Tag Archives: food ethics

Fear of Foodways? On Trigger Warnings, Horses, and a Dropped Class

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

A few years ago I received an angry email from a student, informing me that she was dropping my “Food and Culture” class. It was early in the semester and we had just had a vigorous discussion about how food is defined in different societies. The eating of cats and dogs had been raised and we had explored why “pets” are often distinct from “food.” But what really set her off was our discussion of eating horses. The discussion, which drew in part on a blog entry I had written on the topic, infuriated that student. Her angry note stated that she would not participate in a class that allowed the discussion of anything as inhumane as the killing and eating of horses.

I was surprised by this on many levels. First, I should point out that in nearly two decades of teaching, this is the only student I can recall dropping a class because the content offended them. Second, anthropology is by its very nature a discipline in which students may encounter practices and ideas that they find shocking. The whole point is to understand the full range of human behavior and thinking, allowing us to get at some putative idea of what makes us all human, while also helping us think more critically about societies in general. The “Food and Culture” class is an advanced undergraduate course and most of the students who take it have already had introductory level anthropology, so they should be aware of the nature of the topics that may be discussed. Third, tastes in food, even within one society, can be very different. I was raised to eat ketchup on macaroni and cheese (the bland Kraft variety). I have learned over the years that this practice is viscerally repulsive to many people. When we cross social and cultural boundaries to discuss food practices, beliefs, etc., we are bound to encounter things that are a lot more challenging than that. Things like killing and eating horses.

And yet it is too easy to assert the cross-cultural nature of anthropology as a license to challenge our students’ sensibilities. In the case I mentioned, we were not mostly focusing on foreign cultures. It is true that Americans do not generally eat horse these days, but they have eaten horse in the past and the practice has waxed and waned over time. While we require our students to practice cultural relativism in trying to understand other societies, it is legitimate for them to raise ethical concerns about practices within their own society. One of my intentions in raising the issue in the class was (and remains—I still use the topic) to show that the things we designate as food reveal deeper questions about how we make sense of our world. Horses are, in the U.S., ambiguous animals, not entirely work animals anymore, not necessarily pets. Confronting that ambiguity in our own culture is supposed to make students uncomfortable. I want them to understand that our own society is just as “exotic” and potentially shocking as any other. I also want them to learn to analyze the cultural categories and social structures that frame our practices with animals (food or otherwise). If they are going to make ethical decisions about such things, they need to understand them at a deep level.

So I now include a warning on my course syllabus. I guess it is a “trigger warning,” although I was not aware of that term when I started using it. It reads:

Warning: In this class you will be exposed to ideas and practices that may be radically different from those you find familiar and comfortable. You may read about or see images of people engaging in behavior you find shocking. This is of course standard for anthropology, but because this is a class about food, the possibility is perhaps higher than usual. If you are unable to tolerate being exposed to such difference, this class is not for you.

Nobody, as far as I know, has dropped the class because of this warning. I have a colleague who has used a similar warning on all of his syllabi for decades. I sometimes suspect that these warnings may actually attract students. Maybe it gives our classes a reputation for being risqué. We dare you to take them.

At the same time, my classes need to be welcoming to all students. I have vegans, vegetarians, halal-observant Muslims, kosher-keeping Jews, Creoles, Cajuns, aggressive fans of bacon, and people who seem to subsist on energy drinks. Because I teach in New Orleans, I also have a lot of students who work in food-related jobs, especially waiters, bartenders, and line cooks. I have students who come from rural backgrounds and many who have family who work in the seafood industry. They already know a lot about food and I learn quite a lot from them every semester. But I also try hard to provoke them out of their comfort zone and, for the most part, they seem happy to be provoked. Our students do not demand coddling and, I doubt that many do anywhere, despite the fantasies of pundits. On the contrary, they are eager to learn and participate. Sometimes they shock me out of my comfort zone too.

So I include the statement above in my syllabus as both a warning and a challenge. If they accept the challenge and stay in the class, then my job is to make sure the class really does provide them with an opportunity to learn. The class is about food, so I need to ensure that they are learning to think carefully about what food is and how food choices are shaped by history, political economy, and culture. But the class is also about practicing critical thinking. Do they feel encouraged to raise questions and challenge me and each other in the class? Can they turn their readings into thoughtful analyses? Can they express those analyses in class and in writing? These critical thinking and writing skills are learning objectives for many good liberal arts classes and they are also the key to success in a lot of careers. Oddly enough, the student who dropped my class over a discussion of horse meat was sort of on the right track. She understood that deeper issues were at stake. She even wrote about them in her email telling me that she was leaving. But she should have stayed in the class so that others could continue the discussion. That, after all, is what learning is about. You have been warned.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, ethics, Food Studies

Workshop on Feeding Cities: Ethical and Policy Issues in Urban Food Systems

Call for Abstracts!

Workshop on Feeding Cities: Ethical and Policy Issues in Urban Food Systems

Northeastern University, Boston, MA

March 27-28, 2015

Food defines cultures, is at the heart of religious and ethnic traditions, is central to familial and social gatherings, gives us joy (and sometimes pain), and shapes the rhythms of daily life. Of course, food is also about survival. Societies thrive – or collapse – based on ready, reliable, and equitable access to food. There is currently rising demand for food due to population growth and spreading affluence, as well as increasing production and distribution challenges, such as water and land scarcity, climate change, depletion in seafood stocks, and dependency on global food chains. All of this takes place amidst accelerating urbanization; over half the world’s population now lives in cities. Together these trends make studying urban food systems – and developing practices and policies for improving them – crucial to building socially just and ecologically sustainable societies.

This workshop aims to foster cross-disciplinary inquiry on topics relevant to urban food system sustainability, health, and equity. We invite abstracts of no more than 750 words from researchers working on social, ecological, political and ethical issues associated with urban food systems. Topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Whether local or global food systems are better positioned to promote food availability, food security, resilience and food justice in cities
  • Opportunities and limits of urban agriculture and community-based food systems
  • Relationship between urban food systems and other urban issues, such as affordable housing, land use and environmental justice
  • Evaluation of particular technological and system innovations within urban food systems, with respect to such things as increasing food production, improving tracking/monitoring, promoting food access, and reducing wastage and improving waste management
  • Historical perspectives on food systems and cities
  • Strategies for developing climate change resilience within urban food systems
  • Studies of the structure and efficacy of alternative food advocacy groups or movements, as well as assessment of concerns raised regarding them
  • Whether the concept of ‘food miles’ is useful and, if so, for what end or in what contexts
  • Studies of the economics of urban food systems
  • The role of cultural identify in urban food practices and the construction of urban food systems
  • Issues related to food system workers, particularly in urban contexts
  • Evaluation of food security programs in cities – federal, state, local and non-governmental
  • The extent to which cities ought to be able to regulate foods to promote public health
  • Challenges of democratic governance related to urban food system

The abstract submission deadline is December 15th, 2014. Please email submissions (and questions) to Christopher Bosso (c.bosso@neu.edu) or Ron Sandler (r.sandler@neu.edu). Those accepted will be asked to submit papers one month prior to the workshop, and papers will be made available to other workshop participants. Papers can be of any length and may be stand alone articles or chapters/sections of larger projects, but speakers will be limited to twenty-five minutes to present their ideas, followed by thirty minutes of discussion. For more information go to http://www.northeastern.edu/foodsystems/.

This workshop is sponsored by the Consortium on Food Systems Sustainability, Health, and Equity and the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University, with financial and logistic support by the NU Humanities Center, College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

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Filed under CFP, food systems, urban