Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Food Inc.: The Psychological Weapons of Protest

Why we don't care about the things that kill us

Food Inc. is a case in point of powerful activism. Its mission is to crystallize two things about food in America: a. what we eat is disturbingly unsafe b. the system in charge of what we eat is disturbingly corrupt. There is anecdotal evidence and statistics. The presentation is accessible and thorough. This is as moving and well done a documentary as any since Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. The weapons used in this intellectual war against Big Business of food are vast and effective. The problem, however, is that the villain this documentary wages war on is psychologically difficult to stay mad at for very long.

For instance, I left the theater a little too cognizant of the candy and soda I'd just ingested, I wondered just how many minutes it was going to take for the sense of outrage and disgust I currently felt to dissolve back into indifference?

One of the reasons I am not ashamed to admit this is because of research by Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist from Harvard.

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He has studied our psychological response to such large and abstract threats as global warming and concluded that the human brain is naturally designed to respond in a manner that is far from ideal. When it comes to certain evolutionarily relevant threats like snakes and darkness, Gilbert maintains that our alarm systems are sleek, smooth and dependable. And yet for certain other threats this same alarm system goes haywire, producing an emotional baseline of apathy and acceptance that is challenging to change.

So, where does Big Agriculture lie on the "response to threat" spectrum and does the documentary effectively battle these psychological barriers?

According to Gilbert there are four key elements of a threat without which we will not act instantaneously and decisively:

a. The threat must have a face. We are highly social beings and our wiring is triggered by the aggressive action of other people, as opposed to something invisible or unhuman. This is why the Big Business CEO's of the agricultural industry were so wise in refusing to interview. Consequently, Food Inc.'s list of villains is long and vague: the greedy private enterprises, the corrupt government, the apathetic consumers etc. Here, too little is done in establishing a face to put on the dartboard.

b. The threat must incite a moral sensibility. When we are confronted with something repugnant, our minds generate such powerful emotions as disgust, which compel us to action as much as anything. On this barometer Food Inc. lands not too far behind puppy killing. In providing extending home footage of little Kevin, a three year-old victim of E-coli, Food Inc. activates our moral centers. Additional images of pigs that are too fat to move, cows that are knee-deep in their own feces and chickens with heads bigger than Barry Bonds provide an exclamation point.

c. The threat must represent a clear and present danger. Gilbert says that global warming is not happening fast enough in that sense that our brains best respond in milliseconds to flying baseball bats, not incremental recessions in icebergs. The documentary highlights the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately elements of threat by highlighting the various outbreaks and recalls that have soiled America's clean bill of health.

d. The threat must cause absolute, not relative changes. We respond to threats that can be current and observed in real-time. The documentary does focus on such current crises as the obesity and diabetes II epidemics, but these disorders do not develop overnight.

Food Inc. tackles an issue that bats two-for-four leaving me to conclude that food impurity, as a villain that incites activism, ranks a little better than global warming but worse than terrorism. Incidentally, a terrorist is an extremely gratifying enemy, psychological speaking. Fuse Osama Ben Laden with the 9/11 attacks and bat a thousand on Gilbert's categorical system.

This documentary shows the industrial food industry to be a small group of greedy, clever business figures (probably old white and male, too) who abuse animals, workers and the welfare of just about everyone all so their respective pockets can be lined with yet another billion dollars. The veil has been lifted to reveal supermarkets that are barely a step removed from the grease and slime of McDonalds. Food Inc. convicts Big Agriculture of terrorizing a fair and healthy way of life. Indeed, this documentary will need to link the industrial food system with terrorism to incite the sort of feverish protest that is needed.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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