Supersize Me

 

Half way through "Super-Size Me", Morgon Spurlock's girl friend tries to persuade him to become a vegan. She asks how, given that he knows and agrees that farming is cruel, can he possibly continue to eat meat? He responds that he eats meat because he likes it: ham and pork-chops make him feel good. She responds that heroin would probably make him feel good as well. He says that she cannot possibly put ham and heroin on the same level.

It is worth thinking about the logic of this argument.

Claim: "Since the production of meat is cruel, the consumption of meat is wrong."

Assumed premise: "Cruelty is wrong" and "Farming is cruel.".

One would expect Spurlock to respond by countering one or other of the premises: either "Not all farming is cruel, and I limit myself to eating free-range meat"; or "Cruelty to animals does not matter" (say, because animals do not feel pain, or have no souls.)

Instead, he responds with a non-sequitur: "I enjoy eating meat" and "Meat makes me feel good." The assumed premises here are

1: "My enjoyment and happiness is more important than the pain and suffering of animals"—in general terms "Human happiness is more important than animal pain", "Humans matter more than animals."

2: "If something makes you feel good, it is always right to consume it."

His girlfriend presumably rejects the first premise outright, but oddly, doesn't say so. Instead she concentrate on the second premise. She tries to refute the claim "It is right to consume things which make you feel good" with a counter-example: "Drugs make you feel good, but it is neither right nor sensible to consume them. Therefore, your premise 'If something makes your feel good, it is always right to consume them'  is false; therefore your argument is unsound."

Spurlock has no response to this: his point about "feeling good" is indeed unsound, and in any case irrelevant to the original point about cruelty. So he responds by deliberately misunderstanding the analogy, or rather, pretending that the analogy was a comparison. Because ham is much less harmful than heroin, he says, your analogy is invalid. But of course, no such comparison was made: the only point of bringing "heroin" into the conversation was to indicate that "Things which make you feel good are OK" is not a universal rule.[1]

 

The movie served up a continuous diet of this kind of argument. By the end, I was sick of it.

 

At one point, a boffin says that in a given year, a child will see some horrible number of advertisements for junk food—100,000, say. In the same year, he will eat a maximum of 1,000 meals at home. Ergo, for every one shot his parents have at educating him to eat good food, the junk food peddlers have a 100 chances to tell him to eat badly. So it's no wonder that kids get fat: parents have got no chance in the face of all that advertising.

When was it proved, precisely, that one McDonalds poster or one 30 second advert have exactly the same influence over a child's future eating habits than 1 meal at home with mum and dad? I would have thought that, for example, every observant Jew you meet is pretty good evidence that what you are told about food by your parents, teachers and community leaders counts for a lot more than advertisements.

 

Then there is an amusing scene in which Spurlock shows a group of kids pictures of various famous people. They fail to identify George Washington, George W Bush and Jesus Christ, but all recognize Ronald McDonald.

Ha-ha. I am prepared to believe that the sequence has been honestly edited—that they didn't leave the footage of the kids who had heard of Jesus on the cutting room floor. But still, it is striking that Spurlock had selected a realistic, Victorian painting of Christ, and a presumably eighteenth century oil painting of Washington for the experiment. I had to think for a second or two to work out who it was. But he had picked a simple cartoon of the clown. This certainly proves that icons are more recognizable than oil paintings; that kids decode cartoons quicker than realistic illustrations; that memorable images are the kinds of images which people remember. (I believe that this is an example of what that ghastly Dawkins person would call a "meme".) If you had shown the kids a simple picture in primary colours of a boy with a regency wig, a hatchet and a cherry tree, they would all have instantly known who it was.

Very few English children know much about Anglo Saxon history, but most of them could tell you that Alfred burnt the cakes.

I enjoyed the bit about the American adults who couldn't remember the pledge of allegiance. Most English people think the second line of the national anthem is "God save our noble Queen." None of them know verse three. And many of them eat fish and chips. Deep fried in batter.

 

Spurlock begins the movie by pointing out that he ate more or less every meal at home during his childhood; and that all his memories of his mother are to do with kitchens and mealtimes. The photo of her looks like something out of a 1950s sit-com. These days, Mums don't cook for their kids—everyone eats out.

The last person I heard be-moaning the fact that families didn't eat together was Norman Tebbit. He claimed on live radio that childhood obesity was caused by homosexuality. (Buggery was the exact word he used). Increased gay-rights have encouraged the break down of the traditional family; the breakdown of the family means that there are fewer kids with full time mothers; which means that there are fewer family meal-times, which means that people eat more snacks and fast-food, which means that there are more fat kids. Q.E.D [2]The second to last person I heard be-moaning the fact that families don't eat together was, er, Dave Sim. If women go out to work, they don't cook for their families; if a family doesn't eat together then it isn't a family in any meaningful sense; if people are not raised in families, it is only a matter of time before society breaks down and is taken over by a rampaging mob of Islamic Marxists.

Granted, at least 50% of the above mentioned persons are clinically insane. But is there a way of bringing back Traditional Family Mealtimes without tying women to the kitchen? And are we prepared to do that? If not, what was the point of mentioning it?

 

Spurlock's doctor is surprised quite how much damage he does to himself by eating nothing but McDonalds for a month. He has apparently doubled his calorie intake, and at the same time reduced his exercise. But is the problem McDonalds in particular? What would have happened if he had doubled his calorie intake in some other way—say, by eating two slices of his girlfriend's disgusting looking vegan quiche? Or had large portions at the restaurant or cafe of his choice? Without a "control", it is hard to say if the stunt—er, experiment—proves anything at all.

 

McDonalds themselves have been pretty savvy about the whole thing, taking out full page newspaper adverts saying, quite calmly that it is not very surprising that increasing the amount you eat and decreasing the amount of exercise you take causes you to put on weight. Which strikes me as a good point. They took out an advert in the cinema where I saw the movie, which simply gave a web address and said "Find out what we disagree with".

I guess when people eat billions of your hamburgers every day, you can afford a good spin doctor.

 

When Spurlock first eats a super sized meal, he is violently sick out of the window of his car. And your point is? If you were a veggie diet, and then ate a very large, very lean, organically produced, healthily grilled steak, I think it might make you sick. I am told that if you are not used to blue cheese, you can't physically consume it.

 

I tend to go to McDonalds when I feel miserable. After going to the job center during my unemployed phase was a key time. My last visit was after a meeting with the management company of my flat, which had been more than usually crap. I sometimes wonder whether in fact going to McDonalds makes me feel miserable, rather than vice versa. Or maybe it's a vicious circle. I eat comfort food when I feel crap because I think it will cheer me up, and the sense of guilt and the souless plasticity of the place makes me more miserable, which (if I were not careful) would make me eat more to cheer myself up. Although if I take an overnight train or coach, having a breakfast afterwards is a genuine treat: maple syrup on sausages sounds disgusting, but isn't. At any rate, I haven't been to the place since I saw the movie. The last time I walked past one, I found the smell of fat and small children rather nauseous.

 

So maybe crap propaganda works, after all.

 

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[1] It would be rather as if I said "Kittens are to cats as calves are to cows" and you replied "Don't be silly: have you ever tried to milk a cat?"

[2] A good act can have an incidentally bad result. And a bad act can sometimes have an incidentally good result. It is at least a theoretical possibility that the very good act of abolishing the laws which discriminated against working women had, incidentally, the bad effect that their grandchildren would grow up fat. Similarly, the I.R.A's extremely bad act of trying to murder Mrs. Thatcher with a bomb had, incidentally, the very good result of ensuring that Norman Tebbit would never become Prime Minister.