American Vegemite and the “In-Group”: Consumer Ethnocentrism Part 2

Vegemite is a culinary shibboleth of Australian-ness. Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal write that ‘Vegemite may be the best predictor of national identity of any food in the world. That is, if you eat Vegemite, you are almost certainly Australian’.

The cultural significance of Vegemite for Australia is demonstrated by the awkward, yet seemingly obligatory question put to foreign dignitaries – “do you like vegemite?” A quick Internet search reveals that Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were recently asked for their opinion on the spread, and it formed part of wedding gift to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.

Despite this intimate bond with the Australian national identity, Vegemite has been owned by the US-based Kraft Foods since 1935. Partly in response to its American ownership, Australian entrepreneur, Dick Smith launched Ozemite in 1999 as an Australian-made alternative.

The Dick Smith Foods brand replicates other brands and products considered to be Australian, yet are now foreign owned. In outlining the rationale for this endeavor Smith asserted that ‘Australians are patriotic but at the moment the labelling is so deceptive you don’t know what’s Australian. What I can say to people “if you buy a product with a Dick Smith Foods on it – it’s as Australian as you can get”’. “As Australian as you can get” has become the slogan for the Dick Smith Foods brand.

Over the past 12 years Smith has built his brand on a form of ethnocentric consumerism. By appealing to patriotic sentiment, Smith uses and reinforces an “in” or “we” group to direct consumer behavior away from “them” – foreign owned foods, particularly Vegemite – and towards an identification with Australian made and owned foods. The economic success of Smith’s brand is questionable; it is not close to the size of Kraft and many of the products are more expensive.

Smith claims that he is not interested in making money – ‘I have enough money. I’m not greedy, I have adequate money’. Rather he explains that he is ‘doing all this work so a consumer can go into a shop and if it says Dick Smith, it literally means, it’s as Australian as you can get’. A clear focus of Smith’s initiative is to encourage Australian consumers to buy Australian brands and products for domestic economic security, but there is a strong underlying theme of national identity and pride.

With debates continuing over introduction of country-of-origin labelling in Australia, especially in relation to berries from China, the case of Dick Smith and Vegemite demonstrates that in addition to being a mechanism that protects domestic markets, knowledge of the country of origin (and country of ownership) has a potential to tie national or geographic identity to a brand, such as Vegemite. However, country-of-origin knowledge also provides an opportunity to build a brand and gain market share, as in the case of Dick Smith Foods.

While Dick Smith draws on the “in-group” aspect of consumer ethnocentrism, appealing to nationalism to establish a brand and market share, the example of “freedom fries” demonstrates the use of “out-group” to shape consumer behavior.

Part 1 – here

Ivan Illich and the Idol of Lifestyle

Ivan Illlich, the Austrian philosopher, Catholic priest and iconoclast, was asked to give a lecture to a group of American Lutheran pastors on the topic of life. Rather outlining a philosophy of life, Illich called life an idol.

Illich said the pastors were dismayed by his characterisation. After all Jesus is the ‘bread of life’, ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and promises abundant life.

"Ivan Illich" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

“Ivan Illich” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

What could it mean to call life an idol?

For Illich, life is an idol worshiped and used by marketers, theologians, politicians, scientists, journalists, and activist to motivate, reveal and hide all sorts of responses, actions and emotions. Yet, there is never any attempt to provide an adequate definition.

In his acerbic style Illich says ‘when I used the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit”’.

For Illich, life becomes an idol because it is an empty signifier that can be filled with whatever meaning an authoritative and persuasive speaker gives. In his terms, life is an amoeba word. A word that when thrown into a conversation ‘makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely’.

Other amoeba words could be freedom, family, democracy, race, secular, or gender. Illich was not suggesting that the things these words signify or represent are necessarily unimportant or shit. Rather they tend to hide or assume what is at stake.

Amoeba words are imprecise yet produce deep cultural and emotional resonance. Perhaps the more important a topic is the more amoeba words appear.

The use of lifestyle is a case in point. Despite its banal appearance it is a divisive word. It divides lives as “in” and part of “us” from those that are “out” and part of “them”. Sure, lifestyle is used to market insurance or sell funeral packages, but it is also used to identify what is valued and can be disregarded.

