversations about food policies, both public and private. I see food as a lens through which we can examine our very humanity. Food is important. Food is intriguing. Food is supremely satisfying. Time to dig in.

¹ “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Brillat-Savarin, J.A. (1825) Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante. Translated by Anderson, R.E. (1877) Gastronomy as a fine art, or, The science of good living : A translation of the “Physiologie du goût” of Brillat-Savarin. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly.