Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Controlling Your Appetites, Or Not

I am feeling a bit behind the times today. Last February Mary Eberstadt published a wonderful essay called: "Is Food the New Sex?" I hadn't heard of it until today when David Brooks gave it a well-deserved award. Link here.

Eberstadt's argument is elegant for its simplicity, and brilliant for its concision. It's very "high concept."

She begins by observing that we Americans have now arrived at the point where we can, for all intents and purposes, eat as much as we like and have as much sex as we like.

What happens when food consumption is no longer governed by laws regulating scarcity and when sex is plentiful and readily available?

Eberstadt is not just interested in our patterns of consumption, but even more in the moral codes we use to regulate our appetites, or not.

Eberstadt argues that our moral attitudes toward these two appetites have undergone something of a sea change. We used to eat what we liked, and did not worry about what other people ate. Food consumption used to be a matter of personal taste.

And yet, among the young and the educated, or better, among the higher classes-- as though it were a matter of class identification-- people believe that what we eat should be subjected to strict moral regulation.

In many enlightened circles a good person, a person of high moral standing, is someone who does not eat animal flesh or animal products.

More than that,he does not stop at the brown rice and tofu. He also feels that he must proselytize his gospel. He sets out on a mission to convert others to his beliefs and practices. Having appointed himself to the august position of savior of the planet and all its creatures, he feels a moral necessity to make sure that everyone consumes according to his example.

Whether or not he is aware of it, he is, as Eberstadt notes, a Kantian. He believes that his personal moral decisions should be universal laws.

As Eberstadt readily admits, much of what we now know about nutrition points us toward more healthy eating. But at the same time, much of what we know about sexual license points us toward a more judicious expenditure of our sexual resources.

Yet, the moral scolds among us have decided that we must all show the greatest respect for our alimentary canals, while we dare not show the least respect for our sexual being.

According to the new rules, when it comes to sexual appetite, the commonly-held moral wisdom says that anything, or just-about-anything goes When it comes to your appetite for food, nothing, or just-about-nothing goes.

When someone is misbehaving sexually we dare not utter a word. When someone is mistreating his body by filling it with junk food or processed food or sugar or animal fat we feel that we are morally obligated to speak out and condemn his choices.

Eberstadt's argument should alert us to the simple fact that our moral reasoning has been infected with intemperance. This all-or-nothing moral thinking means that neither of our two appetites is submitted to rational control. Surely, we would all be better off it food consumption suffered less regulation and sexual consumption more.

Take the example of a borderline foodstuff... tobacco. See Claude Levi-Strauss' examination of South American Indian myths about tobacco consumption in his book: "From Honey to Ashes."

We do not ingest tobacco, but we consume the product of its combustion. And we do not do so any which way. Rituals and ceremonies involving smoking have long been commonplace. Their existence alerts us to the fact that tobacco has a social, if not biochemical, privilege. There was a time, within the memory of those of us who are older, when cigarettes were present at parties and business meetings.

We also know that tobacco smoke contains a powerful anti-depressant called nicotine. It is not an accident that so many people have been addicted to tobacco smoke.

Now, of course, we also know that tobacco is a poison. It is bad for our health, and it is something that most of us have or should quit.

Yet, the culture does not consider smoking a personal or a private matter. It is not just the smoker's business; it is presumed to be everyone's business.

The culture condemns smokers in the most strenuous terms. Smokers are not merely considered to be fools who are damaging their health. They are treated as moral lepers; they are shunned from polite society; they are treated as pariahs.

You might say that we all pay for the smoker's bad habit, through increased health insurance premiums, just as we all pay for the obese individual's overeating. Smoking makes people sick; overeating does the same.

This is surely true, but the same can be said about anonymous and promiscuous sex. How many young women have contracted STDs from such practices? What is the prevalence of herpes and PID among young women today? How many women have fertility problems because of the aftereffects of youthful sexual indiscretions?

I am not trying to moralize about sex. I am not even trying to bring back the bad old days of sexual repression. I am simply supporting Eberstadt's argument that bad health consequences alone do not explain why we feel that we have the right to condemn those who smoke or who eat the wrong foods, while we feel that we must not cast the least moral aspersion on any sexual practice performed by two consenting human beings.

One of our two appetites is subject to strict moral regulation; the other is subject to nearly none.

Eberstadt is well aware of the fact that many religions have sumptuary rules. These rules, she explains, told believers what to do with food once they got it. They did not tell people to dwell on food, to make it a quasi-religious experience, an assertion of their fundamental moral goodness.

Dietary rules have traditionally been invoked for reasons of health, but also to enhance religion. They make you part of an organized community, not an inchoate cult.

According to Eberstadt, the new mania about food is not part of a religion; it is supposed to replace religion.

As you read Eberstadt one question looms about all else. How did we get to this point, and what does this moral deformity mean?

Her conclusion: in the hidden recesses of our brains we are uncomfortable with the excesses of the sexual revolution. Yet, we are so afraid to be considered sexually repressed or neurotic that we cannot bring ourselves to find fault with any form of sexual expression.

But if we deregulate one area of human behavior, we are still human and we still much demonstrate that we have the capacity for following rules and for controlling our appetites. If we did not we would be less than human, and surely less than ethical members of human community.

Since the rules governing good consumption are only incidentally about food consumption, they are far too rigid and, at times, irrational.

Yet, we follow them anyway, because our human dignity is at stake.


Tarek said...

Great article. There's LOT of controversy in it. More than could be discussed in just a comment :-)

But I do have one question. I'm not an American, but I've always thought that when someone is misbehaving sexually they will still be judged. True, maybe not a word is uttered to them. But they will still be treated as the public would treat a smoker. Or have I got all this wrong?!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the comment and the question. Surely, there are occasions where people are shunned for bad sexual behavior. I suspect that when politicians are involved, political expediency influences what people think of as right and wrong. And some teenagers continue to ostracize girls who seem to have bad reputations. After all, the sexual revolution did not repeal human nature.
Nevertheless, I think that Eberstadt has an important point. It is also common that teenagers are proud of their sexual accomplishments, or their skill at performing certain sexual acts. I suspect that there is a greater stigma to virginity than to being sexually experienced. And if we consider how much teenaged time is spent on the internet looking at pornography, then clearly something in the public attitude has changed.
Add to that the educational establishment that has insisted that all sexual activities are created equal, and that no one should ever feel ashamed or guilty about one's sexual experience.
So I think that if we are looking at broad cultural attitudes and values, there has clearly been a shift in the direction of destigmatizing sexual activities. When it comes to tobacco, however, there is really no ambiguity about public attitudes; smoking is condemned and smokers are almost always treated as pariahs. I would suspect that it is extremely difficult to go to a party in the U.S. and find people smoking. Or to go to someone's home and find ashtrays.
I hope this will clarify the issue.