A delicious smell enters my room: my head perks up, my pupils dilate, and I lick my lips with new found moisture. Its dinner time. Long ago, our bodies developed the secretion of saliva for the purpose of lubricating food down our throats (Bailey). When our minds are stimulated, our mouth waters in anticipation of the food. This saliva is produced so we can shove food down our throat as quickly as we see fit. But that isn’t even the interesting part. In his famous experiment, Ivan Pavlov had dogs presented with food and measured their salivary response. In psychological terms salivation is an unconditioned reflex, because your body knows that it needs to create saliva when food appears without ever having learned to do it (McLeod). During his testing, Pavlov also rung a bell every time that he presented the dogs with food. Soon enough, the dogs would create saliva if the bell was rung, even if there was no food in sight. This revolutionary finding is known as conditioning.
Conditioning means training the body to respond to neutral stimulus, or stimulus that should not otherwise cause a reaction. We have been conditioned our whole life. Red means stop, everything is okay, and there is nothing that you need to do about it. In the experiment, Pavlov intentionally created neutral stimulus to make the dogs react in a certain way. Yet in today’s complex world, Americans are unknowingly creating their own stimulus. In his book The Medium is the Massage Professor Marshall McLuhan explains his ideas on media and communication through a combination of text and images. On the final pages of McLuhan’s book an illustrated image of a boy talking to his frightened father is shown, with text that reads, “You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it” (McLuhan 83). The image matches the text perfectly because as unknowing participants in this environmental creation, we should be scared.
What more American than apple pie? Capitalism. During the beginning of my final quarter as a freshman at Santa Clara University, my Critical Thinking and Writing class was tasked with writing a group essay: our topic was excess in America. We researched how our environment of excess has caused unhappiness. Our studies found that compared to Americans sixty years ago, we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita (Hill). As capitalists, social status is determined by superficial possessions. We have created an environment that dictates he who dies with the most stuff wins. All Americans want money, but more than that, we want to prove that we have money and the easiest way to do that is to have a lot of stuff. As a producer, this means we want to make the most money possible out of the product we created. Yet as consumers, we have created a market where the overall goal is to get the most possible product for the least possible money. The caveat here is that “most possible product” has to do with quantity, not quality. As a result of these antithetical ideas, we made a deal with the devil. Consumers are sold a cheaper product for less money, a bitter concession for each side.
No one knows this idea of product degradation better than Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, a book which examines food production in the United States. He most carefully examines the emergence of CAFO’s. CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. In these CAFO’s, animals live in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. Not only that, but these animals are subjected to horrifying beatings, cruel slaughter techniques, and many other atrocious violations of animal rights (Foer). Instead of acting against these frankenfarms, we turn our backs and pretend like everything is okay. Why? Because our environment tells us that this is what we should do. When discussing the problems of CAFO’s, Foer comments, “While is is always possible to wake a person who’s sleeping, no amount of noise will wake a person who is pretending to be asleep” (Foer). We pretend to not notice these awful travesties because it would be inconvenient for our wallet to notice them.
It is at this time where we reach a crossroad. You as a reader can choose to stop reading and continue on with your blissfully ignorant life. You can walk away and pretend like you never heard of CAFO’s, and that you didn’t know that for every ten large predatory fish in the ocean a hundred years ago, only one remains (Foer 33). We can walk away and pretend like nothing is wrong, or we can fight this environment we have created. The whole basis of McLuhan’s argument is that people are dumb. His theory of our environment creating who we are is based on the idea that we operate with a hive mind and that none of us will ever take a step back and simply be aware. Awareness is the kryptonite of mind-control. In his speech This Is Water, David Foster Wallace discusses awareness, saying, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think” (Wallace). Instead of simply looking at how much food we can buy for such little money, consider the actual cost of the food. Consider the mental cost of beating an animal in order to make it comply and consider the health cost of pumping that animal full of antibiotics so it will grow more.
As we grow more aware of our problems, we become aware of the shackles of our environment. While simple awareness might make us privy to the problem, action is required to fix it. Awareness and action are highlighted in Douglas Starr’s essay entitled The Interview. In this article, Starr explains the current method of interrogation used by American law enforcement. The current method of interrogation, the Reid interrogation technique, relies on bullying people into confessions. While this looked good for a while, now DNA evidence is exonerating many people who have been convicted because of confessions gained from the Reid interrogation technique. As a result of false confessions, the British government developed a new interrogation method called PEACE (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate). This method had the end goal of gathering evidence as opposed to the Reid method, which focused on gaining a confession (Starr). Awareness of a problem led to a better solution. Humans are much smarter than we give ourselves credit for.
In the end, there will always be problems with the world. You don’t need to take my word for it. A quick skip over to Google News shows headlines about riots in Brazil, the threat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and shootings in California. All of this unpleasantness can go away if we choose to simply not pay attention to it. If we turn our backs, ignorance is bliss. That is what those in power want you to do. Foster Farms doesn’t want you looking into their animal breeding practices. Monsanto doesn’t want you seeing how they genetically modify crops. All these evil companies only gain money through our ignorance. They rely on us thinking with our desire more than our intellect. It is up to us as the American consumer to wipe the saliva from our lips, stand on our own two feet, and demand better. Because if we don’t, no one else will.
Bailey, Regina. “What Is the Function of Saliva?” About.com Biology. About.com, n.d. Web. 15 June 2014.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
Hill, Graham. Graham Hill: Less stuff, more happiness. TED. N.p., Feb. 2011. Web. 5 Apr. 2014. <http://www.ted.com/talks/graham_hill_less_stuff_more_happiness#t-256482>.
McLeod, Saul. “Pavlov’s Dogs.” Simply Psychology. Simply Psychology, 4 Aug. 2007. Web. 14 June 2014.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam, 1967. Print.
Starr, Douglas. “The Interview.” New Yorker 9 Dec. 2013: 42-49. Web.
Wallace, David Foster. Youtube. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKYJVV7HuZw>.