When I wrote the story ‘Shock’, what was foremost in my mind was the idea of vulnerability and exploitation. It’s a story about age exploiting youth, white exploiting black, male exploiting female. It’s a theme that’s been on my mind again recently because of two non-fiction books I’ve just finished reading: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals — an exposé of factory farming and a plea for vegetarianism — and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, an account of the extraordinary cupidity and stupidity which led to the Global Financial Crisis.
KFC and GFC. Although ostensibly about two quite different phenomena, I had the feeling I was reading about two ends of the same exploitative economic machine. On the one hand, the giant cesspits next to factory-style hog-farms in the US that poison rivers and cause health problems for miles around; on the other, mortgage-backed bonds comprised of worthless, toxic loans built on the back of the American poor. The millions of dollars creamed off the top of the economy by bankers and traders on Wall Street are in a sense the final, abstracted product of the same exploitative system that, at its other end, produces cesspits so toxic that to fall into one is to die.
Both books reminded me that we cannot really escape the systems we inhabit. The interchangeability of money means that, in a sense, exploitative economic practices such as factory farming, clear-felling and greed-driven money markets taint every dollar in the economy – we are always ‘buying in’ to the ethics of the system as a whole.
In ‘Shock’, Smithy – a white male approaching middle age – exploits and deceives a young African-American girl who mistakes him for her internet date. It’s the type of interpersonal exploitation that occurs all the time, even if the premise of the story exaggerates the element of deception often involved in sexual seduction. There are internet sites that elaborate complex psychological strategies for the sexual manipulation of young women, and to engage in such behaviour (to be a ‘player’) seems to have at least as much dubious macho kudos about it as ethical stigma. And there can be no doubt that much of the widely viewed and circulated pornography on the internet is based on an exploitation that as viewers we can hardly be unaware of, yet choose to overlook.
It’s a scary thing, but the more I look for it, the more exploitation I find. It has become normalised in so many areas. But what drives it? In ‘Shock’, Smithy is driven by a ravenous emotional hunger that turns him into an opportunistic sexual predator. It’s no doubt a gross simplification, but I wonder if such hunger isn’t the driver behind most exploitation: this sense of lack and emptiness, a black hole of desire that both feeds and is fed by the messages we tell ourselves and are told by advertisers and the media.
About a quarter of the way through Eating Animals, I wanted to stop reading. Not because the descriptions of horrific animal suffering disturbed me (though they did), but because I recognised that the ethical argument against meat was irresistible, and it wasn’t a message I wanted to hear. It’s one thing to enjoy the pleasure of moral outrage, another to give up roast chicken forever.
And yet, as of two weeks ago, I’m a reluctant vegetarian. Thanks a lot, Jonathan Safran Foer!