Depressing and wonderful at the same time…

I’ve been a (not entirely bleeding edge) user of social media for some time now, particularly taking an interest in what Australian political/media wonks of a generally left inclination have had to say about this, that and whatever. I’ve been lurking, mostly, satisfied to let other people do the speaking, despite finding a few incidents, and a few individuals, repugnant.

Anyone who’s familiar with my writing, I think will find that I’m one to extend the benefit of the doubt, taking accusations and the like seriously. Serious claims needing serious evidence, not just in the courts, but in discussion in general.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of incidents over the past six years of this escapade where I’ve given the benefit of the doubt. At not insignificant risk of being mistaken as naive, I might add.

(It’s funny in these instances, when people think they’re humoring you).

In most cases, I think I’ve been vindicated. Not in a ‘guilt has yet to be established’ kind of way, but rather in that in many cases, best expectations have been exceeded.

In particular (I’ll name names on this side of the ledger) I think Rod McGuinness, Dave Gaukroger and a handful of others, come across as being better than I’d ever given them credit for at first glances. Not that I ever thought they were slouches to begin with.

This is the wonderful upside. I’m glad these people are alive and sharing their minds with us.

I’ve had reason to reflect a little (actually a lot) of late, especially after a brief online conversation with Tammi Jonas. I’ve been scratching my beardless chin in rumination about what it is to be genuinely left, as opposed to being someone who merely identifies uncritically with concerns seen to be left, as if these were accessories to be worn like a scarf. Moreover, I’ve been thinking about how this can actually constitute a kind of right-wingedness, when superficially espoused leftishness is a means to a purely self-interested end (career, attention-seeking and so on).

(You can imagine what I think of so-called progressives who peddle the Othering of bogans).

There is a downside to all of this of course. I’m rummaging through the sum of my experiences over a long period of time, in a way I’d usually parse in an ad hoc fashion.

The downside is that while some people seem better, more genuine upon reflection, others…

I’ve defended some of these others, on occasion, and on the merits of these defences, I can’t say that I regret doing so. I can’t say in any honesty though, that everyone I’ve interacted with online, or who’ve I’ve been watching, specifically those who outwardly demonstrate typically left leanings, fare very well against a charge of fake leftishness.

And this is assuming a pretty broad definition of left – I’m not assuming that people have to be a politically radical Marxist to be genuinely left, rather just committed to increasing the lot of the down-and-out. Even then, I’m finding myself losing respect for people on account of not being what they claim to be.

I’m occasionally seeing what I once passed off as human error, as more significant that I’d admitted. I’m finding that I’ve been too fair in the past with people I’ve associated with. I’m finding that I may have been inconsistent.

(The fear is that this is a tribal thing, which would make me somewhat of a hypocrite, because I don’t like political tribalism).

I’m finding I can’t agree to disagree on a lot where I have in the past. While there are many things with many answers and solutions, granting ample space for people to reasonably disagree, some things just can’t be right, by definition.

At worst, it’s when one of these supposed lefties have expected some kind of deference, or peer-status, or recognition, when they are obviously wrong, and when it’s obvious they haven’t done the legwork of someone who genuinely cares. I’m finding good reason, upon reflection, to really not like some people.

So I’m glad for the upside, of course!

~ Bruce

That would be the smell of hypocrisy cooking…

I don’t know that it’s hypocrisy, technically. The public recantation of my meat-eating has long since been made.

Finding this photo from a few years back, posted in one of my Facebook albums, has prompted some curious thoughts.

I joked about finding a tofu alternative – May 2009.

Actually, no, no, it was hypocrisy. Assuming my values at the time, vegetarianism followed.

I suspect this may be a good part of the reason some meat eaters resort to ad hoc rationalisations, defensiveness, and outright silliness, when someone merely discusses vegetarianism in their presence. That their own values point towards not eating meat, yet they’re for whatever reason unable to realise these values, having their noses unintentionally rubbed in it whenever someone else’s ethical success reflects poorly on them.

It bothers me, a little, when I’m told I’m denying myself by not eating meat. What exactly am I denying, my instincts or my values?

Sometimes, being human, it’s my instinct to throttle people. You don’t get to live in the land of the bogan without being tested like this sometimes.

