Monday, February 27, 2006

Ethics, Analysis, and Food

First of all, I need to stress that I'm not intending to pick on vegetarians. I've been one for seven or eight years, after all. Some of us just provide a useful example of what I want to talk about.

There are lots of things out of our control that shape who we are and how we act in the world. Each of us also has a range within which we can act deliberately. Within that range, it seems to me that a big part of how we act in the world is shaped by a combination of two things.

The first is a basic, gut-level, commonsense impulse -- an impulse that wraps together a kind of moral or ethical sense, a basic golden-ruley-ness that comes from humans being social animals, an instinct about fairness and justice and how I want to be treated and how others should be treated and how things should work at the personal level. This shouldn't be romanticized, of course. Our commonsense is colonized. Lots and lots of folks who would swear themselves blue that they see everyone as equal and the same still have gut reactions that make others into Others, people into less-than-people. Commonsense grounded in the experience of privilege is part of the otherwise "good" man talking down to the woman helping him find material at the library, or the flash of white liberal fear at the Black face walking the other way down a night-time street, or how natural it seemed for strangers killed in the World Trade Centre to weigh so much more heavily on North American hearts than strangers killed by U.S. troops in Fallujah or by the IDF in occupied Palestine. So it ain't at all perfect, but it is still there: a gut-level instinct based in our sociality that helps guide how we act in the world, whether we are conscious of it or not.

The other thing that shapes the actions within our deliberate range is our analysis of the world, our brain, our conscious mental construction of how the world works based on things we've read and seen and heard and deduced and hypothesized.

These two things are obviously not completely independent variables. I'm sure in most people they are in a constant, complex dialogue, and the ways in which they work together to shape each other and the overall consensus self are different in different people and at different times within the same person. But I think it is fair to say that they are not the same either. Certainly that's true of my own experience of self, though perhaps others experience their selves differently. I would imagine it has something to do with the fact that the analytical level can be shaped by both local, direct experience and by material imported from other people's local, direct experiences (i.e. reading books and blog posts). On the other hand, your commonsense is only shaped by your own local, direct experience -- the experiences of others only influence your commonsense as filtered through your analytic self. I could be wrong, though.

The point I'm trying to make is that those of us trying to make the best of the space we have to act deliberately in the world need to pay attention to both the gut-level ethical impulse and the more cerebral analytical contribution.

Both of these things function in all of us, I think, whether we acknowledge it or not. But I have encountered people who so value one that they refuse to admit that the other either exists, or they admit it exists but deny it has anything useful to add.

On one extreme I have encountered certain people of faith -- not all people who ground their identities in living a certain faith, but some. That subset tends to push people to follow their gut-level ethical instinct (albeit often with rigid influence from some doctrinal text or other) but are aggressively disinterested in the kind of learning about the world that could turn that inclination to "do right" on the interpersonal level into a well-informed political response. Admittedly, some of this flows from commonsense that is oppressive, that thoroughly rejects the experience of Others as worthy of consideration. But some of it is a refusal to admit that dialogue between ethical instinct and intellectual analysis is inherent to making decisions about the world -- they see it more as "text informs gut instinct informs action" with no input from the intellect.

On the other extreme are certain people who identify as Marxists. Again, not all Marxists, but a certain narrow subset tend to scorn basic human ethical impulses as undeserving of any input into internal or external debates about action. This grouping is so wedded to a dogmatic and schematic picture of the world and social change that timid questions like, "Is causing millions of Ukrainian peasants to starve to death really a suitable action to take in the name of human liberation?" are dismissed not as a legitimate expression of instinctive human desires for a free and just world, but as "sentimental bourgeouis morality" or some such intruding on the proper revolutionary path.

But for most regular people, I think, even if they might not conceptualize it quite as formally as I have above, there is a recognition that some combination of "what our gut tells us" and "what our brain tells us" do and should combine to form "what we do."

Back to the Vegetarians

This whole line of thought started for me while I was struggling to push a stroller down a snow-covered sidewalk not long ago and thinking, for some reason, about vegetarians.

I have been a vegetarian, like I said, for seven or eight years. I was heading in that direction for a few years before I finally took the plunge. Partly, it was fostered by particiaption in an environment that was explicitly called "student activist," but which also tended to bring unspoken (and, for most of its middle-class white participants, including myself for much of that time, unnoticed or at least unanalyzed) labels like "middle-class" and "white-dominated" with it. I never felt peer pressure to be veggie, but being in that very pro-veggie space certainly helped me on my way. Intellectually, the biggest reason for me was the environmental one, that eating a non-meat diet tends to leave a smaller footprint on the earth, all else being equal. At a gut level I also wasn't keen to be a part of the ways in which industrial agriculture does horrific things to animals, though I was never as emotionally invested in that side of things as some vegetarians are.

