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.