Existentialism and the Tide Pod Challenge

By Charles Norwood

Kids have been eating soap a lot these days. They bite down on detergent pods and post videos of themselves doing so online. And obviously detergent isn't good for you.

A lot of the kids (and adults) who are doing this are being called "stupid" (along with their parents, who presumably did a shit job raising them). But are they really stupid? What if there's more to this ostensibly cretinous internet trend?

I conducted a little experiment to try to find out:

Basically, I tried to feed a detergent pod to my neighbor’s dog. The dog was tied up outside and when my neighbor went into his house I put a fresh pod in its dish. I wanted to see if the dog would eat it.

It wouldn't. It just sniffed it and turned around.

Cat contemplates generic detergent pod
Naturally, I tried a neighborhood cat next. The cat, which is plainly stupider than the dog because it's smaller, wouldn't eat the detergent either. I had similarly disappointing results with a squirrel and even the mouse I bought for $2 at the pet store (although the neighborhood cat didn't mine eating the mouse, ultimately).

My conclusion after trying to get all these animals to eat soap was that most mammals probably have a biological mechanism that tells them that detergent isn't good for you. And that surely applies to humans too. So what gives?

What separates humanity from the "lower" beasts is the ability to override what our brains are telling us to do. Whereas most animals are entirely bound by instinct, impulse, and conditioning, people have the ability consciously choose any behavior we want. We have the power to transcend our biology.

In other words, we have the power to eat soap even when our instinct, impulses, and conditioning tell us we shouldn't.

So really these kids aren't just eating soap. They are symbolically affirming precisely that which makes them human: the ability to choose to eat soap. They are existential agents mindfully exercising the very intentionality that makes them agents. And there's something inherently self-transcendent and therefore spiritual in that.

It's easy to let your life be run by the same mundane and unconscious and repetitious routines day in and day out. There's nothing courageous in that.

What does take courage is existential resistance. It takes courage to throw off the shackles of nature and nurture and to carve a new path through the world using your willpower alone. And eating detergent, it seems, is the optimal way to assert that courage.


Charles Norwood is the author of Epistemology Bloody Epistemology: An Academic Satire and co-founder of the literary collective Goathanger.com. He lives in Toronto, where he is involved in a variety of criminal activities; writing, after all, does not pay.