Keep it to yourself

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May 16, 2012

A number of blogs that I follow push back (most recently here) pretty hard against a type of personal activism that ends up creating a structure a moral evaluation with no sense that effective change is produced or even possible.  What do I mean by this?  I mean simply that personal activism can be a therapeutic response to the guilty conscious of privilege.  There is nothing new in that statement and many of the blogs that I follow outline and develop this a more thorough manner.  However, I though it might be helpful to outline a few simple guidelines for how to discern this reality.

  1. If you believe your action has direct connection to effective change, then outline the network of relationships that demonstrates this, so as to help enable others to participate.  So the personal practices of reducing and recycling are good but I personally do not know of the statistics that relate the basic difference between the personal recycling of material goods and the inherent production of corporate waste in producing our goods and services.  Therefore, in our current structure I do not actually know if increased recycling will actually make a dent in the realities of environmental damage.  So reduce, reuse, and recycle but unless you can articulate a well-informed understanding of how that effects change in the environment in relationship to all the other variables then just do as a base-line practice and nothing more.  The same is true for alternative or 'guerrilla' gardening.  These practices can be fun and meaningful but can they address global issues of starvation?  Should they function as anything more than a 'good habit'?
  2. Be honest that 'fair-trade' products represent a sort of premium or 'luxury' brand.  They are not bad.  They are simply out of reach for many people to consistently have access to.  The result of creating a morally elevated status for such products is that those who are the most vulnerable in our society will actually have guilt heaped on them (in addition to the prevalent social stigma of being poor).
  3. 'Symbolic' gestures are only powerful if they register or gain traction in the face of those in power.  In my Mennonite culture there is an emphasis on 'simple' or humble lifestyles.  This basically means that people are not supposed to be 'flashy' with their money.  So a family can have a cabin, an RV, snowmobiles, a boat, etc. but if another family occasionally goes out to a fancy restaurant or purchases a piece of 'abstract' art they are deemed frivolous or 'materialistic'.  Simple living is fine, not having flashy things is fine, but there should be no moral scale here.  The only time a particular way of living has symbolic power is if it is actually taken note of by those in power and disrupts the flow of power.  Otherwise, go ahead and do it but drop the implicit or explicit pretense of righteousness.

The result of not following some of these guidelines is, I believe, the very real possibility of insulating ourselves from the possibility of actual change because we are already the change we want to see in the world.  So, again, to repeat there are all manner of good and relatively equivalent (I did not say neutral) ways of living (because in many instances we do not actually know the good or harm we do).  This is not a critique of particular practices as such, rather I am concerned about the moral structure that gets developed around these practices that serve to sanctify and pacify our privileged guilt while condemning those in our midst outside the privileged ability to attain this sort of personal social-piety.  Sure we will condescend to acquit the poor from such guilt but it will be done not from solidarity but from 'on high'.  And to be clear it is not only those without material means who struggle to attain this sort of personal social-piety but the reality is that it is a lot of work to be consistent in this area.  Many people with mental illness or with children with disabilities or with other significant stress in their life will find it hard attain this piety and will only have more guilt/shame added to their lives as they already have difficulty achieving the other salvation narrative of the 'American dream'.

So is this another expression that functions to insulate my own position?  I am sure there are elements of self-protection here.  But I do want to offer this as a sort of confession.  For most of my adult life I have lived in the 'less-desirable' areas of Canada.  I have, for the most part, quite enjoyed this experience.  I have, however, also held it up as a sort of implicit model of 'faithfulness'.  And for the most part the practice has been selfish as it has kept me in touch with certain social realities that we tend to ignore.  But functionally there has been no more method in this approach than the baseline hope of being a 'good neighbour'.  Being a good neighbour will look differently in my neighbourhood than it will in other neighbourhoods but it is also no more righteous (and I am not convinced I have lived up to this in my context in any event).  While I need to take down my lifestyle as a model of personal piety this is different than articulating the manner in which neighbourhoods are formed and maintained (which I have articulated here and here).  This articulation can be a framework in which possibilities for effective or symbolic action can be developed.  This becomes a participatory and collaborative expression rather than a personal posture of living in the 'hood is more righteous than living in the 'burbs.  My point in all this is simple.  There are many good things to do in the world but for the most part keep it to yourself.  If it is an effective or truly symbolic act then it will speak for itself.

So what am I missing in my thinking or on my list?

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