What is Responsibility?

Lauren’s post about class and feminism saying various things about how feminism can become more class-conscious, and how it can become for “a wider audience.” Some of the things she’s saying make a lot of sense (for example, she bashes the obsession with “what was she wearing?” attitudes). Others make some sense. Yet others make none. I’ve never been a positive person, so I’ll concentrate on the last category.

The crucial point of the fourth part out of five in Lauren’s post is,

We can follow this “too bourgie” process right to the root, right down to things even the most virtuous of progressives can’t deny are oppressive. Think beyond hairless bodies and designer handbags: All of industrial culture is oppressive. Industrial culture is hateful, wasteful, violent, racist, misogynist, and murderous, and we live in it.

You are complicit when you wear that t-shirt. You are complicit when you put a new ream of paper in the xerox machine. You are complicit when you drink a coke. You are complicit when you take a hot shower. Pretending you are somehow exempt from moral culpability for the oppressive state in which we live is disingenuous at best, delusional at worst. We have got to stop erecting pedestals for ourselves to sit on.

This point makes questionable assumption about what responsibility is. The discrediting of the “We’re only following orders” excuse has led to attacks on any activity that could possibly be described as complicit. But once you make certain common sensical notes – say, that Colonel Stauffenberg wasn’t complicit in Nazi war crimes – you have to change the notion of responsibility.

In The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner talks about a story about a drug dealer who suspected a client of something, and wanted to murder her. The dealer called another client and made him murder her, telling him that if he didn’t shoot her, the dealer would shoot them both. The male client shot the female client as he was told.

Glassner provides this example in an entirely different context, of course. But it’s legitimate to ask what responsibility the male client bears. Morally, he didn’t commit murder; the dealer did. He was just a tool, like the gun and the bullet. He didn’t even commit the sort of negligence that gun manufacturers did, since as explained in the book, he had no way of knowing he’d be told to shoot her. He certainly didn’t have a way out. If we say he’s complicit, it’s only because of our intuition that the person who pulls the trigger bears primary responsibility to the murder.

However, that intuition doesn’t exist with other activities. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that industrial society really is oppressive (which assumption isn’t especially true; the patriarchy had to contort itself into very weird shapes to avoid being killed by capitalism). So what? Responsibility is based on some conception of choice: I’m responsible to killing someone if the actions I chose to take caused his death. Once you remove the ability to choose not to oppress, oppression ceases to be a moral wrong, and people cease to be responsible to oppression.

Beyond the lack of choice, there’s the question of how taking a hot shower is oppressive. It’s somewhat clearer when it comes to drinking coke – Bhopal comes to mind – but even then, the alternatives presented don’t justify calling coke drinkers complicit.

To see why, let’s look at a standard form of protest that involves not drinking coke: boycotting. Coke’s profits are in the billions, so let’s say that to be effective, a boycott needs to reduce revenues by a billion dollars a year. This clearly involves a sacrifice on the part of the boycotters. We can put a dollar value on the sacrifice by looking at the alternatives. For example, for me the alternative to drinking coke is drinking water of about equal volume, which costs about 20% less. For more environmentally conscious people it’s probably tap water, which costs almost 100% less. If the actual sacrifice costs 50% of the price of coke, it means a total sacrifice of $500 million per year.

Now, we can compare that to other activities that involve a sacrifice of $500 million per year. The easiest activity to look at is political contributions. Scaife funded his center-shifting thinktanks about a billion dollars in total, if I remember correctly. So in two years, activists willing to make this sacrifice can prop up their own thinktanks, their own media, their own lobbies, and get not just regulations that will make future Bhopals cost far more than $1 billion per year to the offender, but also fewer wars of aggression, more humanitarian aid, more welfare, and greater enforcement of equal pay law.

Although coke is just one example, the same calculus applies to other activities that are called complicit. When it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter how you behave. The moral culpability you carry for living in a bad society just doesn’t exist. Talking about it is simply the leftist version of the “We’re all sinners” claim; it makes you feel righteous, but it doesn’t change a single thing you want changed.

Even in the original context, Lauren’s point is ill-advised. Lauren made this point mostly in response to attacks on Jill for being complicit in the patriarchy for trying to look good. So in part, the paragraphs I quoted were meant to trivialize the “Personal behavior is oppressive” meme. But all they do is replace “Everyone’s a sinner but me” with “everyone’s a sinner.” If they show Jill’s behavior isn’t wrong because changing it wouldn’t be less oppressive, they also show that none of the listed activities is wrong.

