Beyond the Bud Light Boycott and the Great Food Divide

You are what you eat, and what you drink—and who you eat and drink with. Food and drink are indicators of identity that link us to a peer group. Our food choices connect us to other people. They can also divide us.

Waffle House vs. Trader Joes

Could it be that the polarization in our country has something to do with the proliferation of food choices, and the tribal nature of our patterns of consumption?

When I was a kid, growing up in the Midwest, Americans ate “meat and potatoes.” There were far fewer choices of restaurants and commodities. White people in middle America in the 1970’s had never heard of a burrito (as shown to comedic effect in the new film Flamin’ Hot). But these days, we’ve got lots of choices, especially in big cities.

Our food options reflect certain dividing lines. Red-state America is a place of Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses. The blue states have Trader Joe’s. The states with the most Cracker Barrels are Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. The states with the most Waffle Houses are Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s stores are primarily concentrated in California and the Northeast.

Red state people know what it means to say you want something “scattered, smothered, and covered” (a Waffle House recipe). Meanwhile, blue state folks joke about the fact that “Two Buck Chuck” (a Trader Joes staple) now costs more than two dollars. Neither understands what the other is saying.

These markers of identity can be benign, so long as we treat our differences with a sense of toleration. It’s a big country. And it’s kind of cool that there are still regional differences. Cheers to that!

Bud Light or IPA?

But things get ugly when taste becomes tribal.

Which leads us to the Bud Light boycott. The story begins with Bud Light trying to be inclusive. The company used a trans woman as a marketing ploy, trying to lure LGBTQ folks onto the Bud Light bandwagon. This angered the anti-LGBTQ crowd, who called for a Bud Light boycott. Apparently, some angry Bud Light fans even blasted cases of the beer with guns.

Bud Light lost market share, as right-wingers stopped drinking it. Costco is indicating that it might stop carrying Bud Light.

As this story was unfolding, I found it amusing. Who cares, I thought? And who drinks Bud Light anyway? In my peer group, no one drinks light beer. So, I was surprised to learn that before the boycott, Bud Light was the most popular beer in America. Who knew?

My response shows the problem. I’m an IPA guy. I like them dank and hoppy. Most of my peers share that taste.

But apparently, there is a whole world of people out there who do not share my tastes at all. Those folks live in a different eco-system than I do. The Bud Light crowd no doubt views me and my IPA loving friends as strangers. And the feeling is mutual.

Food and Personality

I’m not sure what the solution is. It’s not really possible to convince an IPA guy to love light beer, or the other way round. But it is interesting, from a philosophical perspective, to think about the role of food and drink in our lives.

All animals eat. But we are the only animals that make a ritual out of food. We establish prohibitions, rules of etiquette, and all kinds of cultural norms around food. Most of this is entirely arbitrary. It really does not matter whether you eat with a fork or chopsticks. But our rules and practices give shape to our lives. And as we become adults, we develop certain tastes.

These tastes are mostly the contingent result of environmental and cultural factors. My friends drink IPA, and so I’ve learned to love it. Or did it go the other way round? Maybe I have a taste for dank beverages and so tend to make friends with folks who share my taste? We don’t have to solve this chicken-or-egg problem in order to see that taste, identity, and culture are deeply intertwined.

Now some psychologists suggest a deeper kind of link. Some studies purport to show that “sweet” people prefer sweet foods, and that bitter food is preferred by people with bitter personalities. The link between food and personality has been remarked throughout history. Porphyry, a philosopher of the 3rd Century, suggested that simple, light, vegetarian food helped to liberate the soul from the body. He warned that tyrants are produced by “those who feed upon flesh.” He cited the teachings of the ancient Pythagoreans, who held that a vegetarian diet tended to produce gentleness, kindness, and philanthropy.

Tolerating our Differences

But this reductive focus on cuisine is silly. Hitler was a vegetarian—as the anti-veg crowd likes to say. And meat-eaters can be kind. And it’s just dumb to claim that people who prefer sweet food are somehow sweeter than those who prefer bitter. Our personalities, cultures, and tastes are way more complicated than that.

