Forget what the teachers and preachers have told you: there is, in fact, such a thing as a stupid question. While grilling a friend about her adventures in online dating, she pulled up a phone app and read out some of her preferred dating site's "match" questions.
"What's worse, starving children or abused animals?" she asked. I stopped chewing and stared. "Really?" Yes, really. And despite the question's sickening glibness, most users, including my friend, had answered it: starving children for the win. I teased and told her that she'd managed to fail a test with no wrong answers.
Underneath my mockery, something simmered. The question bugged me. The format bugged me. The fact that somebody might have been paid to come up with that question bugged me. Starving children or abused animals? Do you dig cats or favour dogs? Vanilla or chocolate? The proverbial starving children of the world had been reduced to a little brown sound bite and filtered through the haze of sensory memory: a quickly turning page in National Geographic, a glimpse of flies and swollen bellies, your mother's voice telling you to clean your plate, your conscience swelling when you decline to bring your leftovers home in a doggy bag.
People starve, and this happens because we're poor, we're rich, we're ignorant, we're also greedy, foolish and irresponsible with the distribution of resources. Burnt by optimism and cynicism alike, I live in reality: I think we're in serious trouble, but I still believe there's enough out there for everyone if we all make adjustments to how we live and breed and what we think we need to sustain ourselves. Most of us need a lot less than we think we do. A whole lot less.
Animal abuse, however, reveals truths about human nature that are far less redeeming and I have a pretty grim take on rehabilitation in the absence of compassion for sentient beings. A starving child is a symptom, rather than the root, of a problem most of us participate in reinforcing every day. But violence and cruelty are an even bleaker testimony to our fate as a species.
Nowadays, I feel like a broken record, talking about the power of food as a democratising force; common ground for mendicants and millionaires. By now, the phrase "breaking bread" makes me want to break a dinner plate on my own head. I've been convinced for so long that food serves as kindling, a universal adapter, a shared platform for education and outreach and a neutral ground with global fluency in the spectrum of human experience.
What I see, though, is people treating each other badly, even over food, and that renders hope into a bitter pill that's hard to digest. Every act of eating can be mapped between primality and civility, and at times the distance between those poles seems insurmountable. People are capable of the worst kind of ugliness, but they are also capable of profound grace.
Countries pick fights with each other in the spirit of nationalism over things as mundane as hummus and falafel. It's our tragic flaw to try turning our passions into our possessions. We're all modified versions of what we were descended from. The urge to share knowledge affects our education, health care and cultural aesthetics for the better. To expect it not to affect what we eat is ridiculous. To try to lay claim to its originality is pointless and it hinders us all.