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The Strict Hypocrite’s Diet

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Because we live in an age where we believe in the goodness of clarity and purity, much of the work we do takes the form of “optimization.” Our ideologues, of whatever stripe, push us toward the purest form of an idea. As we stake out the extremes of purity, we decry the moral weakness and hypocrisy of those who fail the tests of purity. Hypocrite! It’s the insult par excellence for our age. Once we get a simple agreement that something is good in principle, we then go about exploring how the great unwashed public, or alternatively our leaders, fall short of that ideal. Every aspect of our lives becomes political, every action measured against a larger political agenda.

Food writer Mark Bittman has written a diet book called “VB6”. “VB6” stands for Vegan Before 6pm. The brilliance of this “diet” is that it’s hypocritical. Surely to be a vegan is to be a vegan all of the time. How else can you genuinely be a vegan? If you cheat, if you break the rules, if you don’t live up to the ideal, you aren’t really a vegan. It’s the same with all diets. A diet is a set of rules, if you break the rules you aren’t really on the diet. Rule breaking translates into a form of weakness.

Bittman’s VB6 has an interesting relationship to rules. Here’s Bittman on his “diet”.

Nor will I tell you that you must eat foods that you don’t want to eat, or to ignore your body’s legitimate cravings and desires, or to stop eating before you’re full. I am, after all, someone who has built an entire career on my love of cooking and eating good food. And VB6 is the way I eat now, and have for six years.

There are three very basic aspects to VB6. First, you make a commitment to eat more plant foods — fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans … you know what I’m talking about. Second, you make a commitment to eat fewer animal products and highly processed foods, like white bread. And third, you all but eliminate junk foods, most of which are barely foods in the strict sense of the word anyway. (I say “all but eliminate” because everyone needs to break the rules occasionally.)

Mark Bittman is a food writer. When his doctor suggested that he become a vegan to head off some potential health problems, Bittman was faced with a dilemma. VB6 was his solution, and so far, it’s worked for him. This approach to the rules of diet can be instructive across a whole range of activities. He teaches us something about the nature of rules themselves. Bittman also rejects our current fascination with personal data.

To make matters worse, many diets bury you in data, requiring you to count calories, points, or grams of fat or carbohydrates. Counting calories can of course be an effective dieting strategy; if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. But it turns eating into a clinical, obsessive exercise, reduces food to numbers, eliminates pleasure, and makes the diet unsustainable. No one wants to count calories his or her whole life, while all the time following a program that eliminates huge groups of foods.

No hard and fast rules, no counting. What kind of diet is that? How can you be a part time vegan? Isn’t that like vegetarians who eat fish? If you think it’s good to be a vegan, why aren’t you a vegan all the time? Of course, Bittman’s diet isn’t about being a vegan, it’s about developing a sustainable, enjoyable way of living that helps him lose weight and improve his health. Although Bittman isn’t blind to the larger implications of food:

…Food touches everything. You can’t discuss it without considering the environment, health, the role of animals other than humans in this world, the economy, politics, trade, globalization, or most other important issues. This includes such unlikely and seemingly unrelated matters as global warming: Industrialized livestock production, for example, appears to be accountable for a fifth or more of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

Fear of hypocrisy is a common rationale for taking no action whatsoever. Unless a solution is perfectly clear and pure, there’s no sense in ever trying. And once you understand that pure solution, you must adhere to it without fail. That’s what we call “being good”. The fragility of a pure solution is that a single deviation from it ruins the purity upon with the solution depends. As Nassim Taleb as noticed, the more you optimize (purify) a system, the more fragile it becomes. The cynic / nihilist takes the position that since there is no perfect position, no position is worth taking. Since all positions can be criticized, I’ll take the position of criticizing positions.

Philosopher Tim Morton takes on the cynical position by pointing out that the cynic is hypocritical about his hypocrisy:

I’d rather be a straight-forward hypocrite than a hypocritical hypocrite. Now we’ve gotten rid of cynicism, because now there’s only two options: there’s hypocrisy or there’s hypocritical hypocrisy.

In a 2006 interview, the black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room made the observation that “we’re all hypocrites and failures.” As human beings there is no position outside of hypocrisy. In our morality we’ve defined “good” as a pure state and “bad” as an impure state that looks a lot like hypocrisy. You’re in the wrong when you’ve violated a rule you know to be good. Morton gives us the basis to think about ethics in the age of self-conscious hypocrisy. Being “good” looks a lot more like being a straight-forward hypocrite; while being bad looks like the hypocritically hypocritical. This kind of ethical practice has been difficult to articulate. Mark Bittman with his VB6 diet gives us a beautiful example of what being straight-forwardly hypocritical could look like.

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