Food blogging and critical competence

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The truth is not subject to resolution by democracy. Nor is it established by appeals to majority, popularity or tradition. In cases where the truth is knowable, some opinions will be correct, and others incorrect, regardless of how popular or entrenched they may be. Of course, the fact that a majority of people do share an opinion is not a worthless datum – it’s instead often an invaluable timesaver, allowing us at least some reason to believe one thing rather than another.

For example, the fact that the majority of people whose opinions I respect tell me that “Eat, Pray, Love” is as bad as I expect it to be certainly counts in favour of my resolution to not see the movie. And while they could be wrong, and I could be missing out on a transcendent cinematic experience, the heuristic of basing our judgements on a consensus among critics we respect usually serves us well.

Problems can however emerge when we forget the desired direction of the causality at issue. It is not the popularity of a viewpoint that makes the viewpoint worth holding – instead, it is the quality of the viewpoint that should make it a popular one. And similarly, we should not scorn things because they are unpopular, but would rather hope that those things that are lacking in quality attract a proportionate amount of scorn.

So while it is a useful shortcut for us to defer many of our day-to-day value-judgements to the wisdom of the crowd, we should remember that doing so is inherently risky, and should never be understood as providing a reliable substitute for forming our own considered judgements. The demands on our time and attention necessitate relying on crowd-sourced opinions, but that doesn’t guarantee that the resulting opinions are the ideal ones to hold.

Beyond whatever value there is in the opinions of the majority, or the conventions laid down by social structures of various types, we can of course also rely on the guidance of authorities. In some cases, the criteria for being an authority are relatively clear – we know, for example, that our physician should ideally have qualifications from a reputable university, and not be a homeopath, and that advice on what to eat should come from dieticians rather than Gillian McKeith.

When we are looking for advice on what movie to watch, or where to eat dinner, the criteria for being an authority become murkier. These choices are informed by subjective preferences, and it is of course impossible for anyone else to know your preferences better than you do (regardless of the possibility that you might not know them very well yourself). So we try to triangulate on a particular critic or reviewer who we believe to share, and therefore to best represent, our tastes.

Besides selecting authorities who we believe to represent our tastes, another relevant consideration consists in realising that our tastes might be ill-informed, and that there may be things we haven’t yet tried, but that we might enjoy more than our habitual diet. And perhaps some critics are simply better than others in terms of being aware of the history and variety of the goods on offer in their areas, and are thus better qualified to guide us towards novel and rewarding experiences.

This is the heart of the issue which has of late occupied the minds of many members of the “foodie” community in Cape Town, but the issue has ramifications beyond the narcissistic world of many food bloggers, or bloggers in general. Anyone who has an interest in food, and who eats enough of it, can give her readership a fork-by-fork account of their lives, and if their writing is humorous, informative or otherwise valuable, then we should have no qualms if they develop a devoted following.

But their influence extends beyond the computer screens of their readership. With increasing frequency, food bloggers are invited to openings and press events related to food, and their opinions can have a material impact on the success or failure of an establishment. And this is where the issue of authority becomes critical. While a restaurateur could have a justified opinion that critic X has little or no knowledge related to the style of food offered in a given establishment, the fact that the critic is therefore incompetent to do the job might have little bearing on the slavish reactions of that critic’s readership.

Consider the incentives this creates for a restaurateur. Instead of the traditional pursuit of trying to prepare meals that satisfy clientele while making profit, she now also has to play an entirely new PR game. Based on what we read in many of the food blogs, this new game frequently seems to involve affording special treatment and deference to anybody who has access to a blog or Twitter account, and has attracted a sufficient following. In other words, someone who was a nobody (in terms of the food world) a short few months ago could now be somebody who should be treated like a visiting dignitary.

Part of this PR game is of course not new. Traditional critics might also have responded well to being wined and dined, and this is precisely why certain firewalls have been used to maximise the chances of objectivity. A Michelin inspector would always be anonymous, and would always pay for her meal. But even in cases where the identity of a critic could be known, the criteria for being a critic were also for the most part known, and an establishment was able to ignore the opinions of some, while respecting others.

The ethical implications of this evolving reality are largely unexplored at present, despite the nascent efforts of Tim O’Reilly, the FoodEthics blog and others at developing (and enforcing) a blogger’s code of conduct. One ethical aspect that seems relatively clear, however, is that any situation of unrestrained power is worrying. And this is exactly the sort of power enjoyed by many in the food blogging community, and also the power aspired to by some who have seen the lifestyle benefits of making a loud noise regarding one’s opinions when it comes to what you enjoy eating, and how you like to be treated.

This is not to say that bloggers are always improper authorities, or that the opinions of “traditional” critics are always the superior ones. I can’t even offer any comprehensive and consistent principles by which to separate these two sorts of critics. But if one’s words or actions can have a measurable effect on the welfare of a business, it seems clear enough that some responsibility for those effects should fall on your shoulders. And in cases where you’re just somebody with an opinion, and nothing to lose except a few readers, it seems entirely unclear that the impact of that responsibility need ever be felt.

Disclosure: Some readers might be curious about the similarity between my last name and that of the editor of Rossouw’s Restaurants Guide. It’s not a coincidence.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.