Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts / Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
In a recent paper (Dean 2019), Megan Dean argues that identity-policing in eating, where social pressure forces one to change one’s eating habit, which is related to one’s own identity, could engender harm precisely because of potential dehumanization and loss of self-esteem. This is so because identity is connected with eating habits, so attempts to change the latter result in changes in the former. For example, attempts to change the eating habit of some men so that they turn to eating vegetarian food is contrary to their identity as “real men.” In this presentation I analyze Dean’s argument and propose that her argument is based on a presupposition that one’s own identity is fixed, and is something that one is attached to. This, however, does not have to be the case. A reason why one is attached to one’s identity is that one’s identity is tied up with how others perceive oneself. The reason why the men do not want to eat vegetarian food is perhaps that they do not want to be perceived by their peer of having changed their identities (i.e., of becoming less masculine). However, as many philosophers have shown, identity is very fluid and temporarily constructed. A consequence then is that the argument that identity-policing could be harmful because it leads to loss of identity is rather tenuous. One can always change one’s own identity for the better.
identity, eating, ethics, identity-policing, fluidity, consumption
As the common saying goes, we are what we eat. This statement is true in many ways, one of which is that food and identity are much interrelated. That is, the food we eat tells us very much of who we are. For example, Thai people usually have a conception of who they are which always consists of eating rice. It is as if someone who does not eat rice, or who dislikes rice, is not a Thai person. Furthermore, the fact that a certain group prefers to eat in one specific way often is a mark of the group’s identity. An obvious example is the Mahayana Buddhist monks,*1 who by rule have to eat vegan food. Eating vegan food is thus a mark of being a Mahayanist monk as having one’s head shaved, wearing a yellow robe, and so on.
What I would to do in this brief paper is that I would like to discuss the argument put forward by Megan Dean on identity-policing and its perceived threat to identity (for both an individual and a group). In a recent paper (Dean 2019), Dean argues essentially that one should at least consider some of the ethical implications emanating from what she calls “identity-policing” regarding food and eating. Policing the identity of another person could be harmful to that person because that could result in the loss of her identity, as well as dehumanization or shaming, which are deeply harmful. For example, someone may eat too much and gains weight as a result, identity-policing occurs when her social group warns her not to eat too much; this could engender harm when it goes too far, such as when dehumanizing practices are involved. She may be taunted and shamed by her social peer because of her appearance. Dean acknowledges that identity-policing generally is beneficial, but she proposes that the harms and the ethical implications of the practice should at least be noted.
My argument in the paper is that Dean’s argument here relies on an assumption that one’s identity is fixed. The men’s group which does not approve of eating vegetarian food, thinking that doing so would result in the loss of their identity, apparently believes that their identity is more or less permanent. If they did not believe so then it would be difficult to see how they would view eating vegetarian food as a threat to their identity. On the contrary, it would be possible for them to believe that they can remain who they are while eating vegetarian food. However, this option is closed by their own viewpoint.
This means that there is a way out: one can retain one’s identity while changing one’s eating habit. After all, as I have argued in an earlier paper (Hongladarom 2018), identity is a construction and is a fluid entity where there is nothing that permanently fixes it. This of course implies that a marker of one’s identity, such as one’s eating habit, can change without having to threaten the identity in question.
*1. Theravada monks, on the contrary, do not have a rule against eating meat. This is one of the main differences between the monastic practices of the two main Buddhist sects.
2cEthical Implications of Identity-Policing
Identity policing is an act where one’s peer group pressures one into maintaining a conception of identity that the group identifies for one. If one strays from the conception, then the group has various means at its disposal to bring one back to line. Thus, identity policing is an age-old method where the group can maintain order and discipline. In the case of eating behavior, what is deemed correct and appropriate by the group is then imposed on each individual in it. If the group thinks that eating certain kind of food and eating too much are unacceptable behaviors, then the group can police the identity of each member. Those who found to violate the social norms are then sanctioned by the group.
According to Dean, there is nothing inherently wrong in such means of social pressure with regards to eating. However, there can be complications, such as when a group pressures a member to act in such a way that violates the identity of the member. A member might believe that a certain form of bodily appearance belongs very closely to her identity. Maintaining this form may rely on a form of eating behavior. However, if such form is found to be objectionable by the group, then a conflict ensues. Identity policing can become ethically problematic when the group threatens to take away the kind of identity that a member is bodily and mentally aligned with. To go back to the Thai example mentioned earlier, this would mean that to deprive a Thai person, say, of rice and forcing him or her to eat bread or pasta instead would be a harm to his or her identity, since the identity is tied up with rice.
