When Life Hands You Oranges…

orangegateA recently posted photo on Twitter set off a full-blown Twitterstorm and ultimately resulted in Whole Foods capitulating to the will of the digital citizenry and the store’s well-heeled clientele. Proving that the moral arc of the Universe is long but it bends toward justice…or does it?

The scandal, branded as #orangegate, was ignited by a photo showing individual pre-peeled oranges in plastic clamshell style packaging for sale at Whole Foods. The initial outcry was over the wasteful use of plastic packaging and the supposedly lazy people who are willing to pay $5.99 per pound for pre-peeled oranges. The damning #orangegate photo was shared over 70,000 times and Whole Foods quickly pulled the product from its stores.

The decision to pull the product and probably more so the tone of the original wave of criticism set off a second wave of concern that is still reverberating.

Disability rights activists pointed out that pre-peeled oranges aren’t merely convenient for the lazy and the slothful but also a potential “lifesaver” for those with limited dexterity. Pre-peeled oranges and pre-prepared foods in general make fresh, healthy food more accessible. The Universe’s moral arc was now called upon to double back in the direction of keeping pre-peeled oranges on the shelf.

The blog CrippledScholar has covered the controversy and has rebutted a great number of the arguments offered by the environmentally-minded, anti-pre-peeled orange crowd (see here and here). But there is one argument that seems to warrant closer examination. The claim is that people with limited dexterity who require pre-prepared foods are free to ask for such things in the produce department of their grocery store thus alleviating the need for individually packaged pre-peeled fruit. But CrippledScholar writes that asking for assistance in this way would represent “unnecessary gatekeeping” and would be “demoralizing and humiliating”. Furthermore, it is suggested that this would make people with disabilities vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and unwanted scrutiny from store clerks. It is possible that many people would go without the product rather than ask for assistance and as explained at CrippledScholar: “[a] solution isn’t accessible if people won’t use it.”

There is no reason to doubt what is being asserted. It is absurd, insensitive, and ultimately counterproductive to argue with people about what their feelings are or should be. It is curmudgeonly and trollish to tell people what they ought to feel. If people feel humiliated that is prima facie a problem to be addressed rather than simply denied or trivialized.

But how have we arrived in a place where asking for help can reasonably and sincerely be described as “demoralizing and humiliating”? None of us are so able-bodied so as to never need help; indeed, the disability rights movement has stressed the fluidity between the categories of disabled and able-bodied. People travel from one descriptor to the other both at different points of their life and even from moment to moment as their context changes. If nothing else, feminist philosophers and disability rights activists alike have pointed out that we are born into a state of complete dependency and often experience a similar state at some point before we perish. Depending on others is a normal part of life and should not be stigmatized.

The ability to ask for help is a skill to be developed and worthy of recognition. The fact that so many of us feel the need to regularly feign invulnerability and to project complete self-sufficiency is surely responsible for a significant amount of anxiety. If it is demoralizing to ask for help, it is likely just as demoralizing to need help but to be incapable of asking (we may be incapable due to a lack of skill or because of the particular context we are in).

Not entirely unrelated is the fact that we are living in a time when genuine friendships are on the wane. Adults report having fewer close friends than they did in the past; close friends being people they would confide in. Rushing to fill this void is empty online communication and equally empty technological aspirations. In fact, genuine friendships are often cultivated by sharing one’s vulnerabilities and asking for help. Our inability to ask for help is isolating us from one another and the coping mechanisms are likely compounding the problem.

But asking for help isn’t always perceived as “demoralizing and humiliating”. Creators of the Be My Eyes (www.bemyeyes.org) app have created an app allowing blind people to ask for help in a way that many people have found to be empowering. Be My Eyes connects blind users with sighted users via their phones. Sighted users can view live video taken by blind users and answer questions based on what they are seeing.

Writing in AccessWorld, the magazine of the American Foundation for the Blind, Bill Holton says “Be My Eyes is an extremely powerful platform whose time has come” and says it is a “resource for those times when greater independence can best be achieved by knowing when and how to ask for help”.

