We make daily choices/ or hold beliefs that – even briefly – raise feelings of self-doubt, but rather than repent we justify them. As a vegetarian, I’ll order a vegetarian Thai curry knowing it probably contains fish sauce and shrimp paste, but justify it as a convenient exception for an otherwise good ethical record. Sometimes, we find solace with attributes we see in our actions, choices, or beliefs that provide a veneer to justify our acts and beliefs. Consumerism is the best reflection of this insofar that we simply want is the option to be good, even if we choose not to. I call it the McDonalds Salad Principle. I provide three prominent examples that best demonstrate this.
1) MCDONALDS SALAD
By the time I entered university in 2002, McDonalds was starting to experience a global decline. Influences included the gradual adoption of healthier eating practices, opposition to corporate chain restaurants, their labour practices and concerns over animal cruelty, corporate gaffes such as the McLibel case and the Indian lawsuit over beef fat in fries, and attention from films such as Supersize This and novels like My Year of Meats, and Fast Food Nation.
In spite of this, McDonalds regained profits and started expanding again. McDonalds was rebranded with healthier choices. With changes such as healthier oils, taglines such as 100% pure NZ/ Australian beef, the inclusion of salad, apples, and sandwich roll options, a partnership with Weight Watchers on recommended intake, and the Justin Timberlake-sung slogan “I’m lovin’ it”, McDonalds seemingly addressed ethical concerns and consumer responsiveness.
However, those who appreciate a good salad aren’t likely to consider McDonalds. Indeed, it was revealed that McDonalds in America attributes only 2 to 3% of total sales to salads. McDonalds remains the familiar burger place that the public loves. The flavours and smells are as nostalgic as Mum’s home cooking. Most people wouldn’t deny that burger ingredients are low quality and unhealthy. The salad option provides existing customers with possible satisfaction of a healthy, ethical choice, even if they don’t take it.
2) FOX NEWS
Fox News is a Republican network all but in name. The closest alternative that Democrats have is MSNBC (Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell,and Chris Hayes), which is still not nearly partisan or successful as Fox. A New York Times/ A CNN poll on September 29th, 2009 stated that 78% of interviewed Fox viewers defined themselves as Republican voters, while 45% of MSNBC viewers identified as Democrats.
There’s a widespread insinuation that Fox News deliberately misleads people, but not enough consideration is given to Fox’s successful energisation of the Republican base. People would rather think of themselves as independent and judge information obtained from news and not propaganda. Fox uses basic features that provide a veneer of news, most obviously the name. If it were called ‘Republican News Network’ with the slogan “Believe in America” (Romney’s campaign slogan), Fox couldn’t have succeeded. The slogan “Fair and Balanced” justifies the audience viewpoint as ‘balanced’ no matter how conservative it is, and anything against them is unbalanced and extremist. Frequent use of Democratic politicians as contributors creates the impression of balance, but contributors usually fit two stereotypes. One is the belligerent liberal such as Al Sharpton or Barney Frank. The other is the mild mannered, conservative Democrat like Joe Lieberman or Harold Ford Jr. Pantomime villains or pushover wimps. These well-designed elements cater to Republican viewers who want news to justify their views with a veneer of balance.
3) ELECTING A ETHNIC MINORITY OR FEMALE CANDIDATE AS THE SOLUTION
The song ‘Obama the Magic Negro’ was racist. But LA Times writer David Ehrenstein, who coined the term ‘Magic Negro’ to describe part of the appeal of Obama during the 2008 Democratic Primaries, had a point:
“He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest”.
Though part of the attraction was liberal ideology, people might have also seen Obama as a cure for American racism, as if electing him would make America forgiven for the legacies of slavery, segregation, and lynchings. Democrats Joe Biden and Senate Majority Harry Reid made controversial comments about Obama being clean cut and articulate as a key to his success. Though rather offensive, there is an indication that perhaps the public preferred someone less confrontational like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – the “Angry Black Man” – and more assuring.
The election of ethnic minority or female politicians, though symbolic, is no panacea for racism, sexism, inequality, or war. Obama has continued important mechanisms of the Bush War on Terror such as Guantanamo Bay, PRISM, and drone strikes against foreign nationals. Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard – to varying degrees – faced strong pressure to disprove the insinuation that women are too weak to be leaders, were realist politicians as products of their political systems, or both. Thatcher presided over over some of the biggest economic reforms that disproportionately affected the poor, while maintaining only one female cabinet member. Clinton supported the war in Iraq in 2003 and three strikes imprisonment. Gillard cut single parent payments for 87% of single parents, and reintroduced John Howard’s Pacific Solution and the ‘No Advantage‘ rule that prevents those approved for asylum from gaining work, study, and welfare rights for a five year period. The McDonalds Salad Principle applies insofar that although we congratulate ourselves for electing ethnic minorities and women to higher office, yet often do not think about the structures and attitudes that marginalise.
The McDonalds Salad Principle considers our role as consumers. We believe that we can solve exploitation through treating our consumer choice as the ultimate power. Choosing ethical brands or those who convince us they are, where we get our news from, and which brand of president or prime minister we vote for. We assume that the right choices will change society, but it will just make institutions and politicians try harder to appear more responsive and relateable. In other words, style over substance. American public policy expert and former Clinton Secretary of Labour Robert Reich sums this up brilliantly when he takes on the anti-Wal-Mart movement.
“Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to consumers as lower prices…. The fact is, today’s economy offers us a Faustian bargain: it can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities”.
The solution, Reich claims, is not to attack singular corporations and use our collective power as consumers, but as citizens:
“The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one. A requirement that companies with more than 50 employees offer their workers affordable health insurance, for example, might increase slightly the price of their goods and services. My inner consumer won’t like that very much, but the worker in me thinks it a fair price to pay. Same with an increase in the minimum wage or a change in labor laws making it easier for employees to organize and negotiate better terms”.
Solutions to unethical and unfair economic practices, misinformation, and marginalisation are not consumer but citizen-based. Minimum standards of wages and working conditions, reforming media ownership laws and a strong movement in citizen journalism, and democratic mainstream party organisations and political party funding reforms. These are not consumer choices but substantive ideas that need to be part of public dialogue rather than having the choice between an apple or fries.