David Thompson
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March 31, 2008

Comments

Matt M

There's a certain level of badge-wearing involved in most "ethical" lifestyles ("look at me, I'm green!"), but I think that certain actions, while maybe not having an immediate effect, can work in a symbolic way - getting others to think about things that might otherwise take for granted and maybe, eventually, getting them to change their lifestyle.

It's like being a vegetarian because you disagree with animal suffering (for example). In the short-term, the slight decrease in profits caused by increasing numbers of people not eating meat will worsen conditions for animals (as the farms have less money to spend on them), but it's done in the hope that you can bring about better change in the long-term.

(Not trying to argue for vegetarianism here, just using it as an example)

The same probably goes for fair trade, recycling, turning off your TV at night, etc. It's often more about "consciousness raising" than immediate impact. At least for people that don't write for the Guardian.

Problems usually arise when such behaviour tips from inspiration to moralising and then "there should be laws!". Ms. Elliot seems stuck in a rather confused version of the moralising stage.

pwyll

I've known people who would never cheat on a diet, but were perfectly willing to cheat on a spouse. The proper disposal of a peanut butter jar is a complex ethical problem, but the abortion of child is a lifestyle choice.

Appropriately chosen ethical concerns can be quite liberating.

liamalpha

To Matt M:
I occasionally make the joke that vegetarians are the worst enemies of farm animals. After all, what do you think will happen to all those chickens and cows if everybody decides to become vegetarian? Will they be set free to roam the fields? I don't think so... they'll probably be killed off since they've become useless.
Similarly, suppose bio-fuel becomes a viable alternative to fossil fuels. This will obviously lead to vast tracts of rain forest being cut down to plant corn for fuel, and the price of corn as food will soar...

steveaz

Cath, with her habit of nervous preening, reminds me of my Uncle's bald cockatiel.

Caught up in his fetish of lonely preening he managed to pluck every single one of his feathers out, except for the ones he couldn't reach on the top of his head!

Nature teaches!

John D

Is this where someone points out that Elliott's ethical shopping is only possible in a wealthy capitalist society made wealthy by capitalism?

David

From Ms Elliott’s comments on the thread at CiF:

“I just want my impact, which as a consumer in a capitalist society is inevitably going to be negative, to be as minimal as possible...”

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/cath_elliott/2008/03/matters_of_conscience.html#comment-1237765

Behold the wisdom. Mind its glare.

TDK

This is religious penitence by a believer who has given in to temptation. Owning up doesn't imply challenging ideas. It doesn't even enter her head that, gaia forbid, she might be wrong. Rather she is affirming her beliefs but acknowledging that the flesh is weak.

Religions always have followers who are less than perfect. To survive they must grant the possibility of absolution and re-entry to the fold. This must be publicly done so that other sinners (who may have their doubts) will see that the failure lies not with the doctrine but with the individual sinner. Thus impracticality becomes a means to strength belief rather than a failing. If this were not possible then the religion would die with its founders.

There's a good article in Reason showing the consequences of this religiosity:
http://reason.com/news/show/125722.html

georges

I don't get the "food miles" thing. Why is it wrong to buy food that travelled from the other side of the world to get to you but not, say, an ipod, mobile phone or plasma screen tv? Once you start that argument, doesn't it lead to the demand for total autarky and the end of international trade?

Dutch Canuck

pwyll:

Indeed! It's always easier to sweat the small stuff. Why is that? Is it narcissism, selfishness, mental laziness, or simple weakness to peer pressure? Speaking of which:

"...as our friend came out to the car to greet us, the incriminating plastic bottle plonked in the passenger side drinks-holder was spotted straight away. Questions were asked, apologies were proffered..." But she doesn't care what other people think. Incoherent? A bit. She wants to keep on being the popular girl in the class.

John D: judging from many of the commenters, the fact that any voluntary exchange of goods is capitalist is the whole objection. "It is unethical to buy coffee - full stop." "Its just not possible to buy in such a way as to make Capitalism ethical." With a scary capital 'C' too.

