Sunday, December 20, 2015
It is not trivial. It is not stupid.
This came out of a discussion I had online about Oberlin students' complaints about food (as it turns out, the portrayal of the students was a gross simplification, since they are pushing for better working conditions for food service workers, and that they also talked about the quality of the food, and some aspects of "ethnic" dishes that did not go over well with members of said ethnic groups). I've heard people dismiss this as a triviality and say that bad food is a fact of life, and the organizing for the food service workers was more important. Which is odd, since it's my impression that the food service workers are down with the students and would like to have jobs where they provide more than just barely palatable calories, but what do I know? I'm a meanie-butt PC commie harpy from hell. My impression of that whole thing is that the workers and the students are united, that to win they need to build a coalition, and to build a coalition they need to understand and accept the concerns of a diverse group of people. Which is how you get stuff done when you organize and build coalitions.
(And, a bit more of a derail here, but read this excerpt from this article and tell me that a bunch of black students who are complaining about food quality and tying it into better treatment of the workers are affluent and spoiled: While food quality and preparation were major concerns, students also called for better treatment of CDS staff, saying that they wanted “a guaranteed 40 hour work week, benefits for part-time workers, personal days, funding for job training and increased wages.” The students also want to maintain the house’s orientation toward the community and promote greater benevolence and humanity for CDS workers. “Bon Appétit is owned by Compass Group, which is a huge international organization that has received food violations in numerous countries,” [Kendra] Farrakhan wrote to the Review. “Until you’ve worked [ for] CDS, you don’t realize how rude, condescending and overbearing the managers are. And you don’t realize how much food gets thrown away. I would like to see Bon Appétit fired and replaced by something other than an international corporation. I would like to see the chefs have the respect and autonomy to cook the food they love.” She actually worked for food services and is hardly a poster child for spoiled, affluent college brats. Seriously, the people running with one aspect of this story and whining about The Kids Today need to take a seat.)
Now, call me silly, but a poor or working class student who is at university thanks to a boatload of loans and maybe some grants, has every right to be upset if the food is gross. If the campus was a visual trash-fire (it's not), they have every right to be upset about that. If their rooms are reminiscent of unfinished basements (I don't think they are), they have a right to be upset about that. They're going to be in hock for a long time, why is it so unreasonable to expect that the food taste good? That the environment be welcoming? That things be attractive?
I'm not saying that the food should be gourmet meals of say, coq au vin. But it should taste good. It should be prepared with care. It should have flavor. (And you're not going to have any of that if you treat your workers like garbage and don't give them the leeway to do that.)
However, this isn't something that you should only have a right to expect if you are paying for things (or taking out loans to pay for things.) I work in the city, in a neighborhood that some feel is still pretty rough. (I don't feel unsafe there, but then again, I don't live there.) There are housing projects there and there is mixed income housing. This neighborhood has some empty lots and crumbling buildings (some neighborhoods have some horrific brownfields). It also has community gardens. It has parks and is part of a corridor of parkland and trees and gardens that is lovely to walk through, lovely to sit in, and just lovely in general. It's great for me, but let's face it, I'm walking through all of what? Five minutes total a day going to and from the subway? Big whoop, right?
But ask yourself: If you lived there, would a community garden--even one that you didn't use--be nicer to look at than a brownfield? Be nicer to see than an empty lot with trash? What would it do to you to live among brownfields and empty lots? Among buildings that were featureless and perhaps crumbling? To live in a place that is dark, with peeling paint and and awkward layout?
I think that would be hell. It think it would take its toll on me psychologically. I think it would be very difficult for me to do well or to be happy if I was immersed in ugly.
It goes for all the things that touch our lives. If I only had access to beans and rice with no flavorings or spices, I could eat and stay alive, but would I want to? If I had housing but it was dark and small and awkward with thin walls where I could hear my neighbors and smell them every time they farted, I would be sheltered but I would not be at home. If my building was ugly and my neighborhood was ugly it would not do me great, immediate harm but it would wear at me, day in and day out to walk through and into places that embody despair and indifference.
And yet, we have to couch making things attractive or pleasurable in language that is grey and utilitarian. Community gardens encourage people to eat better and gives them access to fresh vegetables. Parks provide places for recreation and play! Good housing is a must for all people! We must all have access to nutritious food to function well. Expanding our horizons culturally by being able to go to free days at museums or go to free concerts is good for our minds and our souls.
And it's true! These things are all important for those very reasons and then some. I won't deny that.
They are also important because they provide pleasure and pleasure is important. Pleasure makes us happy. Pleasure feels good, and feeling good makes life worth living, damn it. Why not make the necessities pleasurable? Yes, I could eat oatmeal with nothing in it for breakfast. It would be nutritionally sound and it would fill me up and provide me with necessary calories. But why not add some fruit? Some sugar or honey? Why not add some flavor? Yes, the soggy pasta and overdone meat and limp, gray vegetables won't kill me. But day after day of that and I'll stop wanting to try. Honestly, I'll stop wanting to eat.
Why is expecting food to taste good considered to be a triviality? Why is expecting or wanting an attractive neighborhood seen as entitled? Why do we need to justify these things with "It is a form of Puritan gruel, it's not as if we feel it's okay for people to enjoy things" reasoning? Why is providing pleasure in even the little things seen as such a silly thing at best or a grave sin at worst?
I mean, look, I'm all about the practicality and frugality and all that. But I also think poor people, students (and there are many who are poor or struggling), workers, rich people, young people, old people, people in the city, people in the country, basically all people, have the right to eat good tasting food. To see reasonably attractive surroundings. To live in a place that is inviting. To breathe clean air. To a baseline of comfort. It's basic respect.
If pleasure didn't matter, then we would not use whatever means we have to get it. We wouldn't try to make our homes prettier. We wouldn't plant flowers. We wouldn't use spices or seasonings in cooking. We wouldn't buy or wear clothing that looked and felt good. We wouldn't buy or listen to music. We wouldn't read books. We wouldn't watch movies. We wouldn't do a lot of things. We would go to work and eat solyent green and go to bed and do that like the damn Borg.
But we are not the Borg. We do these things. Because beauty and flavor and comfort music and laughter and entertainment and quiet and pleasant aromas are important. They make life worth living. We do not wear gray jumpsuits day after day and live in unfinished basements. We do not live in a real life version of District 13 from the Hunger Games series. Having these things tells us that we are people, that we are people who count, that we are deserving of respect and dignity.
Flavor, good smells, comfortable and attractive clothes, beautiful places, light, quiet, art, music, books, TV (yes, TV), movies, laughter--they are all important. People who are denied pleasure by whatever outside forces, be it poverty or time or circumstance, will seek it out and maybe find it in unhealthy ways. Or they may just wither away inside. If someone has the bare necessities, but is beaten down because we act as if their senses don't matter, we have failed as a society. We have failed as people.
Many people--especially poor people--are sentenced to a life without pleasure, without flavor, without joy. To say that pleasure isn't important, we present progress as a paltry, shriveled thing. And in doing so, we fail everyone.