In practice today, I still eat eggs and dairy, so I am veggie but not vegan. I also eat things like jello, and I drink wine and beer that might contain isinglass, which is a clarifying agent derived from fish parts. And I even occasionally stray so far as to have some gravy on french fries, though not too often. But intellectually, politically, culinarily, and deep in my gut, I am completely happy with this path for me.

I also make a point of not proselytizing about it. That has always been true. It is even more true now that I have learned about how insistence on the dominance of certain lifestyle practices as markers of political purity in some "activist" spaces can function to help keep those spaces white and middle-class. People of colour (or even working-class white people) who make different decisions in their everyday lives are forced to either adopt the dominant microcultural practices and reject their own heritage, to refuse to do that but stay in the space and have yet another marker of "not belonging" repeatedly made visible, or to stay separate from the space -- assimilate, be tacitly marked as lesser, or leave.

That doesn't mean I see no political value in vegetarianism. Our current food system as it relates to animals is horrible. It is also one practical way for those of us with the great material privilege of middle-class North American lifestyles to reduce our impact on the earth. Of course radical change in nasty systems will only come because of changes at the point of production, not (beyond a certain narrow range) because of changes in isolated consumer behaviour. But changes in an individual's choices can still be an important part of that individual's political journey, to reorient their consciousness and material practices with respect to oppressive systems, to symbolize and embody commitment that permeates all facets of life. We just need to be aware that a privileged group trying to universalize a practice that restricts the choices of others rather than expands them, in the context of structures of power that already give us the highest degree of individual choice and restrict that of others, is just not on.

But I digress...this post started from me thinking about a very specific issue: Why is it that your average North American vegetarian sees a problem with one aspect of the typical North American diet, but is much less likely to see problems with other aspects? Aside from those folks who just don't like meat, presumably there is some component in the motivation of most vegetarians that rejects the eating of meat under our current system of food production because it is exploitative or cruel or environmentally harmful in some way. The problem is, any vegetable or grain or legume or dairy product or other non-meat food that we obtain via our industrial agriculture system is also drenched in suffering and blood. And I don't mean this the way that a right-wing relative once cited evidence that plants respond to the presence of light so they can at some level be argued to be sentient and therefore it makes no sense to quit eating meat -- see above for why I think vegetarianism can still be a good choice.

So what do I mean by "problems with other aspects" of our food systems? Many vegetable crops are harvested with human labour that is highly exploited. It is often migrant labourers admitted to the country without full rights of citizenship, severely underpaid, and kept in situations where their ability to struggle against their exploitation is minimal. Note that this is not just an issue for, say, California, but is true in Ontario as well.

But perhaps even surpassing the general exploitation of farm workers in the production of many food crops is the ways in which our food system is dependent on oil via the importance of transporting most food over long distances and the petrochemical basis of many fertilizers and other chemical additives to the crop production process. This has serious environmental implications for a start. It also has implications for human suffering: all over the world but particularly in West Asia you can link the need of our current political economy for cheap oil to all kinds of war and suffering and oppression. Just to take the most recent blatant example, as wiser heads than mine have frequently opined in the last few years, does anyone honestly think that the United States would have invaded Iraq in 2003 and recolonized it, at a cost of tens to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary Iraqi civilian deaths, if their main national product was cucumbers and lettuce? That blood soaks our fruits and veggies, our bread and waffles, our tortillas and canned soup.

I think the obliviousness of many vegetarians to these realities, or at least of how they relate to our food, comes from a few different sources. The first that I came up with is that the necessary knowledge to understand these aspects of the food system is not as easily accessible as a basic understanding of certain aspects related to meat. I mean, you look on your plate and see a bit of cow or pig or chicken, so if you have issues with benefiting from that which has been done to said animal then it is right there staring you in the face. But the exploited human labour and the oil-related blood dripping from your tomato or grapes is less obvious. In other words, more of the input to make decisions about eating or not eating meat comes from immediate, local experience. Turning that into action that involves not eating meat requires certain things in terms of what your gut tells you and what your head tells you, but it is less dependent on inputs outside of your local experience, and is therefore less dependent on having accessed specific information and analysis -- information and analysis that does not tend to be made widely available by our current media systems.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's the whole story. For some people, at least, the colonized nature of our gut-level commonsense is at play as well. For many people, thinking about animals that are suffering results in a direct, simple, gut-level, emotional/ethical response. But when it is human beings that are suffering, I think many people are less likely to have that simple, direct response, or are more likely to repress it or distract themselves from it for various reasons. Once it involves people it is no longer, "Ohhhhh...poor chickens...," but rather it turns into a political question, which many people instinctively flinch away from and avoid. For many people, animals are by definition innocent, but with human beings it becomes "more complicated" and often people "deserve what they get" and, oh, well, things have to work that way, don't they? And I think, unfortunately, that this kind of moral equivocation and avoidance is easier for white North Americans when the people in question are people of colour, as is overwhelmingly the case for those who suffer and die in oil wars and who are directly exploited to produce the shiny tomatoes on our tables.