The idol of lifestyle is used to justify the careful inclusion of some lives and in the same movement violent exclusion of others.

George H.W. Bush infamously told the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that the American way of life was not negotiable. The rest of the world may burn, but the American lifestyle has such a high value that it will not be compromised.

Tony Abbott’s recent comments about lifestyle choices and remote Aboriginal communities reveal the divisive nature of the term.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”

There are lifestyles that ‘fully participate in the life of our country’ and there are lifestyles that are outside of “our country”. Being “inside” grants security, celebration and flourishing, while being “outside” leads to abandonment and exposure. Of course, to be outside is a choice and therefore removes responsibility for care from the “inside”.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 18.26.22

Like Illich’s observations, the idol of life and amoeba words continue to abound in political and popular discourse. Perhaps coughing or saying shit in their stead may interrupt the pronouncements of false prophets and disrupt the flow of worshiping these false gods.

See – Cayley, David. 1992. Ivan Illich in conversation. Concord, Ontario: House Of Anansi

Lifestyle choice: a brief note

I’m currently completing a book manuscript called ‘The Biopolitics of Lifestyle’. So when Tony Abbott made his comments that Aboriginal’s living in remote communities are making a ‘lifestyle choice’, I thought “great, I may need to write another chapter”.

This is not simply a poor choice of words, but reflects a governmental rationality that seeks to place responsibility on to individuals. Education, health, welfare, employment all become ‘lifestyle choices’ for which the individual is responsible.

The affluent, gainfully employed, highly educated sections of society make good ‘lifestyle choices’, while the poor, sick, Indigenous and asylum seekers are characterised as making bad ‘lifestyle choices’.

Abbott is not the first to use this phrase to justify . In 2002, Philip Ruddock described asylum-seekers as making ‘lifestyle choices’.

“In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims do not come from a situation of persecution; they come from a situation of safety and security,” he said.

“They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a lifestyle choice.” The Australian, ‘Ruddock blames “lifestyle” refugees’ by Alison Crosweller and Megan Saunders

This governmental rationality shifts responsibility away from governments and communities, and on to individuals. It also serves to trivialize some claims (living in a remote community or seeking asylum) by comparing them to frivolous consumer lifestyle choices (Pepsi or Coke, holden or ford, apple or pc).

Of course, when we talk about the Australian Lifestyle of ANZACs, footy, beach, sun, boats, and weekends, things get very serious. Governments use this notion of lifestyle to build monuments, go to war, and demonize minorities. But that is another matter all together.

In the current context the rationality of ‘lifestyle choice’ shifts responsibility onto individuals in remote communities and justifies the Western Australian government’s decision to cut services and remove people.

Depoliticising Indigenous Health via Consensus and Statistics

‘Politics’ has become a dirty word in Australia. To ‘politicise’ an issue is regarded as obfuscation. Good governments ‘govern’ and make ‘policies’. And good oppositions should work with governments to produce policies not debate endlessly, or so we’re told – usually by sitting governments.

While a lot of the ‘politics’ has devolved into oppositional tactics, political debate is essential for democracy.

At a minimum political debate should reveal the reasons and justifications for a particular policy. However, false consensus and the use of statistics are increasingly used to depoliticise debate of important issues. A recent example is Indigenous health.

Dangerous Consensus

indexIndigenous health is an area where “every opposition wants the government to succeed”. However, perhaps it is this consensus that has resulted in continual failure.

The 7th Closing the Gap report was presented in Parliament earlier this month. Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a sobering speech, noting that most targets were not on track “despite the concerted effort of successive governments since the first report”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, however, called on the Government to reverse the budget cuts to social services that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations and compound existing inequalities. Coalition MPs were unhappy with this suggestion. Some walked out and others said Shorten was playing political games on an important occasion.

The focus on consensus – that everyone wants to Close the Gap – has reduced Indigenous health and education to a national human interest story. It is bracketed from the realm of politics and serves either to inspire or a cathartic release. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote and scandal”.

In breaking with the ritual bipartisanship, where Opposition and Government solemnly agree that “more should be done but it is all so very difficult”, Bill Shorten re-politicised Indigenous health, if only briefly.

