Meals, manners and the ‘food faddists’.

I took out a rare book on the Philosophy of Food yesterday with the intent of reading the aesthetics chapters as preparation for my next essay. When I saw that Scruton had a chapter on manners, though, it was inevitable that I’d end up reading that first. It’s available online here. I think it summarises quite well how I find him simultaneously insightful and infuriating. First, the insight:

When manners are forgotten, the meal as a social occasion disappears, as is already happening. People now eat distractedly before a TV screen, replenish their bodies in the street, or walk around the workplace with a sandwich in their hands. When I first taught in America, I was shocked to find students carrying into the lecture hall pizzas and hot dogs, which they proceeded to stuff into their faces while staring in mild curiosity at the dude on the dais. Later, colleagues told me that this behavior didn’t spring from the university ethos; it began at school—it began in the home itself. Already the most important moment of social renewal—on which families depend for their inner self-confidence, and out of which serious friendships grow—was becoming marginal for the young. Eating was shrinking into a function, and it is not surprising if a generation of children brought up in this way should find it difficult or alien to settle down in any relationship other than a provisional and temporary one.

This is hyperbolic, of course, and one can wonder whether it’s an appropriate source of anguish when there are so many other issues in the world competing for our attention. But I don’t feel at all uncomfortable embracing the idea that food is essentially social in its function, and viewing it purely nutritionally is to in some way miss out on key human experiences. One of the more obvious holes in my life since I’ve been single is the loneliness of meal times. On the few days a week when I do have friends over to share over wine whatever it is that I’ve cooked, the experience is inevitably heightened in countless ways. And we shouldn’t shy away from saying that insofar as this happens less often nowadays, that’s a shame and a sad thing for us to be missing.

I also feel that Scruton is spot on when he draws an analogy with manners in the sexual realm:

Even in these days of hasty seductions and brief affairs, sexual partners have a choice between fully human and merely animal relations. The pornography industry is constantly pushing us toward the second option. But culture, morality, and what is left of piety aim at the first. Their most important weapon in this battle is tenderness. Tender feelings do not exist outside a social context. Tenderness grows out of care and courtesy, out of graceful gestures, and out of a quiet, attentive concern. It is something you learn, and politeness is a way of teaching it. Not for nothing do we use the word “rude” to denote both bad manners and obscene behavior. The person whose sexual strategies involve coarse jokes, explicit gestures, and lascivious embraces, who stampedes toward his goal without taking “no” or “maybe” or “not yet” for an answer, is looking for sex of the wrong kind—sex in which the other is a means to excitement, rather than an object of concern. Entered into in this frame of mind, sex is not an accepting but a discarding of the other, a way of maintaining an iron solitude in the midst of union. That is why it is so deeply offensive, and why women, especially, feel violated when men treat them in this way.

I suspect that this sort of talk worries liberals, but look. Nothing here commits one to claiming that casual sex should be outlawed and clamped down upon. It is perfectly consistent with acknowledging freedom to also recognise that certain modes of interaction are more valuable, and Scruton is more charitably read as offering an argument here for the superiority of pleasure delaying. And that doesn’t even have to be moral superiority. I think it suffices for us to agree with his claim that we only believe such sexual relationships end up being more emotionally fulfilling and enriching. Despite the modern world’s comfortable relationship with casual sex, I think it may be surprising how many people even of my generation agree with the thrust of his position here. Very few of my friends consciously affirm the value of one night stands. The majority concede that they only repeat such acts insofar as they forget that they seldom bring real pleasure.

But now for the infuriation:

The rudeness of the glutton and the face stuffer are obvious. Equally ill-mannered—though it is politically incorrect to say so—is the food faddist, who makes a point of announcing, wherever he goes, that just this or this can pass his lips, and all other things must be rejected, even when offered as a gift. I was taught to eat whatever was placed before me, choosiness being a sin against hospitality and a sign of pride. But vegetarians and vegans have now succeeded in policing the dinner table with their non-negotiable demands, ensuring that even when invited into company, they sit down alone.

This is where he loses me. If I’m right in reading the implication here to be that the previous values that I was willing to recognise must always be decisive rather than weighable considerations, so that it’s somehow necessary to preserve the social function of food even if it’s at the cost of eating meat which causes agony to animals and destroys the future of the planet, then this must be the most preposterous proposition Scruton has penned. How could the value of manners and sharing food ever trump avoiding having that kind of evil stacked high on your plate?

His observations are reasonable. He just takes them too far.


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