Friedrich Nietzsche once blamed the heaviness of German culture on the overconsumption of beer. He said that beer caused the spirit to fall into “soft degeneracy.” One wonders what Nietzsche might say about the difference between Bud Light and IPA. Does light beer tend to make you politically conservative? Does IPA turn you into a liberal hipster? These questions are silly, of course. Human life cannot be reduced to any single choice or taste.

And if we realize that, maybe we can develop a bit more tolerance. The Trader Joe’s tribe is not superior to the Cracker Barrel crowd. We eat what we have learned to eat. Taste is determined to a large extent by our peers. We don’t choose our food, our politics, or our personalities out of the blue. We are influenced by culture, marketing, and economics.

So, it is wise to stop judging others. We find ourselves thrown into a world beyond our control. Our tastes differ. So what? As long as a person is kind, who cares what they eat? If a person is a jerk, it doesn’t matter what they drink. This is a big complicated country. So let’s toast our differences, with the beverage of our choice.

Violence, Culture, and Character

Fresno Bee, June 27, 2021

Violence is rising. The Washington Post reports that gunfire killed 54 people per day through the first five months of 2021. This exceeds the death toll for the same period in 2020, which was the deadliest year in two decades. Here in Fresno, the story is similar. Last year there were 70 homicides, the highest number in 25 years. This year we are on pace to eclipse that number.

The epidemic of violence is especially tragic here at the end of the pandemic. We have endured a difficult time of dislocation and loss. But the worst is over and the future is bright. How sad that violence is raging when the world is reviving.

There is a general sense that people have become angrier and meaner. Some violence is racially charged. Some is connected to gangs and other crime. But some is merely random spite. In Los Angeles, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was shot on his way to kindergarten by an angry stranger on the freeway. Mass shooters have attacked in San Jose and elsewhere.

Commentators have offered various explanations. Some say this is the result of the stress of the pandemic. Others blame inequality. Pundits on the left blame Trumpism. Pundits on the right suggest that efforts to defund the police have empowered criminals.

Many blame guns. The White House is launching an initiative focused on guns. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns.”

There is no doubt that guns make violence easier. The history of violence is about the evolution of killing power. Cain killed Abel with a club. Achilles went on a murderous spree with sword and spear. Guns produce more killing with less effort.

Technological innovation exacerbates all kinds of vice. Modern chemistry produces powerful psychoactive drugs, including distilled alcohol. The Internet makes porn readily available. Social media makes it easy to gossip. And fast-food chains facilitate drive-thru gluttony.

But technology only explains part of the problem. It is human beings who put technology to use. Most people avoid addiction, debauchery, gossip, and gluttony, just as most people avoid violence. There is some truth to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same is true of other vices. Booze does not cause alcoholism. And French fries don’t cause obesity. Somewhere in the background is human culture and psychology.

What gives people the capacity to resist the supercharged temptations of modern technology?

Virtue and character provide part of the answer. Moral psychology must be on the table as we confront the epidemic of violence. Virtuous people control anger, cruelty and spite. Every human being gets angry. But good people resist this negativity. They resist their vicious instincts. And they find affirmative outlets for negative emotions.

Defective character is an overlooked aspect of the increase in violence. Angry and violent people are lacking in psychological development and spiritual fulfillment.

The good news is that character can be improved. We are not pre-programmed. We can learn to speak a language and play the piano. We can also learn to defer gratification, control spite, overcome hate and become compassionate.

Culture matters in character development. Good culture supports us in doing the right thing, while bad influences contribute to vice. As we analyze the increase in violence, we must consider cultural inputs. What kinds of ideas and images inspire us? Who are our role models? Are we reinforcing kindness or teaching cruelty?

We must also think critically about violence itself. Violence is not natural or normal. Violence decreased during past decades. This shows that violence is not inevitable. People can learn to be less violent. But that requires lessons and reminders about the fact that violence is a sign of moral failure. It is shameful, stupid and sad. Decent people do not celebrate cruelty. Nor do they lionize villains, thugs, and murderers.

