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Celebrating Diversity?

In Rants on July 1, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I was settling down to watch the 2012 Euro Cup final and a McDonald’s commercial came on.  Have you seen this one?  Watch video

It is clearly exploiting the international flavor of the football tournament.  An American hipster approaches an exotically attired man on the street of some faraway land and says, “Excuse me.”  The response of the addressed indicates that no communication is possible for, being exotic, the man speaks no English.  The commercial cuts to various international locales and a variety of characters –old and young, male and female, rich and poor—being asked a question in English, but none can help the hipster.  The American’s question is, “McDonald’s?”   Then we begin to see a comprehension that transcends mere words.  The music swells as the barriers of language fall and the joy of a more profound commonality is celebrated.  These people from all over the world understand and point with beaming faces in the direction of the malapropos site – the common experience of humanity, it seems, is the McDonald’s experience.

This ad shows us, in very positive terms, the variety found in the world’s cultures.  But at its root, the philosophy of McDonald’s undermines difference.

In the 1960s, McDonald’s told us that we could eat the same hamburger anywhere in the United States.   This is just one key to McDonalds’ success, however.  What is truly remarkable is that they were able to convince us that sameness was a good thing.  We have been so thoroughly convinced of the necessity culinary uniformity that we will pass by unique and far better tasting hamburgers in order to buy one more of the billions and billions of inexpensive and identical sandwiches.

One of the things I most love about Europe is that you can walk past two bakeries within a few blocks of one another and enjoy a different lunch.  What both meals share is quality: the bread is fresh, the cheese is local and the pig that is in the sausage was raised on a nearby farm and not in pork a factory a thousand miles away.  This variety is in the same block and there are innumerable blocks in innumerable towns all across Europe.

. . . crossing (maintaining) the line between sameness and difference

The new McDonald’s commercial celebrates the diversity in our world, yet, the corporation intends to do to the world what it’s done to America—indeed, it is doing it right now.  I’d like to think that it won’t succeed—that maybe one of the differences between our culture and the rest is that they don’t value efficiency and monotony over artistry and uniqueness.   Sadly, I don’t think this is true.

If you agree with McDonald’s that cultural diversity is something to celebrate, then take the next step and oppose McDonald’s cultural homogenization strategy–instead cultural diversity by never eating at McDonald’s again.

Objectification of the Onion

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on April 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the most remarkable cookbooks that I’ve ever read. For one thing, it has hardly any recipes in it. Most of the book is a reflection on food, life, the world and everything, while patiently describing the preparation of a lamb stew. Chapter 2 is dedicated to considering the onion. Capon suggests you ought to set aside an hour for this one ingredient.

When you take the onion into your hand you note that it is a thing, as are you. He calls this a mutual confrontation, for the onion also confronts you. With his poetic prose, Capon leads us on an exploration of all aspects of this amazing ingredient, from the dry onion paper, both sides, to the wonder of the layers within. To look at an onion in this way, one encounters gravity and mortality, the nature of dryness and the miracle of water, the glory of discovering something never before seen, life inside death, and pressure. Because of this careful exploration, he hopes that we will “never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident . . . [and] meaningless shapes out of nothing.” He wants us to encounter it first for what it is and not only for how it can be used. He believes man’s “real work is to look at the things of the world and love them for what they are.”

Objectification is bad, right? At least in the sense that to objectify a person is bad. It suggests that they’ve been downgraded to a lower level—the level of the object. This idea, that objects are inferior to people, is a given.

It makes sense, I suppose. We’ve inherited this idea from our past. In the Middle Ages, for instance, we understood reality in terms of the Great Chain of Being. In this view of reality, everything was placed hierarchically as if on a cosmic chain. At the top of the chain were all the things that were completely spiritual, then the human world which was part spiritual and part physical, then the animals and the plants, and at the very bottom were the things that were completely physical and therefore inferior to everything above it. In this scheme almost everything was thought inferior to human beings.

But objects weren’t then as we think of them now. Objects today are completely empty of anything but their physical properties. To know something we just need to know measure, graph and diagram it.

In the Medieval world, objects were more than just their physical properties. Garlic wasn’t just a flavour for stew, but also a repellent for evil. You had to be aware of your relationships to things like black cats and ladders because they weren’t just cats and ladders. The flowers a bride carried not only covered up her body odour, but aided in her fertility on the wedding night.

These things weren’t hard to believe for the medieval mind.  Because the meaning of things was in the thing.  Meaning was external—meaning was objective.

Meaning has moved–it no longer lives in the object, but in the mind of the human looking at it (or smelling, measuring, graphing it).

So, while objects have been held as inferior to humans for a long time, the modern world has taken the inferiority of the object in a whole new direction. It has completely emptied things of their meaning. Meaning is no longer to be found in the object, only in the subject, or, more accurately, in the mind of the subject. Objects have no inherent meaning, only that which I attribute to it. The modern person takes this as a given; it is part of our worldview.

. . . crossing the line between subject and object

But Capon warns that much is lost when we view the world of things as empty of meaning. He says that every time we look at what a thing “can be made to mean,” rather than what a thing is, reality slips away and we are left with nothing. He concludes the chapter on the onions saying, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

To objectify something is to look at it only as something to be used. It is completely inappropriate for one to look at a human being in this way—we call it objectification. But built into the word itself is the assumption that it’s just fine to look at an object in this way.  Capon contests this view of the created world.

If it seems strange to see objects as Capon sees them, it is because we are modern.  Most people who have lived would think secular modernism pretty strange.