The campaign on eating alone that was started by some NUS students has generated more controversy than expected by many. It has received vociferous attacks, engendered a counter-campaign (Don’t allow people to eat alone), and is still seen by many others as unnecessary bordering on the absurd. Reading the comments on the facebook events page and on KRC’s own article on the issue (To eat alone or not to eat?), it seems to me that this last allegation – that the campaign is pointless – is the most widespread one facing the campaign and its organizers. And significantly, I think it is also the most misguided. Let me explain why in this article. Let me also take and defend a stand on the justifiability of the counter-campaign launched. The counter-campaign has a very weak basis, unlike its adversary, as I shall explain later.
The key point that those who consider the eating alone campaign futile gesture towards, is the absence of any social stigma or negative attitude towards those who eat alone. They claim that the organizers are wrong in assuming that there is such stigma and proceeding to expending time, money, and the public’s precious attention on the matter. But if they claim that such stigma does not exist, then what basis do these detractors have? Each society has its set of actions and speech it considers inappropriate. And while there may not be any extensive data on this, many societies, especially collectivist ones, do seem to find solitary behaviour undesirable. I can personally vouch for the campaigners’ claims about social stigma or disrepute directed towards the solitary eaters. I have received stares when eating alone, and in my early freshmen days, it used to unnerve me. I do think though, that much of the discomfort felt by the solitary eater is the result of his internalization of society’s demands and expectations. And this invisibility of the social pressures is what makes the campaigners’ sociological claims so controversial. Many don’t see the pressure, and therefore assume it does not exist.
Here, my opponent will surely say that I too am merely assuming and arguing without any supporting empirical evidence. And he is right. But he ought to note that if he, in dismissing the organisers’ and my claim that such social pressure or stigma does exist, demands that the organisers shut up shop, he is in effect demanding that we act as if such social stigma does not exist. For if the campaign was to cease and the claims of social stigma retracted, then we will be proceeding with our lives as if such stigma does not exist. And what if it does exist? That is the key question. Given that we do not have sufficient evidence pointing towards or against the idea that the stigma exists, we need to engage in a Pascal’s Wager type assessment of counterfactual possibilities. If it does exist, what do we stand to lose by halting the campaign? And likewise, if it does not, what are we risking by proceeding with the campaign?
The trouble for opponents of the campaign is that it is very difficult to point out anything significant we would be losing by proceeding with the campaign and the planned event next week. If the campaign is futile, then the most we would be losing is some table space in some NUS canteens, the money spent on and the fabric material used to make the T-shirts and the time and effort of the campaigners and participants. But if we stop the campaign, and such pressure does indeed exist, then we would have failed to alleviate or attempt to alleviate the pressure facing numerous students who wish or have to eat alone but cannot. The trouble now is: how do we comparatively measure these two sets of things at risk?
Such comparative assessment, at the very least, problematizes the whole matter, and makes it much more difficult for one to decide where he sits (no pun intended!). But here are two potential reasons why we should risk persisting with the campaign rather than ending it. First, given the number of people on the facebook page who find the whole sage comical and want to attend the event just for sheer entertainment, some of the risk we face in proceeding with the campaign is reduced. For the money, time and energy wasted on the campaign and event, even if the stigma does not exist, cannot be considered a waste if people are willing to expend them for their own enjoyment anyway! This tilts the balance in favour of proceeding with the campaign, for now the risk of not doing so seems greater.
Secondly, running this seemingly pointless campaign could serve as good practice for both for the campaigners and others involved. It is no secret that most Singaporeans, even NUS students, are highly apathetic. Such a campaign as this could give students a feel of what running and/or participating in a campaign feels like. It might be good to get this experience under our belts, which we could use as an opening to engage in more important issues and debates in the future. Essentially then, it would help students become a little more comfortable with launching, running and participating in campaigns in general.
Now let me deal with the counter-campaign. The creator of this campaign proposes that we “sit with people who voluntarily isolate themselves as a means to jolt them back into human contact. Isolation, after all, is mental torture” (Don’t Allow People to Eat Alone Facebook Page). But his argument here faces a few serious problems. First of all, it is simply not true that for everyone, isolation (at the canteen) is mental torture. Plenty of people are perfectly comfortable with eating alone and happily do so. As for those for whom it is torture, what could be the cause of it? If the cause is the social stigma or pressure they face, as the other campaigners think they do, then how is sitting with and talking to them a good solution to their problem? It’s not clear that they want just about anyone’s company, which is what they are likely to get as a result of this campaign. And what this campaign proposes, at best, is only a short-term cover of the problem these terrified eaters face. The former campaign, which aims to raise awareness, and dispel the wrongness of eating alone, is a much better, and long-term solution to their problem.
Now I do understand, from reading the creator’s comments on his campaign page, that his intentions are not quite as simplistic as I have made them seem here. He thinks that unlike the campaign proposed by the other group, we ought to encourage those who eat alone to eat with someone, to break the common awkwardness they feel about meeting strangers. He wants to encourage solitary eaters to be more open to eating with and getting to know strangers. The problem though, is that he does not justify why an NUS where people more readily eat and talk with strangers is a “better place”. It seems a pleasant thought and aim, but not clearly a justifiable one. As for the (potential) stigma facing solitary eaters, we can unequivocally say that such stigma is groundless. Hence, in spite of his additional comments made here, his campaign’s basis is still weak, or weaker than that of the other. It does not help either that he frames his campaign as opposing the other, when in reality, he considers himself to be simply “going one step further” than the other group. And once again, he does not justify why we should go this one step further. That’s the trouble he faces, unlike the other group of campaigners who clearly articulate their reasons. For these reasons, I think we should persist with the “Eating Alone in School” campaign.