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.

Satanism and QAnon: Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Do our leaders worship Satan? How would we know? And what would that mean?

Fifteen percent of Americans believe Satan worshipers are in charge.  The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found this in a recent study about the QAnon conspiracy.  This belief is more prevalent among Republicans: 23% of Republicans claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”

I find this hard to believe.  But then again, I find it difficult to believe in Satan at all.  I also think it would be absurd for anyone to worship Satan—both because there is no Satan—and because if he did exist, he would not be worthy of worship. 

The whole thing is a theological, ethical, and sociological mess. 

Perhaps those who say this are actually trolling the researchers.  Do 48 million Americans (that’s 15% of our population), really believe that Satan worshipers are running the country? 

This opens the question of what it means to really believe something.  A related question is about how we could know what anyone really believes.

Let’s begin with the absurdity of Satan.  The most obvious argument against Satan is the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.  Satan does appear in the Bible.  God empowers Satan to torment Job, for example.  But would a good God really do this?  Why would a good God create a devil who torments us?

Creative theology attempts to make sense of this and the general “problem of evil.”  One solution is to claim that evil is the absence of good and not the active power of some supernatural being.  Texts that personify evil in Satan must be reinterpreted as allegories or parables.

But lots of Americans appear to have a more literal belief.  The Gallup Poll reports that 61% of Americans believe in the devil.  A survey from the Pew Center found that 58% of Americans believe in Hell.  So maybe it is not surprising, that millions of Americans believe our leaders worship Satan.

Perhaps enlightened theology and secular critiques of religion could help cure QAnon belief.  But some non-religious people (11% according to PRRI) also claim that Satan-worshippers run the country.  A full-fledged atheist who does not think Satan exists could believe, I suppose, that others worship the non-existent devil.  This could be an ad hominem accusation, like making fun of someone by claiming they believe in fairies and leprechauns. 

This leads to questions about the sociology of belief and religious tolerance.  How can we presume to understand what strangers really believe?  Could anyone know that ruling elites worship Satan?  And what would that actually mean?

One rule of thumb is that it is wise to avoiding judging the beliefs of others.  Religious belief is complex, changeable, and internally diverse.  Religious people disagree among themselves.  Many believers are ignorant about or indifferent to the dogmas of their own religion.  We also fail to understand other people’s beliefs.

Satanists even disagree among themselves.  A group calling itself the Satanic Temple advocates empathy, reason, and secular values.  They reject the supernaturalism of another group called the Church of Satan.  The Satanic Temple appears to be Satanism without Satan.

This is probably not what QAnon believers have in mind.  But then again, how do we know what the QAnon-ers really believe about the supposed Satan-worship of ruling elites?  And how would a QAnon-er actually know what the ruling elites really believe?

These vexing questions should encourage us to be cautious and tolerant.  It is difficult for any of us to figure out what we actually believe.  It is presumptuous and rude to claim to know what someone else believes—or to condemn it as evil.  And in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees our right to believe whatever we want.  Indeed, toleration in the United States appears to extend even to Satan worship.

QAnon will likely fade away as a fever dream of the Trump era.  But the tendency to vilify the beliefs of others will remain.  Part of the cure involves religious liberty and toleration.  Another remedy is to think critically: to play the devil’s advocate in posing critical questions about Satan, God, and what we think we know about religion.

Liberalism and the Legacy of John Rawls

Fresno Bee, February 21, 2021

Republicans, Democrats can find common ground over concern for reason and truth.

Feb. 21, 2021 is the 100th birthday of the American political philosopher John Rawls. He was a famous proponent of liberalism. He imagined a tolerant secular society in which reason produced consensus.

Rawls died in 2002. Liberalism was a common ideal in the United States in the 20th century. Things have unraveled since then into fundamental disagreements about truth, justice and the American way.

Liberty matters in Rawls’ vision. But society also ought to concern itself with the well-being of the underprivileged. Liberalism allows people to pursue their own interests, while also setting up a safety net. This system encourages people to develop their dreams. But it also takes care of what Rawls calls “the least advantaged.”

Rawls gives us a useful tool called “the veil of ignorance.” You ought to pretend, Rawls suggests, that you do not know who you are. You should disregard your race, gender, and net worth. What kind of social system would you imagine was fair, if you didn’t know whether you were rich or poor, white or black, male or female?

This thought experiment encourages us to ignore biased self-interest. This should lead us to see the injustice of sexist, racist and elitist systems. Reasonable and unbiased people should want a system that helps those with special needs and hard luck, because that could be you (or someone you love).

This ends up looking something like the economic and political structure we have in the United States. Entrepreneurs are free to get rich here. But they pay taxes that help the needy. There are details to be debated, including how much the rich should be taxed and how much social support is needed by the poor. Those details are to be sorted out by balancing liberty with concern for the least advantaged.

We can use Rawls’ method to think about a variety of issues. Imagine if you did not know if you were old or young, rich or poor, sick or healthy. You might then agree that those who are most likely to die from COVID-19 (old people and people with medical conditions) should get the vaccine first. Or imagine that you don’t know for the moment whether you are safely housed or not. You might then agree that everyone should have access to shelter, toilets and the security of walls and doors.

And so on.

The liberal idea has been criticized. Libertarians think liberty trumps other values. Socialists want more equality than Rawls provides. Feminists claim Rawls ignores the historical oppression of women. Critics focused on race say he ignores the history of slavery and segregation. And Christian critics claim that secular justice is empty in comparison with the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself.

But liberalism imagines a big tent. Rawls defended a vision of toleration that would allow diverse people to find common ground despite their differences. He called this “overlapping consensus.” That place of reasonable consensus would be where we would debate the historical details and balance equality with liberty.

Overlapping consensus depends upon the basic good will, fairness, and reasonableness of people. Diverse religious people should be able to find consensus because of their basic sense of fairness. Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground because they share a common concern for reason and the truth.

As polarization and distrust grow, this idea seems untenable. Conspiracy theories, fake news, identity politics, and growing authoritarianism all serve to undermine the dream of a tolerant, reasonable consensus.

The risk of devolution stems from growing irrationality. Rawls explained in a comment on Hobbes that “so far as people are rational, they will want to avoid having things collapse back into a state of nature.” The state of nature, on this account, is a state of war. Rawls did not mean this as a prophecy. But the risk is there. If people are not rational, we won’t be able to find common ground and society risks collapse.

As we continue to struggle with polarization, we would do well to revisit the liberal idea of a just and tolerant secular society. Rawls gives us reason to hope that we might ignore our differences long enough to find common ground.