The proper response to insanity isn’t to trivialize it by tacking on more insanity; it’s to call it insanity. When Ann Althouse called Jessica a slut, the entire liberal blogosphere said Althouse was full of shit. Nobody on the left said “We’re all sluts” or tried treating bullshit analysis seriously.

15 Responses to What is Responsibility?

  1. Katie Kish says:

    Personally I think the only points that lauren make that make sense are the ones shes taken from other people or thats she formulated from what other people said.

    Her over all point is one I’ve been stressing time and time again though – to stop the bickering and work as one. But part of that is leaving all this stupid jill shit behind us. This is quickly becoming my one big dislike of the blogosphere – and thats how things get brought up time and time again that a) are old news b) are irrelavent and c) aren’t helping any sort of cause.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    On the contrary: the more you make an effort to work as one, the more your movement will schism. As I said in the thread,

    Usually, the more solidarity your movement requires, the more it’ll schism. “We’re all in this together” is exactly what’s causing this behavior. When you expect other people to have solidarity with you, you’ll be so hurt when they disagree with you on something that you’ll split with them. It’s not a coincidence that the social movements that are based on “We’re all in this together” are those that schism that most. Although the Judean People’s Front was originally a joke about the left, it remains funny if you tweak it to be about Christian fundamentalists (e.g. joke #1 here), who have the same expectation of solidarity.

  3. Stentor says:

    1. Coke had nothing to do with Bhopal — the Bhopal disaster was the release of a chemical used in making pesticides from a Union Carbide plant.

    2. I don’t get your Coke example. Drinking water instead of Coke would save money, which could then be put into activism that would accomplish stuff … so therefore drinking Coke is somehow not oppressive?

  4. Alon Levy says:

    The coke example is more about sacrifices than about saving money. The difference in dollar terms is simply a very crude way of quantifying the sacrifice you’d make by drinking water instead of coke.

    You can of course drink water instead of coke and then spend the money you save on activism. But the impact of not drinking coke will pale in comparison to the impact of spending the money on activism. You’ll get almost the same result in terms of political consequences if you just spend money on activism and save on any other activity.

  5. Lauren says:

    I’m actually referencing the accusations of murders in South America relating to Coca Cola production plants. I don’t know enough to agree with the accusations, but others know what I reference. T-shirts – sweatshop labor. Hot showers – imported gas. Ream of paper – deforestation. My question is how far we want to take this purer than thou question, one that rages activist communities into extinction.

    FWIW, my post was meant to reference many conversations that have been happening all over the blogosphere as well as several progressive publications I’ve mentioned in the past. I’m writing for the audience that’s familiar with my past writings (and others’) here as a plea, not necessarily expecting people outside these conversations to know what I’m talking about.

    For further reference to the ideas I reference — especially relating to the patriarchy/industrialization divide that you indicate you don’t get — see Derrick Jensen, specifically The Culture of Make Believe. It’s a good narrative and well-researched.

  6. Lauren says:

    Forgive me, it’s late. I talk funny.

  7. Lauren says:

    Hot showers – imported gas.

    And wasted water.

    Drag me away from the computer already.

  8. Katie Kish says:

    Alon there is no way in hell you’re going to convince me that working in a dog eat dog environment is going to create any sort of progress. You can’t have people bitching at one another for wearing makeup and make progress with people who don’t even understand why one should or shouldn’t wear the makeup.

    I understand the logicstics behind what you’re saying, completely, but that doesn’t mean its not complete bs in some circumstances. you have to have a certain ‘oneness’ in order to create any sort of progress.

    Arguments are good in some cases – example the kyoto protocol – without all the bitching and fighting it wouldn’t have been exposed to the bigger group of people that its complete bs and will never work.

    But then collectively we have to work toward a common goal… and not bitch with each about whats more important and what diserves more attention and what one person should or shouldn’t be doing as individual.

    Lauren – I understood what you meant with the coke reference but I still side wtih alon on how much it doesn’t make sense.

    This is one time —

    *one time! i’ll never admit it again*

    — that I will admit to partially siding with alon on the “it doesn’t matter how you live the movement” because it really doesn’t.

    But there are two sides to this – you can accept that you are only 1 person in the 1.3 billion servings a day that coke takes part in thus recognizing that you really wont make a difference by not drinking coke – or you can recognize that coke sexually harasses their workers and is involved with a ton of union busting operations…

    Thus you can decide not to support that – but again, coke isn’t going to miss your support.

