Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Brief Note on the Tesco Scandal

By the looks of things, the Tesco scandal has come to a conclusion. Sort of. In that Tesco have come out and suggested that the DWP perhaps shouldn't mandate unpaid "work experience" with the threat of cutting off benefits to the non-compliant. They have not (as Sainsbury's, Waterstone's and TK Maxx have) stated that they will no longer support the scheme, so it's not exactly a win. In fact, none of this is a win. Whoever was responsible for the decision on behalf of any of those major retailers (and countless more) to participate in the scheme in the first place clearly did not foresee "major PR nightmare" as one of the potential consequences, or else they wouldn't have agreed to do it. And, of course, it shouldn't be the PR nightmare that worries them - it should, perhaps, be the fact that they willingly participated in state-sanctioned (nay, encouraged) slave-labour*. But that is not, of course, their biggest concern.

Would Tesco have urged the DWP to reconsider the manner in which this "work experience" is mandated were it not for the fact that they ended up on the wrong side of a vitriolic public backlash when the details of their involvement in the scheme became widely-known? Call me cynical, but it seems very unlikely that they would.

Gestures, like TK Maxx ending their participation, or Tesco calling for changes to the way the scheme is carried out, may be conciliatory. But they shouldn't be enough to make us forgive and forget. The jobseekers who were and are forced to work in this way don't have the luxury of voting with their wallets, but I do, and so do you.

Forced labour is forced labour, whether it's in a North Korean detention camp or in your local supermarket. And it shouldn't take public outcry to make big business finally able to tell right from wrong.

The only good to come out of this is further proof that social media, historic home of cat videos and being able to slag off people you don't like facelessly and without recrimination, is an excellent medium for slagging off big faceless corporations without recrimination when they do things you don't like. It's a fine expression of democracy, and I'm glad it works.

*I realise that the "workers" on these "work experience" schemes were receiving Jobseeker's Allowance in exchange for their work. I do not consider this to be payment, nor do I believe that JSA should be given by the state in exchange for anything other than a willingness on the part of the individual to do as much as they can to find work (short of enforced, unpaid work experience).

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Try this one cool tip for eternal youth dreamt up by someone's mother somewhere

You've all seen the kind of adverts I mean. The poorly-executed, poorly-designed scam ads which are plastered over certain websites, bearing horribly-written slogans ("one trick of a tiny belly") that anyone with a basic command of grammar can barely parse. Or the ones which show screenshots ripping off the BBC/NBC/Fox logos, to give the gravitas of television news to whatever confidence trick it is they're advertising. The ones which claim that a British mother has invented a formula for everlasting youth. They're close kin to the most recent round of Twitter spam, the direct messages with a link, saying something like, "hey, I can't believe the nasty things that someone is saying about you on this blog." They're stupid and badly-done, so badly-done that you almost can't believe anyone falls for them, and they're probably best ignored. However, I believe that this family of adverts aims itself primarily at women, and for that reason I find them particularly odious and offensive.

The crudely-drawn shrinking figure in the "tiny belly" ads, for example, is always a woman. It's always someone's mother who has discovered a snake oil to rid you of wrinkles. And the 'products' they're pushing - acai berries, and goodness knows what other awful crap - are usually related to weight loss and beauty, two areas of both traditional and non-traditional advertising where women = goldmine.

The problem with these ads is not simply that they prey on vanity. Almost all advertising is intended to exploit a combination of vanity, envy and self-loathing; I've just about made my peace with that fact (although I still think it's a toxic cocktail to feed for multiple hours on a daily basis to everyone who has senses). The fact that many people can tune all advertising out reasonably well isn't a mitigating factor or excuse. What bothers me about these adverts in particular is the specific type of (mostly female) vanity they are intended to prey on. They work on the basis that all women with money to spend want to look younger or be thinner (or in the case of the "someone said a terrible thing about you" spam tweets, the idea that people are being mean about you behind your back, which is not so much vanity as insecurity, or, as previously mentioned, self-loathing), or some other similarly ubiquitous and reductive generalisation of femininity. There's also the implicit competitive element - "person x has discovered secret x and won't share it with anyone but us, and we'll sell it to you but only if you get a move on" - which is equally unsavoury, in that it encourages individuals in the target audience (women) to regard the rest of the target audience (other women) with suspicion and fear, in case the other women get to the magical slenderising/anti-aging treatment first.

