The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, March 10, 2008

the ethical implications of FAST FOOD NATION

I had a class of freshmen read Eric Schlosser's FAST FOOD NATION last week with several aims--looking at how a single argument comes out of a wide variety of sub-claims; examining how very vivid facts and anecdotes are used to create emotional appeal and bolster an argument whose logic is at times shaky; diagramming how his sub-claims are necessary for his larger claim but themselves rest on shaky logic at times; describing how his totalizing view of the "Fast Food Nation" and its component parts and genealogy relies on an ethical claim that he doesn't give audiences the chance to reject. But the students enjoyed it--I could tell from the buzz in the room beforehand that they were struck by his descriptions of the slaughterhouses, working conditions, etc. (Only of my students had worked at anything that could be considered a "fast-food" place, Panera, which I found interesting--I've taught at places with what one might euphemistically call a different student demographic, and in some of those classes almost half of the students had worked at fast-food joints.)

We discussed the book and the students focused on many of the issues about how the "fast-food nation" affects what Schlosser paints as the least powerful: the McSerfs, the slaughterhouse workers, the franchisees, the small family farmers, the local businesses and suppliers. They were horrified at the stories of the injuries suffered and the argument that the fast-food nation concentrates power up. And of course they were grossed out by the stories of, as Schlosser indelicately puts it, "shit in the meat."

When I asked them whether the book had in any way changed their attitudes about eating in fast-food joints, they all looked blankly, like this question was a non-sequitur. When I prodded them, three gave variations on "well, it's unlikely that I'll get sick--sure, there's a chance that I might get E. coli, but the odds are against it." One gave a kind of fatalistic response: "well, yeah, Schlosser makes this seem really awful, but every industry is like this--just look at coffee." And the rest just continued to look blankly. It was amazing to me: immediately after expressing their horror, and even anger, at all of the injustice of the "fast-food nation," their only ETHICAL response was either fatalism (which I can understand) or what might be seen as narcissism--"how does this affect ME?" The "news-you-can-use" approach.

But then I came into class the next day and thought about it. Schlosser talks about how Upton Sinclair, lamenting the way that his pro-socialist novel THE JUNGLE achieved nothing he wanted and instead spurred the Pure Food and Drug Act, said "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach." And I think there's a little to this in Schlosser: he wraps up his argument with his discussion of how food-borne disease is spread more easily by the industrial production models of the fast-food nation, and includes heartbreaking stories about Shiga toxins and dead children. And this serves, partially, to overwhelm the rest of the argument (which is really about "how does the fast-food nation affect others") and emphasize instead "how does this affect me"? And students, and readers, aren't stupid: they know that although there are a few spectacular cases of contamination, and that even if there really are 500 annual cases of E. coli-caused death in the US, this represents a tiny chance of THEM actually being at risk.

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