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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Zak Witus: The psychology of consumerism

By Zak Witus, Columnist
Published June 11, 2014

While wiping my hands in an Angell Hall restroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser caught my eye. In friendly green print, it said: “These come from trees.” And I replied, without sarcasm, “Holy shit, we must’ve forgotten.”

I don’t mean “forgotten” in the sense of declarative knowledge — like, if I asked someone else in the bathroom where paper towel comes from, I'm sure they could tell me. I mean forgotten in the sense of active or working knowledge; in the moment of consumption, most people — myself included — aren’t thinking about what they’re actually consuming: what it’s made of, who’s making it, where it comes from, where it goes, etc. This issue pertains to almost every commodity that one doesn’t personally produce — everything from paper products to hamburgers to gasoline. So, my basic question is, “Why do we habitually forget the elementary truths about what it is we’re consuming?” And my basic answer is, “We forget because we want to forget.”

The next question is: Why do we want to forget? I think the answer has to do with the famous saying, “Laws are like sausages — it’s better not to see them being made.” We want to eat sausage, but if we knew how sausage was made (or actively thought about the gruesome details while eating it), we would probably be too disgusted to keep eating. So, therefore we ought not know how sausage is made. This kind of moral reasoning is ubiquitous in today’s consumerist world, and presumes that we want to eat and enjoy more than we want to know or think, because knowing and thinking sometimes lead to disgust. I reject the view that we should sacrifice knowledge for the sake of enjoyment. Matter-of-factly speaking, we violate this moral routinely, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Our disgust with how sausage is made seems to reflect an intuitive moral that we’d rather not confront consciously. Deep down, many of us feel that it’s wrong to slaughter animals for food, like how many of us feel it’s wrong to mow down forests for paper towel. Herein lies a common dilemma for consumers: we must consume to survive, but our consumption routinely violates our own ethics. This is the biggest psychological and philosophical problem for today’s consumers. To keep the origin of commodities in mind would be to consciously violate our own moral principles and, furthermore, undermine our mental images of ourselves as moral beings. The disgust we would feel would not only be directed externally, but internally as well. In order to avoid this anxiety and self-disgust we opt for the far easier and convenient task of erasing or suppressing the troublesome information. And thus we “forget” where paper towel comes from because we don’t approve of the truth nor do we approve of ourselves.

A tremendous obstacle in solving this ethical dilemma lies in a key enabler of our motivated forgetting: the physical and consequently psychical distance between us and the process of production. We aren’t actually seeing the stuff we’re consuming, only the end product. Today our gaze hardly extends beyond the reach of our fork; McDonald’s hamburgers seem to sprout from the ground fully formed. To subvert this ideology of eating by suggesting that hamburgers are in fact cooked cow flesh is considered vulgar or, as Mom would say, “inappropriate dinner conversation.” For her, as for many people, thinking about a chicken (the bird that clucks) while we’re eating chicken (the white meat that tastes good with gravy) ruins her appetite. Avoiding the former reality becomes so much easier because we don’t raise our own chickens or slaughter our own cows. “Forgetting” the disgusting reality of our consumption is imperative for allowing us to enjoy it.

My hope is that by exposing these ugly truths we will be forced to confront them and I won’t have to retain my current view that, “Morals are like sausages — it’s better not to see them being made.” I’d rather we not erase or suppress troublesome information. Instead, we should adopt the far more difficult and inconvenient task of individual as well as societal reform and/or revolution. Overall the challenging solution is that we must learn to allow ourselves to enjoy less. So long as we continue to physically and psychologically cover up, flush away or otherwise “get rid of” these disgusting realities, we will continue to violate our own morals — not to mention destroy our planet and its inhabitants. But, if we’re willing to critique our own consumerist habits and sacrifice a bit of ignorant bliss, then we can align our actions with our higher ecological ethics. Maybe then we can live cleanly on Earth for a little bit longer.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.


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