While liberal political philosophy values consensus established via publicly justifiable reasons, when consensus is assumed, publicly justifiable reasons become redundant. The presumption of consensus between the two major parties on indigenous health (and anti-terror legislation and asylum seeker policy) lowers the expectation of rigorous political arguments for or against certain positions.

Shorten broke with the consensus game and exposed the gap between Abbott’s rhetoric of “concerted efforts” and the first budget he delivered. Budgets are not simply economic documents, but reflect political and moral decisions about the lives that are valued.

Politics of Life Expectancy

Not unrelated, last month Treasure Joe Hockey attracted ridicule with his comment in a 3AW interview ‘that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable, that a child is being born that is going to live to a 150’.

Close-the-Gap

Hockey’s comment received some support from Professor Peter Smith who points to advances in medicine and public health as reasons to expect a continued increase in human life expectancy.

Professor John Quiggin however suggested that these claims are highly dubious and ignore the fact that the extension of life expectancy in the 20th Century ‘came from a reduction in death rates for the young.’

Will Cairns also pointed to the success of reducing death rates. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia that

our numbers plummet as we approach 100 years of age because all of these interventions [public health, disease treatment, nutrition] make no difference to the reality that we eventually wear out and die. Apart from the odd unverified outlier, only one person has ever been confirmed as living for more than 120 years.

Hiding Politics in the Statistics

Like the assumption of a consensus, Hockey’s use of life expectancy statistics to justify changes to the health system hides the political nature of these decisions.

Altering the financing of the health system through strategies such as co-payment schemes may appear reasonable. We are told Australia’s population is ageing and more people need to use the health system. However, what these statistics hide is the disparities of life expectancy in Australia.

While a child may be born today to live to 150 120, the latest ‘Closing the Gap‘ report reveals that Indigenous Australians born today can expect to live more than a decade less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The reality of significant gaps in life expectancy should be the cause for alarm and inspire the creation of a more equitable health system. Yet often population statistics hide the details. As Professor Mick Dobson notes, ‘Statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties who live diminished lives. We die silently under these statistics.’

Statistics: measuring and managing people

Vital statistics have been used to govern populations since the 17th century. But it’s important not slide over the word “statistics” too quickly as its literal meaning is hidden through repeated use.

Statistics is not simply about numbers but “state craft“. By knowing birth and death rates, and the incidence of disease it is possible to establish probabilities of epidemics, movement of people, and to order the State in a rational manner.

Vital statistics also enable the segmentation and division of populations. We see this all the time in professional sports. The explosion of statistics about batting averages, field goal percentage, or a players historical probability of kicking a goal from a certain angle against a certain team all help coaching staff to know who is performing and who is not.

Divisions in the details

Despite appearances, the use of statistics as political tool for governing a population is not neutral. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault notes the way vital statistics introduce a power over life or biopolitics. The increased knowledge about nutrition, physiology and sexuality in the 19th century lead to the creation of norms from statistical averages that allowed political strategies to regulate human life. Close-the-Gap-005

Statistical analyses are used in public health to show the distribution of disease and enable interventions in populations. But as Foucault notes, these techniques also allow the identification of lives that are healthy and should be fostered and which lives are not performing and can be neglected.

A danger with the celebration of a statistically increasing life expectancy, is that it masks the very real health inequalities faced by many Australians. This is seen in a number of areas:

  • allow for certain health issues to be prioritised (e.g. ageing population), while others marginalised (e.g. health inequalities)
  • enable the allocation of funding towards some research (e.g. Medical Research Future Fund), while moving it away from other areas (e.g. preventive health)
  • suggest a particular financing models for the health system (e.g. co-payment), yet discount others (e.g. progressive taxation).

These are not simply economic decisions, but political and ethical decisions about which lives count. For too long the supposed neutrality of statistics and the assumption of consensus have allowed the political reality of Indigenous health inequalities to be hidden. To close the gap we need to recognise the historical and political processes that have made it and maintain it.

Morally Indigestible Listicles: Food, Experts, and the Burden of Choice

Never Eat

The Sydney Morning Herald (via the Telegraph, London) has published another “no-nonsense-straight-shooting-science-based” listicle of the foods YOU SHOULD NEVER EAT AGAIN! These lists seem to appear at least once every week on some form of news website.