3 Fluid Identity
However, this type of argument rests on the premise that identity is fixed.*2 In a nutshell, Dean’s argument runs as follows: As identity of a person or a group is fixed, and since food is intimately connected with identity, changing the kind of food that one eats, as well as the habits associated with the eating, is tantamount to changing one’s own identity. This then brings about the ethical implications mentioned earlier. The argument relies on the assumption that identity is fixed because in order to be able to police someone’s identity through observation and admonition of his or her eating behavior, there has to be a fixed connection between the eating behavior and the identity. Otherwise the policing would not be able to achieve its aim because such aim cannot be found. If identity is a fluid concept, where the markers constitutive of the identity constantly change, then the group would not know which identity they need to police.
However, many theories and arguments lead to the conclusion that identity is indeed a fluid concept. The detailed argument cannot be presented here, but the main idea is that the very concept of identity depends on a set of essential properties such that they constitute the very being of the entity in question. Thus, the identity of a triangle is constituted by its definition: a figure consisting of three sides and three angles. Nevertheless, the identity of actual things outside of geometry is very imprecise and depends on a host of factors. In other words, the identity of an entity always depends on its environment and other entities.
One of the main arguments in favor of this is a Buddhist one. A thing derives its putative identity through its relations with other things. As such, the thing by itself is only a thing because it is bounded by other things, since any essential property that would enable the thing to remain the thing it is without such relations cannot be found (See, for example, Nagarjuna 1995).
*2. In fact, the idea that food is an indicator or a fixer of identity is a contested concept and can be viewed in many layers. The fixing of identity through food can always be negotiated and depends on various factors. For example, one may assert one’s own identity vis-à-vis others through ostentatious display of the food that one eats; in this sense, food is a means by which one displays perhaps one’s nationalistic tendency. Food can also be a means by which one consciously shows one’s wealth, or the means by which one wants others to perceive one’s acquired social status, and so on. In these cases, food functions as a factor among many which one can use to construct one’s own identity. Furthermore, traveling and exposure to foreign culture do tend to lessen the fixation of one’s identity through food, either through necessity (one has to eat foreign food out of necessity) or choice.
Identity, in addition, can also be stereotyped and codified through cultural artifacts such as cookbooks. Sherrie Inness (2006) argues how cookbooks are used by women to express their values, desires and beliefs. However, other cultures do not rely on cookbooks at all, but on words of mouth and learning by observing, as someone observes others cooking and remember how to cook particular dishes. In Thailand, for example, there are cookbooks, but they are so imprecise that it is close to being useless as a guide for cooking: One needs to know how to cook already before one gets useful information from Thai cookbooks. Thus, in addition to Inness’ observation, the cookbooks are by themselves cultural artifacts.
This points to a view that considerations of the ethical implications of identity-policing needs also to take into account the fact that identity is fluid and is always a construct. What this means is that identities can change, and one does not have to remain fixed with the identity that one imputes on oneself or is imputed by others. The harms associated with identity-policing, such as anxiety when one gets rebuked by one’s peer, are then seen in a clearer light as the desire by the group that the individual fall into line. In the end, the individual has all the means by which she can consider whether to follow the line or to strike out on one’s own. The harms do not stem from loss of identity; they instead emerge from the desire for uniformity by the group. It is up to the individual herself whether to follow that or to consider it and change oneself for the better.
Research for this paper has been partially supported by a grant from the project on “Creating an Environment for Open Science in Thailand,” Chulalongkorn University.
- Dean, Megan A. 2019. Identity and the ethics of eating interventions. Bioethical Inquiry 16: 353-364.
- Hongladarom, Soraj. 2018. Identità fluida, libertà e responsibilità. In Identità, Libertà e Responsibilità, eds. Fernando Di Mieri and Daniele D’Agostino. Rome: Ripostes.
- Inness, Sherrie A. 2006. Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table. New York: Palgrave.
- Nagarjuna. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Jay L. Garfield, transl. Oxford University Press.