March 14, 2007

Guilt is Not a Political Act

Pandagon recently had a post detailing one more of the many repercussions that consumption in rich countries has on the poorest nations of the world. The post focuses on tantalum, a material used to make components of cell phones laptops, and iPods, which is abundant in the Congo and highly sought after by the high tech industry, a thirst that is fueled by consumer demand. Tantalum is arguably one of the sources of the region's bloody conflict.

Some of the reactions of readers were familiar: people tend to have a guilty, knee-jerk reaction when they’re reminded that something they’re doing, and that they do every day, like use computers or cell phones, has repercussions, and they often respond by bristling: “It’s not my fault! I didn’t start it! Why don’t you blame those who have done something worse?” It may be a childish reaction but it’s probably inevitable when one wants to be able to keep doing what he or she wants to do and not have to feel guilty about it.

The more adult response would be to acknowledge participation and responsibility without attempting to make excuses and without feeling like one has to turn one's whole life around in order to carry on guilt-free. Guilt is beside the point. No one leads a perfect, pure life. Nor does guilt do anything to help the people who are adversely affected by our actions, because guilt is essentially a self-centered reaction: it only matters to ourselves whether we feel guilty or not.

The reason why we care about social injustice is a function of our basic decency and humanity, it’s not out of guilt. I don’t think any of the activists we most admire would say they fought for justice because they felt guilty. These are political issues and practical issues, not moral issues. Instead of wasting energy on feeling guilty or being offended by the perception that one has been made to feel guilty, we need to look at issues as clearly as we can and set aside our own vanity and egos.

I'm a little weary of people who say that changing their lifestyle is not a political act, therefore why bother? It's true that changing the kind of crap we buy or reducing the amount of it that we buy is not going to save the world, but that's only because to have an effect every individual act needs to be added to the actions of millions of others. It needs to be made into a visible, effective mass movement against economic inequality.

Justifying wanton consumerism by saying, "Well, what I buy or don't buy doesn't make a difference anyway, so I might as well just continue amassing whatever I damn well please," is a bit like saying, "Hey I can't change society's racist attitudes on my own, therefore I might as well go on using racial slurs." The difference may be that racism is widely recognized as a social ill, while excessive consumption generally is not, but both have very damaging repercussions.


Anonymous Brian said...

These are excellent comments and they made me think about something I did recently. I have a Myspace account. I added a "friend" , that is, someone I didn't know but who looked interesting based on the things she wrote on her page and the pictures and music she shared. After a few weeks I became annoyed with her regular negative comments about white males (I'm white and male myself.) Without giving her any explanation I took her off my friend's list.

I chose not to confront her about her comments. Partly because I view Myspace as a place where people go to have a little fun, listen to music, watch videos... But partly because I didn't want to think about white privlege. If I did I would have to actually take responsibility for my behavior and check my behavior a lot more than I do now.

In retrospect I really don't think her comments were sexist. But I chose to hear them that way because then I could easily dismiss her criticisms and get myself off the hook!

Shit, honesty is a tough nut isn't it?

I discovered your blog today and I like it. I've added it to my blogroll.

Ontario, CANADA

March 17, 2007 2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I agree that honesty is a tough nut: most of us would rather see ourselves in a softer, kinder light than complete honesty allows. And I think that's okay too, some of the time. :)

(Google/blogger is so user-friendly it's not letting me sign into my own blog as myself!!!! I'm out of here as soon as possible... )

March 18, 2007 8:31 PM  
Anonymous kyle said...

Brian, as a white male who understands (as much from a privleged position as that is possible) the ins and outs of white male privledge, I think an easier way to internalize what other people are saying when they bash white males, is that they're not specifically referring to individual people, but rather a larger power structure that maintains domination through subjugation of subordinate groups. Like Malcolm X: he cursed the white man all the time, but didn't necessarily hate white people. He hated what they represented.

Great post. There is something that bothers me though about the idea that our only real power comes from our consumer choices. Especially when the issue of government subsidies is addressed.

April 13, 2007 5:42 AM  
Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

missing your wisdom. where are you?

May 04, 2007 1:54 PM  
Blogger asfo_del said...

Thanks for your comments. (I have no wisdom but thanks for saying so. :)) Sorry about the long hiatus. I hope to get back into writing more regularly.

May 04, 2007 5:21 PM  

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