And, of course, it perpetuates the notion that beauty and the ideal body and being worthy of love and respect are all concepts which are in finite and severely limited supply, which is just as much bullshit as the rest of this pernicious trash.

Look past the poor execution and hideous copy for a second. The fundamental message of all of these adverts is - like so much of Western advertising, but vastly less subtle - "you're not good enough, and you hate yourself because you're not good enough, and you hate yourself enough to pay money to make yourself more acceptable to our pre-determined standards, which were decided upon without your consultation." The ads are spectacularly brainless, which makes them easy to disdain or ignore out of hand. But they've bothered me for years, and it wasn't until I began to articulate this irritation that I realised how deep it went, or why I felt it.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but hear me out anyway: ladies, you are good enough. And dudes, you're good enough too. Everyone is fine, and no one should have to pay £6 to look twenty years younger, or whatever drivel it is they're peddling. No one should feel as though they have to look twenty years younger at all, but that's not a very popular opinion in advertising/media/fashion/cosmetics/plastic surgery circles, and I can't see it gaining any more traction any time soon.

The problems I have with this specific subsection of ads are inextricably bound to the problems I have with advertising, particularly when targeted at women, in general. I think it's a battle worth fighting in its entirety, and I've picked these specific examples as both an easy target and as an incidence which is particularly stupid and offensive. There's an inherent dishonesty and subterfuge in all of it, especially these: a little voice whispering in the ear which says, "you can be what you are not and should not be. You can be young when you're old and skinny when you're fat, and the only cost is money." And that's true of a lot of advertising, but nowhere is it more unashamedly open about this than in these particular ads.

I don't know when advertising changed from "buy x" to "buy x because it is better than y for these reasons" to "buy x because it is the only thing that will make you an acceptable human being." I'm not sure it was as linear as that - there are hints of lifestyle-aspiration even in pre-Bernays Victorian advertising - but the progression has been made, and carefully-engineered self-loathing is the lot this century's ordinary (and even extraordinary, for none of us can escape it) men and women are dealt.

In twenty years, I'd like adverts which rely on women (, people) feeling bad about themselves to be as utterly and universally reviled as those from decades past which sold cigarettes by making smoking look cool. Failing that, I'd like some adverts intended to make women competitive and jealous about wanting to be the best lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs and developers and writers and artists and scientists and WOMEN as they can be, and not just about being pretty and youthful and thin. That would be awesome.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Veganuary: A Retrospective

From 00.00 on the 1st of January to 00.00 on the 1st of February, I attempted to be vegan.

There are three instances in which I believe I may have eaten something that came from an animal, which I will list here:

 - I ate a spoonful of some tomato soup which looked clear (and thus milk/cream-free) but, upon tasting, might have contained dairy. I did not eat the rest of the soup.
 - I ate three black olives which may have been contaminated with tzatziki. I did this because a) it was not clear whether or not they had been and b) I have no self-control when it comes to olives.
 - I ate a crisp which turned out to have "cheddar" in the name. My excuses for this are that it was 8pm, I'd been drinking heavily and I hadn't eaten anything that day.

These transgressions aren't groundbreakingly interesting, but they do illustrate my general attitude to the whole thing: I was as cautious as it was possible to be within reason, and thought a hell of a lot more about what I ate than I usually do, but I wasn't prepared to beat myself up over a mouthful of soup or three olives or whatever.

As an experiment, it was interesting. I did not experience the utter, blissful absence of disease, malaise and ill-feeling which the more vocal of the veganazis promise (I guess that's because I haven't given it long enough for all of those pernicious dairy-based toxins to leave my system, right?), but then, neither did I expect to. I wasn't at all ill in the last month, although that's not a great indicator of dietary benefit; I have a pretty tough immune system, and it would be normal in any given month for me to have been healthy throughout. Without going into detail, my digestion was different but no worse or better than usual. I was a little hungrier than usual in spite of eating a decent quantity of food. 