Finally, we must give people productive ways to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. Violence is a dead-end for hopeless souls who have lost faith in life. Another antidote to violence is to create a world that provides social connection, creative outlets for the human spirit, and opportunities to experience joy, love, and hope.

Cultural Value of the Super Bowl

Fresno Bee, February 5, 2016

  • The Big Game is an artistic production
  • Culture and the arts are playful games
  • Football isn’t perfect, but it’s fun

The Super Bowl is a high point of American culture. Some snobs view football as barbaric and uncultured. But this year, the halftime show will include the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic and students from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

This mash-up points to a link between high culture and pop culture, sports and art. The cultural continuum includes the punter and the poet, the quarterback and the string quartet.

Football is performance art. The game has music, costumes, tragedy and ritual set pieces. Like opera, the game includes pageantry, agility and pathos.

The arts are also playful games. We play music. Actors put on plays. Poets play with words. And philosophers play with ideas. Human culture is a process of making meaning through playful activity.

Some think the fine arts are superior. Poets and painters represent things in word and image. Musicians explore time and tone. Art is about abstract ideas, beauty, finitude and the divine.

Football seems less refined. It is physical activity. But there are geniuses and prodigies on the gridiron. And fans find virtue, grace, beauty and transcendence in the game. For most Americans, the pigskin is more meaningful than Picasso or Puccini.

Football’s place in our culture

Football’s importance to our culture is obvious. Our language is shaped by it. We tackle a problem after huddling up. Monday-morning quarterbacks question people’s play-calling. When it’s fourth-and-long, we know things are serious. And sometimes it’s better to punt.

It may seem odd that a mere game is so tightly woven into our culture. But games are part of every culture. An old proverb says, “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” To be human is to play games and amuse oneself. Culture is the accumulated set of games we play. The Greeks wrestled and raced. In America, we play football.

Our Sunday afternoons have been filled with the rhythm of the season and the game, the drama of fourth down, and the heroics of the fourth quarter. After the Super Bowl, we will find new games to fill our time and our conversations.

We need art and sports. Once we satisfy our animal needs, we fill our lives with games. Literature, politics and sports – all are forms of play. Our pastimes can be deadly and serious. But they are recreations and amusements, nonetheless.

Culture is learned behavior. The rules and formulas of dance, music, poetry and football must be learned in order to appreciate them. No one is born knowing a language or understanding the rules of the onside kick. Love of opera or haiku is not innate. Broncos fans are made, not born.

Some critics worry that the hedonistic spectacle of the Super Bowl is a sign of the decline of our civilization. Super Bowl Sunday certainly makes it difficult to keep the Sabbath day holy. Others compare the NFL to the gladiators of Rome, warning of the demise of culture into “bread and circuses.”

But the gladiators marked a high point of Roman civilization. They fought in the Colosseum, its ruins now venerated as a magnificent triumph of Roman architecture. Thriving civilizations have surplus wealth to spend on sports and games, art and festivity. Once we have enough bread, bring on the circuses.

No game is perfect

There are other reasons to criticize football. It is a brutal game. It causes brain injuries. Players risk necks and knees. But ballet is hard on the toes. And other sports are dangerous – climbing, skiing, for example.

Football is also sexist. News about the Super Bowl as a haven for prostitution is alarming. Gambling, commercialism and alcoholic fans are also concerns. And pacifists will note that football mimics warfare.

But no game is perfect. Chess is warlike and horse racing is hard on the ponies. Our games, sports and arts are our own creation. We can remake them according to our own interests and concerns. And each generation does rewrite the rules of sports, art and culture.

We are lucky to have so many games, sports and arts to choose from. We could live without these amusements. Football is not life. Nor is opera or poetry. But art gives zest to life. And football spices up our Sunday afternoons.

Read more here:

The power of tears

Big Boys Do, and Should, Cry

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2016

  • Politicians weigh in on the power of tears
  • Our ideas about crying men have changed
  • Can tears be faked and how would we know?

The selfie trap

Selfie culture and mindfulness

Fresno Bee, January 8, 2016

  • Examining the tyranny of the selfie
  • Selfies are signs of narcissism, exhibitionism
  • Mindful absorption is a key to happiness