French Fries, Consent, and the Meaning of Progress

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy

I saw a Facebook post over the weekend that said “’Traditional’ is NOT synonymous with ‘Good’ or “Admirable’ or “Desirable.’” I could not agree more. I don’t even need to refer to a thesaurus. If we restrict our view just to cooking, for example, the “traditional” ways of doing things often make it difficult – if not impossible – to achieve the desired result. Traditional food safety standards require, by definition, that you overcook pork. Traditional technique employs flour as a thickener for almost everything: soups, béchamel, and even pastry cream, making these things unnecessarily off-limits for the gluten intolerant. That “things have always been done this way” is not reason enough to keep doing them.

But this sentiment is fundamentally incomplete. Neither “Untraditional” nor “Progressive” are synonymous with “Good” or “Admirable” or “Desirable,” either. We needn’t stray from food to underscore this point. In 1990, with concerns over heightened cholesterol reaching fever pitch, McDonald’s and other fast food chains switched from their traditional fryer oil – beef tallow – to vegetable oil. This only made matters worse. The process by which vegetable fats are made suitable for deep frying, hydrogenation, creates a new substance called trans unsaturated fat. Trans fats are now estimated to cause, in the United States alone, thirty thousand premature deaths per year. While a five-percent increase in saturated fat increases a person’s risk of heart disease by seventeen percent, a two-percent increase in trans fat intake increases that risk by ninety-three percent. Meanwhile, science writer Gary Taubes has argued that animal fats like lard actually have a positive effect on our cholesterol levels and are much safer for consumption than trans fats. Progressivism comes full circle.

The problem at hand isn’t that we doggedly adhere to traditional ideas and ideals. Nor is the problem that we blindly follow a piper of progress no matter where he leads us. The problem is that we collectively lack the wisdom to discern which approach is the correct one at the correct time. Traditions become so largely because they were effective at solving a problem at some point in the past. When we recognize that those traditions are no longer sufficient for the problems confronting us now, it is time to leave them behind. But change for change’s sake is not progress. And change always leads us to unintended consequences. This is never more true than when we divorce ourselves from traditions we didn’t understand.

Look no further than the legislation recently proposed in California. The new bill “would require college students  to secure ‘affirmative consent’ from their partners at every stage of sexual activity,” according to Amanda Hess of Slate. (Why it is restricted to those in college, I’m not entirely sure.) The bill dictates that there must be “a freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in particular sexual activity or behavior, expressed either by words or clear, unambiguous actions.” Clear and unambiguous actions? Nevermind the fact that men grossly overestimate how attracted women are to them; any legislation that hinges on a college male’s perception of “clear and unambiguous” is fundamentally flawed. Soon, rapists may have legal grounds to say, “She said yes with her eyes.”

This legislation is like fixing a crumbling bridge with Elmer’s glue and duct tape. Matt Walsh put it well when he argued that we cannot end rape culture if we don’t likewise end hook up culture. “The only rule, the only standard, that we’re allowed to place on sex these days is ‘consent. But we find that ‘consent’ is not enough…. If (a man) is to have sex with a woman, and have it in a way that respects her humanity and protects her dignity and his own, he needs to look for more than permission.” The standard Walsh suggests is more strict. “We have to introduce some other guidelines: love, commitment, marriage, openness to life.” He continues, “There is no grey area here. If your sex is an act of love and commitment; and if it is taking place within sacrament of marriage; and if both parties are prepared to embrace the life that may very well be created as a result of the act, then you can be sure that no rape is happening. You can be sure that there will be no regret. You can be sure that the sex is healthy and beautiful.”

There are many people who will argue that there are problems with traditional marriage. That is true and undeniable. There are problems with any enterprise relying on one or more human beings. Rape does not happen only between strangers or casual acquaintances but in marriages as well. A wholesale return to a traditional marriage structure will not solve all of our problems, just like a return to beef tallow doesn’t change the fact that French fries are junk food. But we refuse to acknowledge that the tidal shift away from marriage, divorcing sex from “love, commitment, marriage, and an openness to life” has introduced fundamental problems of its own. As CS Lewis once wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

CS Lewis

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