Me, I'm grateful we can get so much amazing and healthy food at such affordable prices, stuff my parents never imagined. If the Chileans and Guatemalans want to sell me their fantastic fruit and coffee, am I to preach to them that the shipping distance (or the pale colour of the consumer's skin) means they're complicit in an immoral exchange? Because if I'm guilty for buying, they're equally guilty for growing and selling. Who among them would listen? Wouldn't they think I was insane?

pwyll

Dutch,

The trick is not so much to sweat the small stuff, but to convince yourself that you are doing great things. Remember, the lady struggling with the peanut butter jars is trying to save the planet.

The crusade to save the planet comes with advantages such as social approval and self satisfaction. But the greatest advantage is the one not spoken about. If I fail to save the planet, well, I can always blame someone else. On the other hand, if I fail to be a good father, or a good husband, it will be something of a stretch to blame George Bush.

This principle has many uses. Imagine, for example, that you are a schoolteacher. If you choose to teach reading and arithmetic, it will be evident whether you succeeded. And you might be held responsible for failure. But if you teach social justice you simply cannot fail. If the world remains unjust, it is because of evil louts too benighted to accept your wisdom. You did your part. You care.

David

There’s something about the dynamic that reminds me of people who diet. Or rather a subset of people who diet, and do so conspicuously, generally with inordinate fretting and playing to the audience. They fixate on food continually, telling anyone within earshot about calories and such, and spend an awful lot of time feeling anxious or unhappy, usually while snacking on forbidden crisps.

Lovernios

Matt hit the nail on the head. These people are moral narcisists. It's all about them. Look at this article, it's brimming with "I", "me", "my", etc.

David

There is, I think, an obvious connection between affected and grandiose guilt and self-absorption. As I wrote some time ago, “Rending one’s garments and saying, very loudly, ‘it’s all my fault’ is only a notch and a half away from saying ‘it’s all about me’.”

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/phantom_guilt_s.html

And, as with the subset of dieters mentioned above, it’s self-absorbed, but in an apologetic and self-loathing kind of way. The person is made the focus of the known universe, around which everything must rotate, but only by fixating on imagined responsibilities of an improbable kind and the failure to fulfil them. It reminds me of people I’ve known who became vegans, Marxists or Muslims or whatever in order to become more interesting, if only to themselves.

R. Sherman

My goodness does Ms. Elliot set the bar low. She can save the world by refusing to eat a candy bar, as opposed to, say, saving the world by selling all she owns in giving the proceeds to the poor. Obviously, it's much easier to be a hero these days.

Regards.

Franklin

I'm a libertarian vegetarian - yes, we exist - and I'd like to add that for however many of us "fixate on food continually, telling anyone within earshot about calories and such, and spend an awful lot of time feeling anxious or unhappy, usually while snacking on forbidden crisps," I have found that such folks are about as rare as the meat-eaters who make grandiose displays of their carnivorism in front of vegetarians. "Does that bother you? Huh?" I make a point answering, "No, please enjoy yourself," and they get a sunken look. Alas, meat-eating turns out to be yet another public performance for some people.

People have occasionally asked me why they should become a vegetarian, and I answer that they probably shouldn't, but there are excellent health benefits and partial but significant moral ones that await them if they decide even to lessen their consumption of animals. I say partial because most decisions made by grown-ups involve some kind of imperfect trade-off. Failure to appreciate this point gives rise to the genre of the eco-anxiety article exemplified by Elliot above, and I agree, it's a tiresome genre.

Incidentally, the quick answer to liamalpha's challenge is that you would have one generation of slaughter instead of countless generations of slaughter.

David

Franklin,

The people I had in mind (and referred to as fixated by food, etc) are dieters, or a subset thereof, not vegetarians. But, yes, I’ve seen the “let me tease you with my sirloin” routine more than once. It’s never pretty.

TDK

Incidentally, the quick answer to liamalpha's challenge is that you would have one generation of slaughter instead of countless generations of slaughter.

As a philosophical point, you are right, but I suspect liamalpha was alluding to the dippy year zero assumption that fields would remain full of cows that miraculously look after themselves. It's a common mistake amongst many that our natural environment is not managed. For example look at the assumption that native Americans lived in harmony with nature (don't mention the mega-fauna).

