Sunday, 11 September 2016

On toothpaste and God

I

If the machinery of media is failing, the entire modern state structure will warp.

The media is far more influential as an instrument of power than most people think. When the fourth estate does its job correctly, it frames every conversation at a specific level, below which is stacked hundreds or thousands of assumptions about proper society.

Consider how many assumptions it takes just to understand this headline:

Why a Chemical Banned From Soap Is Still in Your Toothpaste.”

Read the article if you want, but you’ve seen many of these before. The formula is standard and a perfect example of the fourth estate working precisely as it was intended.

Let’s tease out only one aspect: the word “banned.” When it comes to how power works, this unassuming little word is more useful for the maintenance of the status quo than an array of surveillance cameras or GCSB data mining tools. It is a weapon in the war for your mind.

People value a free choice and personal responsibility to purchase toothpaste but are being told it is safe to value those things only because they expect a certain amount of absence of choice and freedom from responsibility. This is Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty: positive (freedom to do things) and negative (the freedom from things happening). The Times article works because it maintains the assumption that people would not be allowed to make a truly dangerous choice. They would be saved, in some way, from hurting themselves.

To see how power is working here perfectly, understand why that the problem isn’t the toxic toothpaste, it is all of the correctly manufactured toothpaste. If that seems abstractly unrealistic, I'll simplify: the chemical isn’t dangerous because it hurts people, it is dangerous because a higher authority says it is.

Whether the chemical actually is unsafe is irrelevant. The article perpetuates a society in which people are taught not to be careful about toothpaste because a higher authority is invoked in some symbolic form, such as an FDA stamp or an article in the New York Times.

People are taught from day one to appeal to a higher authority. Their cynicism of other humans splits loyalties making us highly suspicious of individuals in authority, yet simultaneously reflexively obedient to symbols of authority as long as there is no defined individual attached to it.

II

What a reader of the NYT doesn't consciously understand is that their judgment of risk is based on the fact that they believe in God, and this is even more accurate if they think they don't believe in God.

I sense this is making you feel uncomfortable because you too think you don’t believe in God, but sadly, you do. And I know this because the word “banned” means something important to you.

Stories such as this attract so much hate for companies only because the correctly manufactured toothpaste exists. And if those products exist, they must be safe or else “some other omnipotent entity” would not have permitted them to come to existence. Here the secular religion of the West is laid bare, the machinery of power, and you cannot change it. All of the metaphors of the West imply this omnipotent entity, from “free market” to “inalienable rights” to “world peace.”

Here are some comments on the toothpaste article. Put your sunglasses on:

•             “I will stop using Colgate immediately. No kidding. The protective microbiome in the mouth should not be destroyed by a lobbying corporation.” 
•             “I'm ditching my TOTAL. I have allergies to lots of chemicals and have been searching for the culprits that is making my skin and eyes so itchy. I've already changed shampoos because of this but it hasn't helped.” 
•             “You'd think they would know better than to keep this chemical in toothpaste. I have such a lack of faith in these stupid greedy conglomerates. I'm not going to buy any of their other products anymore either.” 
•             “Just threw my tube of Colgate in the trash.”

Leave aside how quickly these people acted, why would the FDA catching a toxic toothpaste substance make people angry? The anger should be a clue something insidious is happening.

It isn’t because the government intrudes into our lives – that’s why the government exists. These commenters are irate because it constitutes evidence the system wasn't – and therefore isn’t – omniscient. Freud knew about this. When toothpaste is correctly manufactured, it confirms Dad (God) is reliable. But when a danger is discovered later it suggests Dad can be unreliable, and there's nothing worse than an unreliable Dad (God).

III

You can see the three characteristics of this “other omnipotent entity” everywhere: it is omnipotent, it opposes the existing order and its sole job is to protect you from yourself – not from the world – but from your bad decisions. And if one piece of the system’s machinery appears to be inept, our broken brains immediately reach past it for the next “omnipotent entity.”

How do you, dear reader, know toothpaste is safe? You aren’t a chemist or a toothpasterist (whatever, I’m tired). You’ll flick open the lid without thinking, because "some other omnipotent entity" allowed it to exist. The better question is: how do you know this Entity can be trusted? You know, because it even tries to ban trivial chemicals such as triclosan. A perfect loop. The system wins.

Observe how the journalist, working exactly as their institution requires, finally asks the most critical question of all: what do dentists think?

“Dr Richard Niederman, a dentist and the chairman of the epidemiology department at the New York University College of Dentistry, isn’t particularly worried about his patients’ using triclosan-containing toothpaste.”

You can’t see, but I am bashing my head against this Auckland Council-approved GIB wall. No no, finding a dentist wasn’t enough for the writer. Those devious tooth-scrapers. For Richard Niederman to help perform the ritual of reinforcing default assumptions, he needed a clear symbol of authority. In this case, “Dr” Niederman has to be a university professor. All hail the modern-day clergy.

IV

See how easy it was to go over the government to a higher authority, to find "some other omnipotent entity" to save the system. There is no need to show why a university is more legitimate than the FDA, only that the journalist says it is so.

The journalist will always find such an entity because society cannot live without it. You cannot live without it. We look immediately for “who can fix this” so we can avoid the existential terror of “I’m helping cause this.” After all, the only thing worse than too little freedom is too much freedom.

What is the final common pathway of all of this? The point of consumer protection is not protecting the consumer from the market, but protecting the consumer for the market.

The purpose of any ban is to deliver the impression of a caring, watchful eye so we can yell about living in a nanny state while simultaneously whispering “and thank God!” The extra twist is that all this futile yelling has to be done via a comments section on a news site. How else will the ad impressions be served?

All from just one word. One lousy, benign word. If none of the above rings true, then let me know and I’ll update my Signs I’m Going Crazy list. Banning things looks like freedom, but at what cost? Is this really freedom? I still won’t eat Chinese food until I see the laminated “A” symbol hanging like an eye above the weird waving cat statues on the counter.

This social machinery, when it works well, has no need of an absolute ruler. When it’s done right, not even the people doing journalism know why they write. All that’s required is for them to exist. But if the machinery grinds and pieces fall off, as is clearly happening, what then? Do we want to find out? Or do we want journalists to remember their original purpose?

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