The psychology of film & TV, media, & work

Tony Abbott’s onion legacy

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology by

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The onion is one of the most cultivated species of the genus ‘Allium’, has been eaten since as early as 5000 BC, and is a rich source of energy and vitamins. We know it as the vegetable that causes us to tear up and use it in some of the most popular dishes on the planet.

It was also devoured, raw, by our former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, on live television much to the horror of Australians.

Now that Abbott has exited as leader, he has been commemorated on twitter with the hashtag #putoutyouronions with photos of onions, mocking the legacy of the former leader.

It’s strange that a man would eat a raw onion like an apple. It’s stranger that we think it’s strange. After all, an onion is just food.

From an early age, we all learn to categorise food. We start with simple categories like ‘yucky’ and ‘yummy’. My daughters have started to differentiate between ‘food’ and ‘treats’ realising that some food is yucky, some is yummy and some foods are something much nicer.

Many of us can probably remember those confronting moments in childhood when we were informed that a tomato is actually a fruit not a vegetable.

Throughout our adult lives, we continue to encounter unusual food habits. Cooks amaze us by combining unusual combinations of ingredients on the plate, such as bacon and maple syrup, and coca cola and chicken.

Chef Heston Blumenthal has made a name for himself by toying with our expectations, such as creating an icecream dessert that looks exactly like a boiled egg . The conflict with our taste buds and head creates an exciting experience.

Egg and toast

Our food categories  and rules for what’s normal are always being re-written and challenged.

These culinary expectations are also reinforced by our cultural experiences. It’s quite common for individuals to eat unusual dishes such as insects in China, Haggis (sheep’s stomach) in Scotland, and Vegemite (yeast extract) in Australia. When you enter these cultures for the first time, you are more likely to accept that these choices aren’t wrong. You just haven’t gotten used to them yet.

However, within our own culture, we can instinctively ostracise and ridicule somebody who steps outside our own cultural norms.

At the heart of this behaviour is our social identity, which is our shared values, behaviours and practices that unify us. When someone departs from this social identity, we can distance them, placing them into an ‘out-group’.

Deviations from norms seems to be especially personal with food. Most of us have been in that situation where we felt obliged to eat more when we weren’t hungry so not to offend the host. We’ve probably all been shunned when we refuse to partake in a meal or try something new.

Of course, in some situations, these norm violations can be endearing rather than shocking. Imagine if Johnny Depp was filmed chomping on an onion during an interview for a movie. No doubt this kind of behaviour might simply reinforce our views about his idiosyncratic personality.

A politician, however, needs to be more cautious with their branding. They need to be conservative and ‘normal’ yet also relatable and interesting. They need to be hardworking and focussed but also shown to be light-hearted and relaxed.

Tony Abbott has always branded himself with strong conservative morals and values. Perhaps munching on an onion was an impulsive moment he wanted to show his lighter side.

Comedian, Ricky Gervais, recently said in an interview, ‘Clowns aren’t funny because they try to make you laugh. An angry man not meaning to be funny, have something happening to him like falling over and it’s always funny.’ Replace the word ‘angry’ with ‘serious’ and it helps explain why Abbott eating the onion is so amusing. It juxtaposes with his usual stoic demeanour or what he is painfully trying to project.

But our fascination with this onion tells us a lot about the observers too. We are quick to ostracise and judge people who divert from norms because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We are also quick to turn on our politicians and mock them.

A psychologist who specialises in eating disorders once explained to me that there are very few things that are more personal that what choose to consume in our bodies. His view was that society’s fascination with what everyone is eating drives a preoccupation with food. What people consume, he argues, is nobody’s business.

In short, it’s probably our unhealthy preoccupation with the onion that’s really the problem.

Better not start with the time former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ate his own earwax…

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