The morality of feeling pleasure
Thanks to elena in comments for pointing me towards this wretchedly silly article from B.R. Myers in the Atlantic, where he denounces foodies through a mish-mash of casting aspersions on people who actually enjoy their bodies, engaging in the half-baked populism of portraying people you dislike as all too wealthy to understand the no doubt earthy simplicity of the author (who, in this case, lives the working class life of the contributing editor to a prominent magazine, when not taking on his other paid blue collar work as a professor of international studies), and weakening his already-weak argument by grouping genuinely different people together in order to make them all look bad. It’s hard to summarize his argument, but basically it goes like this: “Foodies are horrible people, because they’re all rich. Plus, some of them commit the greatest sin imaginable in modern America, which is trying to live liberal values, but they’re all lying hypocrites because others in the same vague category don’t have those liberal values. If this doesn’t make any sense, consider this: they really like eating, which is disgusting and sensual and therefore has to be wrong.”
Seriously, the problem with the article begins with the category “foodie”, which does encompass a fairly wide range of people, in my experience. Yes, it includes obscenely wealthy types and Anthony Bourdain types who will stuff their face with anything (no matter how unethical), but many to most foodies I know got there because they actually live their values, which made them think more about food and made them more appreciative of the pleasure it brings. Yes, some of us are rich, but some of us got into food because we were looking for ways to save money without eating a bunch of unhealthy junk, which requires learning more about food and avoiding packaging and processing. I’d say most foodies are probably in the middle class, not the upper classes. And lumping people who promote sustainable food projects with Anthony Bourdain because they all like to eat is like saying that Dr. Ruth and Jenna Jameson are basically the same person. I’m not trying to put anyone down here—I like Bourdain, because he’s a rake and he doesn’t apologize for it, which makes him an infinitely more pleasant-sounding person than Myers—just noting that vague categories really ought to resist these kind of highly specific criticisms that only apply to some members.
The only time Myers really sounds coherent is when he gets in a huff over the sin of gluttony, defined in this case apparently as enjoying too much.
In Medium Raw he congratulates Waters on having “made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good.” Not to everyone, perhaps, but okay.
The Roman historian Livy famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline.
He’s quick to be clear that you don’t have to be an over-eater to be a glutton—using the unfortunate language around fat and non-fat, but that’s his basic point—just someone who really gets pleasure out of eating will do. Since he ends on a note of condemning “gluttony”, it’s safe to say that’s his main point, and the yuppie-bashing and snarking about people trying, imperfectly, to open up discussions about sustainability is just so much rationalization. Like I said, give me Bourdain trying to be provocative in his support for all meat all the time over this sort of fun-killing for the sake of it. And suspicion of physical pleasure, of course—he routinely implies that feeding the body somehow means one is not feeding the mind.
[F]oodies quickly lose interest in any kind of abstract discussion. The reader is left to infer that since baser appetites are going to rule anyway, we might as well give in to them.
He should see me stuffing a homemade sandwich in my face while reading a book sometime. Some of us do just fine in this department. And as for “baser instincts”, I managed to grab said sandwich and greens instead of the pizza that was in the fridge, which should be physically impossible, since allowing one’s self some physical pleasure means there is no control whatsoever on the baser instincts. Myers waves off the possibility that there is such a thing as foodies who are actually interested in sustainability and even animal rights; as someone who is a straightforward foodie by most reasonable measures, I disagree. Yes, there is privilege in being able to eat locally, but it’s also a matter of using your privileges in a way that helps and not harms, and hopefully creates demands that will make your opportunities more available. And I don’t eat meat. Indeed, foodie vegetarianism or meat reduction is a widespread phenomenon that Myers waves off. He’s too interested in creating a false dichotomy between feeling good and doing good.
It’s interesting to me how often this sort of thing crops up. There’s a definite mentality that wants to conflate meanness and anti-pleasure thinking with morality, which is something I’ve been witnessing all day on the #thanksPPFA thread. The contrast is stunning. The pro-choicers and their tweets identify a fairly normal world, where pleasure is a positive thing that enhances life and complements morality. Where having consensual, healthy, pleasurable sex is a life-affirming act, and therefore a moral one. But the antis see the pleasure-positive values of a place like Planned Parenthood and assume immediately that it must be a den of evil, that people who start doing things like having orgasm without apology will be raping babies and killing for fun in no time, desperate for that next hit. They’re particularly over the top on that hashtag, because they are desperate to drown out the fact that pleasure is not the lurid evil they imagine it to be, and most people who have sex for fun are happy, normal people. And that they can be happy and normal because of it, and without a healthy sexuality, they wouldn’t have the same opportunities to live their quietly moral lives.
I’ve always been, to paraphrase Bikini Kill, a believer in the radical possibilities of pleasure. I think that believing that pleasure is something all people are entitled to, and that pleasure is good lays a groundwork for a real, deeper morality than the potshot-taking whining of either the dour vegan Myers* or the anti-choicers who can’t imagine that you can have permission to have sex without immediately raping children. I think people who allow themselves sensual pleasures are less likely to be resentful and tightly wound, and are therefore less likely to express themselves immorally by lashing out at innocent people. I also think, to use the word “sustainable” in another sense, that living by your own values is easier if you’re a pleasure-positive person. If vegetarianism meant eating nothing but gruel all the time, with only my misanthropic self-righteousness as seasoning, then I probably wouldn’t last long. As it stands, I’ve been a vegetarian so long I don’t remember how long it’s actually been, and it’s because I really enjoy my food. Same with sex; I think it’s obvious by now that people who give themselves permission to enjoy sex without guilt are more likely to communicate and be honest, and less likely to behave like a family values conservative, where you spend your days as a member of the Sex Police and your nights having furtive, unprotected encounters that will result in broken hearts and often diseases spread. And the stats bear this out, as blue zones where sex positivity has more influence tend to have lower divorce and teen pregnancy rates than red zones, where sex shaming is the norm.
*To be clear, many to most vegans are not judgmental fun-killers, and I personally find that a lot of vegan food is pleasure-oriented.