CJ

THIS CRITICISM IS A TAD LAME

**And while I am - in real life, if not online - a courteous and noble being, and nothing if not neighbourly, I just can’t seem to feel guilty about my choice of fruit or carbonated drink.**

I'm the same kind of being. And pretty conservative. I came here via Ace of Spades.com...but isn't consumer choice and the free market exactly what folks like us are supposed to use?

It's exactly the kind of small, individual choices - like being courteous and neighborly - that we're supposed to respect, regardless of their impact.

I suspect we could find plenty wrong with this woman's politics, but this seems short-sighted and a little petty.


David

CJ,

Perhaps you’ve misunderstood my point, or maybe I wasn’t clear. I’ve nothing at all against *making* small, individual choices. I said I find it hard to *feel guilty* about the products that I choose. I wasn’t bemoaning the making of choices, even in matters of peanut butter residue; it’s Elliott’s inconsistency and theatrical guilt over those choices that caught my eye. I’m not terribly concerned by whether or not a person chooses to buy Nestle products, including KitKat bars. But if someone makes a big deal out of not buying KitKat bars on principle, then buys them anyway, and then starts to agonise, and says…

“It’s not that I necessarily believe that my eating a KitKat is going to lead directly to the death of a baby in the developing world…”

…Then, well, I think some comment is in order.

sf

Stopped by from Ace's. Quite a few very high-quality comments above-- a spot-on analysis of the psychology of most worrying, guilt-ridden, self-conscious and usually self-absorbed left/liberals. Hope they don't discover your site--you'd be flooded with whining comments for the next year or two.

David

SF,

Welcome. The subject of pretentious guilt is explored in more detail here:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/phantom_guilt_s.html

And touched on here:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/03/evil-axis.html

CJ

David,

I guess I just kind of...believer her? (DON’T THROW MS. ELLIOTT’S MANGOS AT ME!)I think she really is committed to the various causes she tries to further through consumer choices. And while she acknowledges that her individual choice has no impact, a large number of people making similar choices WOULD have an impact. And that won’t happen if she doesn’t talk about it.

And, she acknowledges that her craving for certain products sometimes gets the better of her.

Yes, she’s hardcore feminist and her attack on Hillary critics is more tiresome gender warfare. I’m sure that the more I read about her politics, the more tiresome she’ll seem. But I don’t see her latest ruminations as mere theater.

I think your reference to “matters over which they have immediate and visible influence - civility, reciprocation, mindfulness of neighbours” threw me off. Your individual act of civility can often have the same impact as Elliott’s decision to not buy a Coke – no impact. You need civility in numbers. My acts of civility are sometimes met with continued boorishness. I tell myself, “Well, they act that way now, but I probably softened them up. Maybe they’ll act a little more civil next time…” But I don’t know if that’s true.

David

CJ,

“I guess I just kind of... believe her?”

Well, maybe you’re just a more generous soul than I am. :)

“And that won’t happen if she doesn’t talk about it.”

But she’s not actually urging others to avoid Nestle products or Coca-Cola or whatever, and she’s not providing much of a serious reason to do so, which I’d have thought would be the best way to convince someone, assuming it really mattered. It seems to me to be about The Passion of Cath Elliott, if you see what I mean. Hence my questions as to her motives.

“…she acknowledges that her craving for certain products sometimes gets the better of her.”

Well, if not eating a certain fruit or chocolate bar was actually a matter of tremendous moral importance to me, I’m pretty sure I could resist. And I’m pretty sure I could resist without publishing rather confused articles about The Enormous Personal Struggle of Not Eating That Chocolate Bar (Except When I do). I’ve found that when people fuss at length and in public about how difficult it is to be virtuous (however they define being virtuous), they’re very often telling you, in a not very subtle way, just *how* virtuous they think they’re being. “Look at me. Look at the mountains I must climb. Oh, by the way, did I mention I’m being incredibly virtuous in adversity? No, please, don’t applaud.”

It has that smell about it.

CJ

Well, I concede I am out of step with most of my conservative friends on things like this. I guess I allow for some self-indulgence about personal sacrifice and choices when the topic is how personal sacrifices can cause broad change. As long as I don’t have to look at her head shot.

J. Peden

"Incidentally, the quick answer to liamalpha's challenge is that you would have one generation of slaughter instead of countless generations of slaughter."

O', how much better to have never lived than to have lived so little at all.

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