What is the relevant difference between the potentially demoralizing act of asking for help at the produce department and the empowering act of asking for help via the Be My Eyes app?

The most notable difference seems to be that the latter is a mediated, anonymous experience. It is an experience that does not require and generally will not facilitate relationship. It is a formalized process that is facilitated by a third party. It has been described as “microvolunteering”—which could be defined as volunteering with no strings attached. It risks no lasting entanglements with people or one’s wider community.

CrippledScholar rightly points out that one more item in plastic packaging—alongside all the bagged salads, shrink wrapped cucumbers, and prepared dishes from the deli—is somewhat inconsequential. The outcry over oranges seems out of proportion. The tempers are high perhaps because the stakes are so low. In contrast, the inability to ask for help has proven itself to be incredibly debilitating and on that problem there is hardly a word spoken.

Adding to the Noise?

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Marcel Duchamp, Hat Rack (1917)

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Marcel Duchamp said that the artist of the future will simply point. And Mark Zuckerberg believes he has given humanity “the power to share”.

Like so many others, I feel a compulsion to produce something, to express myself, and to advance a particular point of view. But I also experience a recurrent feeling that the effort is futile and potentially even counterproductive. As if everyone is shouting and my foolish but perhaps natural response is to attempt to shout even louder than the crowd. Nothing can possibly be heard and so, in truth, I’m merely adding to the noise.

I can generate what is now commonly called “content”—able to produce fodder for a format—and can then, in one way or another, place it into the world. I can make paper copies and stash them into the hidden letter boxes that are to be found in abandoned stone walls or I can stuff them into glass bottles and hurl them into the sea. But more likely, I will deposit whatever I produce into the digital marketplace of ideas where ideas aren’t ideas but are simply content filling a space. At this point, it’s likely that my every move has been anticipated and my purposes already circumvented; my efforts may be effectively channeled to serve purposes that are not my own. By contributing content to the digital realm I am propping up what I wish to tear down and yet throwing a bottle into the sea doesn’t seem promising.

It feels as though nothing can be incisive enough to overcome this medium; to aspire to transcend the medium and think that one can rise above its constraints may simply be a case of wishful thinking. To “fight fire with fire” is an interesting locution but in the real world water has consistently proven to be more effective.

Alternatively, I may not produce or generate anything but instead simply point toward, which is to say post, something similar enough to what I want to say. Such pointing is simply another attempt to amplify a signal, to make something louder, more visible, and to push it onto the screens of more people. Again, adding to the noise which is deafening the very people I am hoping will somehow find a way to listen. How can this succeed?

It doesn’t matter how insightful or well-crafted something is if there isn’t the space for it to be understood, considered, or comprehended. During the writing process one might focus on clarity and precision which are qualitative considerations; but once put into the digital realm it is almost exclusively quantitative considerations that remain relevant. What we want is for our content to be loud enough to silence everyone else; to command space. If not the smartest voice perhaps we can be the loudest voice.

But are things really this grim?

Even in the noisiest of spaces we are generally able to make out coherent bits and pieces. Civilization is a homogenizing, totalizing force but it is not yet fully realized, not yet perfect. There remain cracks. There remains space for learning, dialogue, and ultimately resistance. One need only consult his or her own experience and will likely recall numerous times when something significant reached one’s eyes or ears in a most timely way prompting a change in direction.

In 1964 anarchist and art critic Herbert Read lamented that “the fall of the last civilization will not be heard above the incessant din”. This lament of a past anarchist can be a source of hope for contemporary anarchists who do not see civilization as something to be preserved or mourned but rather thrown off. Despite the incessant din, which sounds so much like the machine humming away, we would be wise to remember that “[c]ivilization is not about to collapse, it is collapse.” We should not expect to individually steer the direction of mass society in any direction as though we were generals on a battlefield; instead we should imagine ourselves as mice and rats chewing at the wires…soon there will be flames.

calvin