In terms of negative health effects, it's hard to say - so many variables act on the human body on a daily basis that it's impossible to point to anything that I experienced this month and think, "yep, that was definitely a result of veganism." I had some minor sleep and mood disturbances in the first half of the month - very minor - and it doesn't seem likely that these correlate to cheese (it was also January, which suggests itself as a stronger correlative). My skin was a little drier than usual, but that could be atmospheric, or based on spending Christmas in a soft water area and then coming back to a hard water area.

It would have been interesting to have had some kind of blood work done immediately before and immediately after the month, but it seemed impractical to do so. I gave blood during the month and didn't show any signs of anaemia; the donation went well.

I felt pretty good, but I felt pretty good in November and December, too.

I cooked some interesting stuff that I probably wouldn't have made before, as well as some modified versions of old favourites, and in general used more fresh ingredients and spent longer cooking. Houmous became a catch-all savoury dairy replacement. Burritos with cheese and sour cream became burritos with houmous. The cheese-blanket which had of late covered most of my self-cooked meals was generally replaced with a dollop of houmous. It satisfies something creamy and salty and primordial. The lazy dinner option became straight carbs rather than carbs-with-cheese; I don't think this is much healthier objectively, but it might be. I feel much happier cooking with fresh tofu than I did before, which is awesome. I'd always wanted the knack. Lunch at work was nowhere near as boring as I'd feared - with some vegetable-and-salad wizardry and a lot of sweet chilli dressing, I made interesting and delicious lunches every day. My fruit and vegetable consumption - previously already reasonable - skyrocketed.

On the ethics front, it was a reflective period. I'd been vaguely troubled by certain aspects of commercial dairy farming, and was wondering if this month would push me into the "I definitely want to be vegan full-time" category.

The short answer is, "it didn't."

Veganism, to me, is much more of a grey area than vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is easier to make black and white, even if people have a tendency to take the term and do as they will with it (I'm looking at the pescetarians who don't call themselves that here). As a vegetarian, I did not and do not eat anything which was ever alive in an animal sense. Even fish, whose plight and murder does not inspire any immediate visceral feelings in me. Even tasty, tasty bivalves. Now, there were still some ethical quandries inherent in this lifestyle - I believe, for example, that nothing living should have to die so that I can eat it. But I kill insects with something akin to insecticidal glee, simply because I hate bugs and find them weird and gross, and don't want them all up in my personal space. And then there are the lesser-or-greater degrees, like gelatine (I tend to avoid it but am not as troubled if I find I've eaten it by accident than I would be if I'd accidentally eaten meat) or isinglass used in the production of booze.

Veganism is even less clear-cut. On the surface, the simple, "no dairy or eggs" doesn't sound like an ethical problem area. But most of the vegans I know do it to different degrees, or have different exceptions. Some will eat honey, because bee-keeping might actually be helping the bees. Some have no problem buying woollen products (just like some vegetarians will buy leather), others will drink regular wine and beer, or will drink or eat something that they don't know isn't vegan until they find out that it is, or will make exceptions for things which are advertised as containing trace amounts of something non-vegan. 

In terms of strictness, it goes much deeper than this. I delved into the world of vegan bloggers, and found those who are strictly raw, and people who won't eat tofu or soy products because they disagree with the way soy is farmed, or who will only eat certain types of sugar - all kinds of other distinctions beyond the simple "I don't eat eggs or dairy" which marks where the popular conception of veganism begins and ends.

The thing that really troubled me about this blog scene (and there were a lot of things which troubled me) was that each more stringent definition seemed to be pursued in an attempt either a) to detoxify the human body entirely from what seem to be mostly imagined 'toxins' and/or b) to be the most virtuous person who ever lived. 

I don't know what it is about food that makes people attach emotion to it. It's something which I try to avoid doing, and it gently angers me every time I overhear someone at lunch talking about "good" or "bad" or "naughty" (that one really gets me) food. Food has no inherent emotional load or value. There isn't an objective scale, with deep-fried dime bar cake at one end and iceberg lettuce at the other, which demonstrates the value of food. It's food. Take it for all in all. Even if all of the pie slices are bright red on the Sainsbury's package. Maybe you shouldn't eat exclusively that thing, but you probably shouldn't eat any one thing exclusively anyway. 

