Your Refrigerator Doesn’t Tell Me if You’re a Good Person

The New York Times gave prominent space recently to an article asking readers to guess whether the contents of people’s refrigerators suggested they supported either Trump or Biden for president.

The article was framed as a light-hearted quiz. What does Coffee-mate say about your politics? How about Ken’s salad dressing? Or Minute Maid orange juice?

As I write this, nearly 17.8 million guesses have been posted on the Times site by those taking the quiz online. This is something people obviously want to do. The Times has posted over 1,100 comments about the quiz so far, many though by no means all of them are light-hearted.

“May I respectfully suggest adding prune juice for the republicans [sic] and olives for the frozen vodka for the democrats [sic],” one reader posted.

“Most fun I’ve had on the internet in years,” posted another.

My sense of humor is as robust as the next person’s, but I don’t find this funny. Why create yet another opportunity to judge and/or mock people who aren’t just like you — and who don’t happen to eat what you eat?

Why are millions of people rushing to take this quiz, if not for the glee of potentially putting down their political enemies, whom they already suspect of being less moral, less honest, less altruistic, less something, than they are?

All that plastic, saturated fat, and nitrates in your refrigerator? What a loser you must be!

But it turns out, we are not what we eat — politically. According to the Times’ own tally, quiz-takers correctly associated refrigerated foods with their owner’s political leanings roughly half the time. I’m no statistician, but I believe that means people guessed right about as often as they guessed wrong.

So you really can’t tell whether buying Hellmann’s mayonnaise means someone is inclined to support either a rise in the minimum wage or to put immigrant children behind bars.

One of the most incorrectly-guessed refrigerators, where 88 percent of quiz-takers assumed it was a Biden household, shows neatly aligned rows of milk, yogurt, lettuce, and what looks like a package of tofu. They are Trumpies.

One of the most incorrectly-guessed refrigerators on the other side (where 88 percent thought it was a Trump household) shows hotdogs, Country Crock, and a lot of canned soda. They’re voting for Joe.

Readers’ comments suggest they did, at least, take away one of the article’s few serious points, namely, that a little more than 12 percent of those surveyed (those who agreed to open up and photograph their refrigerators) reported that their families did not have all the food they needed in the last two weeks. A threadbare refrigerator does not necessarily mean that members of the household eat out often or live in a major city like New York, where take-out is readily available. It could mean they are chronically food-insecure.

Did we need a political litmus-test quiz to learn about food insecurity?

I think it’s creepy that the Times hired Lucid, an international market-research firm run mainly by seven white men where “global buyers and sellers of human answers come together” to conduct the survey.

“Let’s get knowing,” proclaims Lucid’s tagline.

Knowing what? Why did the Times invest in a project that is arguably an ill-timed exercise in semiotics — the study of signs and sign-using behavior?

To be sure, signs and symbols are extraordinarily powerful and part of every culture on Earth. But whether you wear a face mask or not does not tell me everything about you, any more than my cramming my refrigerator with pickles tells you who I am.

I have seen many men and women in my neighborhood without masks, yet I’m quite certain that if they vote, they will vote for Biden. We are all a walking collection of signifiers, which may be read in our clothing, our gait, our speech, our dwellings, and more.

At a time when rational public discourse rooted in facts is in such short supply, the last thing I want is people writing other people off because they eat Wonder Bread.

Photo originally appeared in The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2020

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