Smug Index

Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |
boston's ethical culture

Illustration by Serge Bloch

Life Alive, a vegetarian café in Central Square, takes itself very seriously. The music overhead is New Age and plaintive. Patrons are encouraged to bus their tables themselves, in the community spirit. Locally sourced dishes abound on the menu, among them an entrée called “The Healer.” For $6.79, you can treat yourself to the 12-ounce “Superhero Alive”—a juice concoction with carrot, apple, spirulina, cayenne, and other wholesome ingredients, along with something called “pure water.” The place even has a mission statement, printed right on the menu, in which you’re told that you’re about to have “the profound experience of contributing to personal and planetary wellness as you blissfully nourish yourself.”

You might have a hard time feeling that after you’ve eaten the entrée called “The Alchemist,” which leaves an aftertaste not unlike the backwash from someone’s discarded carrot juice. But the food, of course, isn’t really the point. Or, to put it differently, Life Alive seems interested in food only to the extent that food can be thought of as an ideology. Based on the number of people you’re likely to find standing in line at the place on a typical Saturday afternoon, waiting to buy smoothies that cost almost $10, it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of believers. In fact, the Boston area is full of them.

Life Alive is exactly the sort of place that Kendall Eskine, an assistant professor of psychology at New Orleans’s Loyola University, had in mind when he decided to test what happens to people after they buy green or organic products. The results of his study, published this past summer in Social Psychological & Personality Science, weren’t pretty. It turned out that participants in the study who simply looked at organic food were significantly less willing to devote their time to helping a needy stranger than people who’d been shown, say, cookies or brownies. (Which may explain why you won’t see many Life Alive patrons putting change into the cups of Central Square’s needy strangers after they’ve bought their $10 smoothies.)

Eskine isn’t the only social scientist to have observed this behavior. The results of his study mirror those of another, published in 2010 in Psychological Science, the takeaway from which was that organic-only consumers seem to be more likely to cheat and steal than others. According to this study, consumers who wear a “halo of green consumerism” for some reason feel morally licensed to judge themselves by standards quite different from the ones by which they like to judge others.

  • CraigInDaVille

    Is there irony in the fact that the writer seems to think that the smugness quotient in Boston is higher than elsewhere and thus worthy of comment? Try living in a place like Santa Cruz, CA, for a few years, then move to Boston and tell me whether the anecdotal evidence is as strong as you think.

    • Jonathan

      Exactly. Boston barely registers on the smug scale of liberal cities – in fact, it could still use more progressive thought.

  • Heidi

    Smug? Look in the mirror. Your whole topic is smug and self righteous. You have pretended to be a journalist to insult people based on a single study? People who choose to buy organics perhaps struggle to do so because environmental and food safety is important to them. They are actually caring for self and others by spending more. Who is to say giving change to the homeless is more generous? Altruism comes in varied forms. You sit in judgement without thinking deeply. Life Alive’s community is not dogmatic, nor preachy (like yourself) we just work to promote holistic sustainability and share the knowledge. Our choices to give our energy and excess to this cause in addition to or instead of others is just a fact of life for most of us. We are appreciative of the opportunity to learn, give and feel our power to make a difference at Life Alive. Noticing how you feel after eating organic therapeutic food and paying more for it to support fair wages and sustainable agriculture is not smugness, it’s just feeling good inside…and that’s a blessing in todays world when there is so much suffering and stress around us.

    • DevilPatrick

      U so crazy

      • DevilPatrick

        So you take your parents money, spend it on overpriced grass and that makes you altruistic?? Whoooooo whatever gets u thru the night

        • Anonymous

          And how do you know that she’s spending her parents’ money? Not everyone here is a college kid living on their parents’ dime.

          • DevilPatrick

            Well maybe she dropped out who cares? I’m sure she still pays for her PBR with plastic at the bar. She post months ago she prob summering in the hamptons rite now. She makes a good argument about the self-righteousness of the author in the first sentence of her manifesto. Then proceeds to (unironically i might add) spew the most self-righteous penis-shrinking hairy bullshit that has been witnessed outside of an Emperor Obama teleprompter. Eat what u wanna eat babe no one cares. I know girls like this and they’re all chubby cuz they’re hitting the life alive/whole foods scene, then goin home drinkin a box of wine and inhaling a pound of cheese lets be real.

  • Anonymous

    So, you’re arguing that people who work for non-profits do less to help others on a regular basis? And the foundation of your argument is that after work, they don’t volunteer or donate money to charity. So, the 40+ hours a week spent actually doing the service work doesn’t count, huh?

    I’m one of those smug Bostonians you’re talking about here. I ride my bike to work at a non-profit and I eat at Life Alive occasionally. Contrary to your article, I bike because I can’t afford a car and the MBTA ride takes twice as long (plus it still costs money). I volunteer at least 2 hours a week outside of work, and I don’t believe that Life Alive’s food will cure me of anything — I just think it tastes good (mmmm, ginger!). Additionally, if you actually understood how giving works in America, you’d know that the majority of charity dollars go to religious institutions (mostly people donating to their own houses of worship). If you account for religious giving, the Northeast is actually ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of personal giving as a percentage of income.

    I wasn’t born here, and I did have some trouble adjusting at first. We can come off as smug, but that’s just on the surface. Not everyone is a fixie-riding, skinny jeans-wearing, PBR-drinking, eco-fanatic hipster. Yes, some are, and some even own businesses. I don’t magically become a hipster just by buying their products. Like everyone else, I’m an actual human being with diverse interests that don’t fit into any one stereotype. So next time you see my walking into Life Alive, maybe you could dial back on your own smug judgement.