And I think there's another issue, as well, which is more abstract but still real. I think that the mainstream conception of vegetarianism results in (or is at least consistent with) a fairly simple understanding of the world: there is a problem but it can be addressed by a fairly simple set of eating choices, in which foods are easily divided into "good" and "bad." You avoid the bad ones and eat the good ones, and your ethical/political responsibility is addressed. But a more wholistic understanding of the nastiness that is inherent in our current industrial food system makes everything more complicated because there is no easy set of consumption choices that can wash our hands of it. Yes, it is possible to make efforts to eat locally and organically and so on, but to go completely "off the grid" when it comes to food choices is not something that will be possible for most people. So you are left with a situation where you are complicit in oppression no matter what you do as an individual, and in ways that can only be changed by collective political change. And that kind of reality is a difficult one to face for most people raised with privilege in North America, who are trained to see problems as largely or exclusively individual in scale. Even scarier, it can force us to face up to broader question about how our privilege, how the material substance of our day-to-day lives, depend on suffering by oppressed and exploited peoples here in North America and around the world. And that's psychologically hard to deal with, and easier to just avoid. Ethically and politically necessary to deal with, but not psychologically easy.

So, yeah. Mainstream vegetarianism is often grounded in a fairly direct and simple gut-level reaction. Often the accompanying analysis of the food system leaves important stuff out. And often those blindspots are supported by the more colonized gut-level "stuff" that most of us have, which encourages us to avoid complex pictures of the world in which we cannot as individuals completely (or even mostly) escape our complicity in oppression, and which mean we must seek answers not solely in consumption choices but in participation in and support for collective social and political struggle by human beings -- human beings that are often, in our colonized commonsense and in the external systems that give us material comfort in our lives at their expense, marked as Other.

As I said above, I'm not bashing vegetarians, and I still think that for many people becoming vegetarian is a sensible political and ethical choice, if seen in a broader context and not held up as some sort of marker of moral or political purity. And I think that the ethical impulse embodied in the fact that increasing numbers of North Americans are making that choice is a good avenue for raising deeper and more difficult questions about where our food comes from and, by extension, the oppressive institutions that surround us and structure our lives.


Todd said...

Nice post; I sent the link to it to both my vegetarian step-daughters.

Did that reference to that "certain subset of Marxists," the Ukraine, and the comment about bourgeois sentimentality come from an actual quote or from something more "gut level" and a-historical?

Scott said...

Hi Todd. Glad you like the post!

That particular reference was not a direct quote from anything written, but I think it still illustrates an attitude that has existed and, in a more limited way, still exists in pockets. In the example, I am referring to (and, I suppose, making fun of) the tendency of some Marxists, even after the truth came out in the West in the late '50s, to explain away Stalin's most horrible deeds as being justified because he was doing what he had to do to defend the "workers' state." Often (though definitely not always) the ethical impulses that these Stalinists were deriding were found in people who had little analysis of imperialism and the ways in which any state which tries to follow a different path has to face up to some immense obstacles and make some hard choices, but dismissing such impulses out of hand because of that seems to me to be dismissing our humanity itself.

I also hear the odd argument or comment from people today that seem to be pushing a similar line, albeit more subtely and often, I think, not entirely consciously, in discussions of how social change works and what we need to do. Today in North America, at least, I think this line is often tightly intertwined in individuals with particular ways of doing masculinity that have not yet been challenged by femist ideas or actual feminists.

Todd said...

Ok. I wasn't really pushing for anything; I'm always a bit unsure about critique of communists/communism/Marxism from the Left. I'm convinced after reading Hal Draper's piece on Leninism and "Leninism" that there's a lot of demonizing going on out there, and it gets in the way of solid critique.

That, and I've heard lots about the Ukraine and the USSR, and I'm still looking for a source I can feel comfortable trusting.

Scott said...

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