But still, I don’t go around thumping people left right and centre (or much at all whenever I can avoid it). This kind of aggression is contrary to my values.

Would people have me change this – that I deny my values and indulge my instincts? What if we all lived like this? Yeah, I thought not.

So if we’re talking about values, who’s denying themselves?

Maybe the defensive omnivore has other values in addition to what we share about the well-being of animals – pragmatism and other mitigating values. But why then the ad hoc defensiveness? Why not just state these mitigating values coherently?

It’s not convincing, really.

‘Well I’m glad you’ve got it all worked out now, Mr Lah-dee-dah’.

Yeah, I guess I don’t want to get too cocky. I’ve eaten meat for most of my life, actions out of line with values.

I often give converts of one kind or another (theist-to-atheist, left-to-right, working-to-middle-class etc.) shit for being too overzealous, and I stand by the judgement. I guess I’ll have to make sure my behaviour as a convert to vegetarianism falls in-line with this ethos.

~ Bruce

Ethical vegetarianism and compromise

Early last week, I had a little chat via Twitter with the Spark The Conversation crowd on the matter of choosing between a principled but poor life, and selling out your morals to be wealthy. Notably, I’m a piss-poor lumpenprole.

I’m not sure what the boundary between developed-world poverty, and developed-world getting-by is in monetary terms, but I’m close. I get by on less than the aspirationals, although it helps that I don’t have a housing loan or children to burn money on.

So what would be the upside of my selling out? Well, I’ve been told it’s not too late for me to enter into the world of professional fishing. I could probably still make quite a bit of money this way if I applied myself to it.

There’s the obvious barrier of course. I don’t kill animals if I don’t have to, and I don’t get other people to do it for me; I’ve made an ethical decision not to be a party to inflicting this kind of suffering. Obviously, this rules out fishing.

There are degrees of commitment, and a spectrum of values in relation to the matter. Some people are weekend meat-eaters attempting to lower their environmental footprint, while others are lacto-ovo vegetarian every day of the week because it forms a Diderot unity with their newsboy caps and teashades. Others again won’t drink milk in order to keep the fairies at the bottom of the garden happy, and then of course, there are those who eat meat with an array of motivations for doing so (and those who don’t think about it at all).

Now unless you’re the vegetarian Übermensch (is that even possible?) or the last human on Earth, you’re going to have to deal with other people holding at least some of these values. You’ll have to treat these values as either rationally non-binding (within practical or definitional boundaries – I’ll spare us all the meta-ethics), or even just practically outside the realm of discussion. You’ll have to compromise at some point (even ending your association is a kind of compromise).

Which brings the discussion up to about last Friday night, when I was out having dinner with a couple of local Humanists. Vegetarians outnumbered meat-eaters two-to-one, and a conversation was sparked!

I was the overzealous new guy on the vegetarian block (it’s been about two years now), being a bit of a know-it-all (not that it got me into trouble), when I had the issue of compromise raised smack bang in front of my face. I managed to swerve at the last-minute, only clipping the corner of my ego.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself, having been able to say (to Spark The Conversation) that I’d chosen not to compromise myself, that this had saved me having to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics, and that I had no regrets. But at what juncture can you practically compromise with the rest of the world, without compromising your values?

I have for example, let someone eat a hamburger in my house – months ago, mind you. Just how much then, has my moral agency contributed towards the demand for beef? What percent (if any) of a dead cow am I responsible for on account of this tolerance?

What if I did have kids? What if they refused vegetarian meals?

What happens if in the workplace, I become part of the chain-of-custody of an animal-product that involved suffering?

The rule I think, in preventing compromise from becoming moral bankruptcy, is down to how much agency you’re allowed by other people. That without allowing yourself to become too small, you make sure undesired moral choices are reasonably outside your control, and that within the scope of your agency, you consistently make decisions in-line with your values.

Then the question then becomes one of how to get on with other people in a way that either increases your agency, or at least doesn’t see it sidelined, in addition to challenging other people to think critically about ethics. Welcome to politics (and confusion).

~Bruce

Note: Spark The Conversation will be holding an event at the Melbourne Fringe Festival on the 1st and 2nd of October, where ‘Eloise Maree facilitates the participant’s engagement with their own personal truths and subjective opinions’. The event will be live streamed, and involve online participation via social media.

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)