From a very brief foray, it seems that the emotional loading of food is rife within the vegan (and especially the raw/foodblogging) community. On both an ethical and a health level. There are a lot of people who are searching for the most ultimately sanctimonious way of eating - the thing that is the absolute best for their bodies (rarely backed up by decent nutritional science or historical evidence that most humans can eat meat and fish and dairy and not suffer from ill effects), and which has the least impact on the lives of other creatures and on the world around them. 

I'm all for low-impact food, but not when it becomes the sole focus of one's life. It's a fact of the modern world that mass importing/transportation/farming processes aren't always great for the environment, but also that most of us are so damn busy all the time that it's impossible to live the best of all possible lives, food-wise. We balance the two. We do as much as we can to reduce our impact whilst still getting up and going to work every morning and having a good time. And the puritanical aspect of some of the culinary extremism that can be witnessed on these very interwebs is indicative of a mentality which wants to take every drop of joy out of food and eating. Orthorexia may not be medically recognised, but it's an interesting framework through which to view this effect.

At times, the militance becomes dangerous. I saw at least three examples of people who claimed to manage their cancer/other serious or terminal illness entirely through a vegan/raw diet. It's dangerous both for them and for the people they influence. Touting any dietary changes as some kind of miracle cure for disease - as a cure for the absolute fact of mortality, almost - is irresponsible and should not be encouraged. And yet I didn't see many voices of dissent within those communities. Possibly because the dissenters are all people like me: fans of modern medicine who are angered too much by the concept of a diet curing cancer to stay around long enough to comment. One of the most powerful lessons the Internet has taught us is that you can't engage people in meaningful debate if they don't want to engage, even if you're pretty sure you're right. 

As well as delving into the world of vegan blogging, I also got up to speed with the ex-vegan community, which is pretty interesting itself. It's made up of people who were formerly notable vegan/raw bloggers who decided not to remain vegan and went public about this decision, often because their diets were having a deleterious effect on their health. The response from the hard-line vegans was often outrageous - one woman was told that she and her family deserved to be killed like the animals they had gone back to eating. The response was much stronger than the complaints these hardcore vegans levied against people who had always eaten meat and never been vegan, most likely because of the sense of betrayal invoked by a high-profile vegan publicly going back to meat-eating. Which brings us, once again, to the emotional loading of food and lifestyle.

At heart, what I do and don't feel comfortable eating boils down to the level of cognitive dissonance which I'm happy experiencing. Everyone is walking around with a head full of the stuff - it's how we're not all constantly curled up in the foetal position, unable to comprehend the cruelty of the world. And I'm reasonably sure that this is also how other people decide what they will and won't eat. The level of cognitive dissonance which someone like Sali Owen can process is very different to the level experienced by someone who eats everything - and that's fine. I'd spent the last couple of years wondering if I'd continue to be able to justify (to myself) eating animal products which don't result in the death of the animal. And it turns out that I can.

On a conscious level, I'm concerned about the ethics of dairy farming. I think there are many things wrong with the way we mass-produce food in general, particularly when it's harmful to the welfare of sentient creatures, and to that end I've tried for many years to be as conscious of this as I can when choosing what dairy I do eat (the freest of the free-range eggs, and the like). I drink mostly soy milk, partly because I prefer the taste and partly because I know that it didn't cause distress or discomfort to any cows. But I don't find that I care enough about it to avoid dairy altogether. Objectively, the suffering of animals in dairy production is as distasteful to me as the thought of eating their flesh; on a day-to-day basis, and especially when it's cooked into something pre-produced, or when it's in work, or when it's a trace of milk powder (unnecessary but ubiquitous) in something like tortilla chips, I can't bring myself to care enough to stop eating these things.

It's now the 3rd of February, and I still haven't broken veganism and probably won't until we go to Meat Liquor tomorrow, when I intend to cram large amounts of halloumi into my face. Veganuary was a fascinating experiment, but I don't have the desire or commitment to be entirely vegan all of the time. The current plan is to eat almost exclusively vegan at home and at work (with occasional exceptions), and to be vegan where possible but more likely lacto-ovo vegetarian when I'm eating out. So veg*n, with a tendency towards the vegan end of the spectrum. This is a level of cognitive dissonance I'm content with.