Saturday, April 4, 2015
On Privilege and Choice
I recently read a couple of posts on this blog I like where there were heated--and sometimes inappropriately worded--debates on veganism. I think that the blogger dealt with the issue spectacularly in a follow-up post. But I also found myself thinking more and more about exactly what bothered me about the times when the comments became harsh.
On the one hand, I stand corrected: I don't claim to be vegan (or at least don't mean to do so), but I have sometimes referred to things like "eating vegan" for periods of time. Yet there are many who find fault with this because to them, veganism (1) requires a full-time commitment (you are either vegan or not), and (2) is about a way of life that includes, but is not limited to, a plants-only diet. I found these points mostly reasonable and informative. They reminded me not to overstate what I do with my diet, and I will try to be more careful. On the other hand, there were some (just a few) "capital V" Vegans commenting who were not just frustrated by the loose way the term is used, but who were also incredibly judgmental of others' choices. In particular, some of them claimed that this was a "belief system" that was about justice and humanitarianism rather than a personal choice. Non-Vegans, or "fake vegans" (for lack of a better phrase) were all unethical in this view.
And that is where I take exception. Big-V Veganism might well be a belief system, but it is also a choice of the privileged. In this regard, it is similar to those who are capital-letter Minimalists, or Homesteaders, or Home Schoolers. Don't get me wrong--I admire choices like these, and I aspire to incorporate some of their ideas into my life, even if I'm not sure if want to live them in their entirety or embrace them as beliefs. (For example, I don't have the skills to be a homesteader, and I believe too deeply in the revolutionary and equalizing potential of public education to choose home schooling--though if that's what one of my kids needed, I would try it.)
The thing is, most people in this world eat little or no meat. Most people live with few material goods. Many people engage in subsistence agriculture. However, they do so out of necessity. Most would happily eat and feed their children meat more often if they could afford it--not because they are inhumane, but because it provides protein that might keep them healthier and allow their children the nutrients they need as they grow. Again: this is not to "dis" Vegans. I deeply admire their conviction and I agree with many of their premises. I might someday decide to take that leap, even though I am not ready now. What I dislike is the judgment and narrow world vision that I see in a few (not all) of them. I feel the same about Homesteading and Minimalism. They are wonderful choices and ways of life--but to ignore the privilege from whence they come, relative to how the majority of people on the planet live, strikes me as at best unhealthy, and at worst dangerous.
I also think that these are choices of privilege within our own country, not just relative to the Global South. I might dislike Wal-Mart and Burger King...but I have the good luck to fall into a group (with enough money) that I can choose not to buy clothes or food (etc) there. But if I were a single parent in a low paying job--or, more likely, two jobs--I'd have far fewer options.
I'm not saying it's only the wealthy who make morally-based choices like Veganism or Minimalism or Homesteading or Home Schooling. I suspect that there are plenty of people who make hard choices to do those things. But they are choices, and they aren't options for everyone, whether around the world or here in the US.
I also worry when these decisions are introduced as black-and-white, good versus evil. I understand conviction and passion, just not the presumption to know that your way is the only way, or that a particular cause is "all or nothing." The problems of our world are complex, and we humans are flawed enough that not one of us has all the answers. Extremism, even in causes I support (and even when it's just a minority espousing extreme views), frightens me.
So I guess I'll just keep trying to find my way. I'll keep trying to discover and follow my deepest values. I'll try to teach my children to make compassionate choices whenever they are lucky enough to have choice. I'll aspire to have the patience to pick myself up and try again as I inevitably fall short of where I want to be. And I will work on building more compassion to understand that others have their own paths to follow--whether by the privilege of choice or the pain of necessity.
In short, I'd like my musings on the blog post that started all this to remind me to be humble and compassionate in my own convictions.
How can we embrace differing ideas and human imperfection while still advancing causes we care deeply about? How can we build alliances rather than enmities in the quest to make the world a better and more just place?
These are the questions I keep coming back to, and wishing I were better at living their answers.