    And Lauren – you can target your posts to who ever the hell you want – doesn’t matter. “Outsiders” have read it – bottom line, deal with it.

  9. Katie Kish says:

    wow. sorry about that last sentence or two. I’m not *that* bitchy.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    I’ll check Jensen’s book tomorrow. My main point here is that it’s not that industrial society itself is patriarchal, but that the patriarchy has adapted to it. In those countries where it didn’t have time, like many developing countries, have surprisingly high levels of gender equality on indicators that measure the urban middle- and upper classes. For example, if I remember correctly 32% of India’s scientists are women, compared with 13% of the USA’s.

    And I’m actually familiar with most of the conversations you’re talking about. I haven’t commented on most of them, because successive posts that say something along the lines of “Who gives a damn whether Jill waxes?” will bore my readers even more than my number theory blogging.

    But even within those conversations, my point stands. “Nobody cares about how activist leaders live their lives” is equally valid everywhere. The social or political gain from changes in personal behavior is negligible to nonexistent. It pales in comparison to the gain from political activism or even directly convincing people. Take the discussion on Feministe about what blogging accomplishes. Even at a persuasion rate of a reader in a thousand, which is apparently low-end, just blogging about political or social issues does far more than boycotting a product.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    And Katie, who says there even has to be a shared work environment? Unless any of the people I argue with online goes to Yearly Kos, I’ll probably never see him/her face-to-face. There’s a reason solidarity-based movements never go anywhere: the advantages they get from closer trust and more intense activism are offset by the infighting and splits.

  12. Lauren says:

    Warning, Jensen is a bit preachy, but I overlook that because I think it’s an important narrative.

  13. Lauren says:

    And Lauren – you can target your posts to who ever the hell you want – doesn’t matter. “Outsiders” have read it – bottom line, deal with it.

    Well, no shit. I’m pointing out why my post may have been unclear to Alon, et al. To see people who did get it, go here and check the comments.

    Personally I think the only points that lauren make that make sense are the ones shes taken from other people or thats she formulated from what other people said.

    Why, thank you! I do parrot well.

    But there are two sides to this – you can accept that you are only 1 person in the 1.3 billion servings a day that coke takes part in thus recognizing that you really wont make a difference by not drinking coke – or you can recognize that coke sexually harasses their workers and is involved with a ton of union busting operations…

    I don’t boycott Coke, I fucking drink it. I don’t know where y’all get this boycott thing from.

    “Nobody cares about how activist leaders live their lives” is equally valid everywhere. The social or political gain from changes in personal behavior is negligible to nonexistent.

    I beg to differ. People do care how their activist leaders live their lives, otherwise this gay tweaker minister scandal wouldn’t have any steam. That’s not what I was intending to get at in my post.

    It pales in comparison to the gain from political activism or even directly convincing people. Take the discussion on Feministe about what blogging accomplishes. Even at a persuasion rate of a reader in a thousand, which is apparently low-end, just blogging about political or social issues does far more than boycotting a product.

    Word. And that’s exactly why I’m asking for people to end the “better feminist/liberal/woman than you” pettiness.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    I beg to differ. People do care how their activist leaders live their lives, otherwise this gay tweaker minister scandal wouldn’t have any steam.

    It has more steam in the mainstream media than among right-wingers, it seems. Redstate is really cavalier about that issue; the blogger said, “The leader of my movement is called Jesus Christ.”

    But at any rate, I suppose “nobody cares” is a worse waying of putting it than “it doesn’t matter.” Progressive movements have achieved great things with clean leaders, and great things with corrupt leaders. Politics is about ideas, not people. More practically, so far I haven’t seen any evidence that if Jill waxes, other young women will follow and soon men will demand yet other girls to wax.

    Ultimately I think we agree here that the cattiness trap is a real problem; we only disagree on the strategy of how to respond to it.

    By the way, I brought up boycotting coke as an example of responsibility. If and only if there are serious evils in the world that will be solved by not drinking coke, then drinking coke makes you complicit in them. My argument is then that not drinking coke is a very inefficient solution to these evils, compared with solutions that don’t involve a boycott.

  15. Stentor says:

    It has more steam in the mainstream media than among right-wingers, it seems.
    Funny how the people who would be hurt by a scandal are downplaying its significance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: