Each year, 275 scientists and community representatives gather for a dinner to celebrate the role of science in society. Two prizes will be awarded during the Science and Society evening, one for excellent scientific communication (the Iris Medal, won by Marion Koopmans last year) and one for the most community-related research (the Huibregtsen Prize). I always hope to receive an invitation warmly, as it is an inspiring evening. You will be informed of current scientific research by 25 leading scientists. Fortunately, the invitation fell into my digital inbox last week. I rushed to sign up, but stumbled halfway through entering my personal information. “We offer a vegetarian menu. If you nevertheless appreciate meat or fish, you can reference this here.”
I’m a vegetarian and sometimes eat fish out of the house, but now, I’ve tried it, I’m going to overburden the organization if I wanted something extra “with that”. I called my sister, who is not a vegetarian, to see if she had been invited. She, too, was going, and she, like me, lingered over this question. She decided, like me, that she didn’t want to be an exception that evening by ordering meat anyway.
The wording suggests a change: the exception (vegetarian) became the rule and eating meat or fish became a conscious act. I can agree with the organization choosing to treat it differently. In my years there, people with dietary requirements had glass on the table with glass balls in it. This resulted in a full color palette: blue (meat-free), green (vegan), yellow (lactose-free), purple (gluten-free) and so on. I always stared at those glasses. Some people already had a lot of balls, felt intimate, a matter of privacy: Oh, look, this professor is allergic to gluten! It also distracted me because all those balls were keeping me busy with the logistics and staff who had to take so many colors into consideration. What amazed me though every year: Vegetarians were in the minority. Thus, choosing to make vegan the standard is not a practical, but an ethical one.
In her recently published book, sensitive. Beyond the limits of human sensitivity German philosopher Svenja Flasbühler reflects on the growing number of dietary requirements and allergies. According to her, we live in a hypersensitive society where the special increasingly triumphs over the universal. She wonders since we’ve become so sensitive. Not being considerate of someone’s idiosyncrasies – from dietary requirements to address forms – can quickly lead to serious injuries these days. Why have we become so sensitive and why do we want to communicate sensitivity so clearly? Is this a reaction to something? And where is the tipping point: when will you have an unlivable society? Are we still one community?
“A brief example of this general crisis is the ritual of a communal meal, which is no longer possible if everyone at the table has some kind of allergy. Are there nuts in lettuce? Unfortunately I’m allergic to it. Meat? I’m a vegetarian. No fruit from your area. “Something environmentally disgraceful, which I don’t support. The stronger the awareness, the more likely everyone is to eat and stand alone. She points out that allergies are not necessarily the same as progressive. Allergies can turn into rebound and aggressive when they become divorced and glorified. Flasspöhler argues in favor of Equality of sensitivity and flexibility, in order to maintain the cohesion of the community.This means: Do not always give a leading role to your privacy.Applied to dinner: Reversing roles makes you aware of the rule that was once taken for granted.As a fish or eater, you now enjoy Privacy, and it’s okay not to focus on that.
However, there is a personal side note: In the past week I have wonderfully entered the hypersensitive society. I did extensive allergy testing and had at least five cases of allergy. One of them is perfume. I set out with a passion to make my living environment fragrance-free. I’ll be there, no meat or fish balls, for dinner. However, I would like to ask my potential companions not to wear cologne or perfume that evening.
Stein Jensen is a philosopher and writer. She writes a column here every two weeks.
A version of this article also appeared in The July 1, 2022
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