This current list is prefaced with references to recent British Medical Journal studies that turned upside down “everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily”. Instead of saturated fats being “the killer”, it turns out carbohydrates are!

Put down that bacon & egg roll and get yourself a KFC Double-Down sandwich!

Surprisingly the article doesn’t question why these new claims have a stronger knowledge base than previous claims or how we can be sure that in a week there won’t be another “nutritional revolution” that will turn this all on its head and finger protein as Grandpa’s real killer.

Leaving aside the science-base of these claims – not to imply this is unimportant – what is most disturbing about these articles (and this article in particular) is the emphasis on individual food choices as the determining factor of health. “Expert” claims that “every bacon sandwich you eat knocks half an hour off your life” reinforce ideas that my heart disease or your diabetes are reducible to that sandwich or chocolate bar eaten six years ago.

When these factoids are spoken by folks in white coats during times of austerity cuts to health services there is a real danger of compounding already existing public health policy problems by pretending that structural influences can be addressed via a nice social marketing campaign or a Jamie Oliver TV show that teaches people how to cook, garden and “never eat those foods again”.

In the UK (where this article originated) David Cameron recently flagged that sick benefits may be cut from people who are obese and do not lose weight. The rationale for this idea is that obese people can lose weight simply by making “correct” and “healthy” food choices. However, according to Cameron, they aren’t making these choices because life is too good on benefits. Hence, cut the benefits and healthy food choices will be made.

While these listicle articles may be dismissed as “not too serious” or “a bit of fun”, they depend on and reinforce a moralistic and biopolitical perspective on the relation between food, choice and health. This perspective is often used to justify budget cuts to health services due to the expectation that health is simply a matter of individuals making the right choices.

In an article for Public Health Ethics, my colleague Donald B. Thompson and I argue that this perspective is morally and scientifically unjustified. Below is the introduction. If you’d like read the whole thing but the pay wall gets in the way send me an email.

Continue reading →

Bioethics, obesity and the harm principle

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Fat people should pay more to fly, because they weigh more and hence use more fuel.
Fat people can’t make good food choices so they should be coerced and stigmatized into making the right choice.
These and other spurious ideas are permitted to float around opinion pages of leading newspapers and journals because a) we think we have a fat people problem; b) shocking, blunt and simplistic solutions to complex problems are key ingredients to “click-bait”; and c) if we can reduce complex problems to economic calculations then we can pretend moralistic interventions into peoples lives are “neutral” because, hey it’s the raw numbers talking.
Anyway, in the below paper published this week I argue against Peter Singer and Dan Callahan’s attempts to justify direct interventions into the lives of fat people based on a simplistic use of the harm principle and a deep ignorance of empirical and public health research on obesity. Or as H.L. Mencken quipped, “For every human problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
If you can’t get beyond the paywall send me an email or message.

The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity

Abstract

Debate concerning the social impact of obesity has been ongoing since at least the 1980s. Bioethicists, however, have been relatively silent. If obesity is addressed it tends to be in the context of resource allocation or clinical procedures such as bariatric surgery. However, prominent bioethicists Peter Singer and Dan Callahan have recently entered the obesity debate to argue that obesity is not simply a clinical or personal issue but an ethical issue with social and political consequences.

This article critically examines two problematic aspects of Singer and Callahan’s respective approaches. First, there is an uncritical assumption that individuals are autonomous agents responsible for health-related effects associated with food choices. In their view, individuals are obese because they choose certain foods or refrain from physical activity. However, this view alone does not justify intervention. Both Singer and Callahan recognize that individuals are free to make foolish choices so long as they do not harm others. It is at this point that the second problematic aspect arises. To interfere legitimately in the liberty of individuals, they invoke the harm principle. I contend, however, that in making this move both Singer and Callahan rely on superficial readings of public health research to amplify the harm caused by obese individuals and ignore pertinent epidemiological research on the social determinants of obesity. I argue that the mobilization of the harm principle and corresponding focus on individual behaviours without careful consideration of the empirical research is itself a form of harm that needs to be taken seriously.

Keywords: obesity; Peter Singer; Dan Callahan; harm principle; public health

Mayes, C. (2015), The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity. Bioethics, 29: 217–221. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12089

Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)