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Right Lifestyle, or Right Livelihood?

December 26, 2009

I ran across an excellent blog yesterday, NellaLou’s Smiling Buddha Cabaret. Several posts there got me thinking, in particular a recent one on Right Lifestyle.

In this post, she links to a couple of good ones at Open Left, Self-Delusion and the Lie of Lifestyle Activism and its followup Part II: The Distortions of Lifestyle Politics. As NellaLou writes:

Both articles and their comments are worth reading for anyone who’s ever participated in any kind of cause-oriented behavior. I personally do agree with the gist of the statements as well as some, but not all, of the points presented…

The principle point which is not strongly stated is that these types of activism and politics do not involve any examination of the lifestyle itself. And that lifestyle involves maximizing physical, psychological and social comfort and material acquisition. They are very shallow activities which do not address any sort of social structural changes…

The focus in this example and other instances of much Lifestyle Activism relies primarily on the purchaser feeling good about themselves and their own activism. It is exactly the same strategy corporations accused of “greenwashing” use. The consumer is made to feel heroic in their purchasing choices. And it gives the consumer the added socio-cultural leverage of being able to flaunt their choices to others. It is an indicator of self-aggrandizement and the power of First World high status privilege.

I was glad to run across this term, having seen more than enough examples in action. I’d been casting it as a subtype of Guilty White Liberal behavior, and it does tend to fall into that category; it’s also common enough that a term is handy.

This sort of thing is one of the major reasons I have fallen into armchair activism these past few years. Not every group is like this, surely, but I’ve encountered far too many people more interested in being seen to be doing the Right Thing (by their narrowly circumscribed standards) than in actually doing anything substantive. It gets frustrating, especially once you’ve disagreed enough on what is actually likely to help other people (hint: find out what they really need, instead of deciding what’s good for them) that you find yourself also chucked into the lumpen end of the “Less Virtuous ‘Others'” category, as described in Self-Delusion and the Lie of Lifestyle Activism:

People who eat crappy food and drive a polluting cars are more “dirty” and less “virtuous” than lifestyle activists. They don’t really “understand” what they are doing. They don’t “care” enough. They don’t really “understand” that they should be taking their time to create community gardens or joining a community farm co-op.

People who don’t think it matters that much if they own a big car, or who throw away bottles are a key problem with our world. We need to educate them to see the light. And, not surprisingly, middle-class professional activists are often focused on “education” as the solution to social problems (and modeling for others, of course, is a good start).

In this way, lifestyle activism serves to separate “us” from the unwashed masses of “them.”

Yeah, in short, this approach also relies on multiple sets of mental widgets which my mind just doesn’t do. These authors’ analyses of what might actually be motivating a lot of the folks I’ve had trouble with really do explain a lot! We’ve had very different sets of goals in mind. Putting it harshly, Lifestyle Activism is a thinly veiled face of wétiko pack behavior, which my mind also just doesn’t do.

Still, I have occasionally been concerned about falling into rather clichéd Lifestyle Activism myself. At least right now, I am middle class. I do my best to recycle stuff. I buy legitimate-seeming Fairtrade items like coffee and bananas–sometimes organically grown too, but I did get pesticide poisoned by bananas as a kid! I choose other organically grown specific items when we can afford it, to avoid especially heavily pesticide-treated produce that I don’t have room to grow myself. I get around most of the time by walking or cycling when pain doesn’t keep me from it. When I have a car again* I want to run it off vegetable oil. I’m a pescetarian at the moment, mainly to help meet temporarily high energy and fatty acid needs; I also don’t have much problem with eating responsibly hunted or fished wild animals. I use a lot of DIY and less toxic commercial cleaning products, both because of a lot of allergies and because the idea of putting a lot of the stuff sold into the air and down the drain appalls me. I’m fairly heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy at this point. And so on, and so on.

In short, at first glance I could well be mistaken for a Lifestyle Activist. A number of them have mistaken me for one of their “In” Group–for a while, at least.

The difference? I question my own motives, and try to keep grounded in critical thinking and moderation (rather than the “grasping after perfection” I’ve been trying to let go). “Greenwashing” offends me, and makes me far less likely to buy stuff; I’m an anticonsumerist, in general. Having been poor helped me see consumerist grasping and social rankings based on this as unappealing and destructive, to put it mildly. Even though I am all too aware that my personal choices make very little difference in the scheme of things–especially if divorced from real action!–I try to live in agreement with what seems right, and likely to cause less harm. The way I try to live is based more on my own ethical ideals than on social considerations, and finding/creating other groups of people to look down on.

Or at least I like to think so. This may be coming from more self delusion.

A recent post I enjoyed over at BroadSnark ties in very well here, Anarchy as Responsibility:

Conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility. By that they mean taking responsibility for your own well being and perhaps that of your family and community. But if you are not within the circle, what that comes down to is “fend for yourself.”

Liberals talk about taking responsibility for the less fortunate. By that they mean donating time or money to organizations (that employ other liberals) and letting them help people in need. But that creates dependency and doesn’t question the privilege underlying their altruism.

Anarchism, as a system based on cooperation, addresses the weaknesses in both liberal and conservative philosophies.

Like conservatives, anarchists think we should be taking personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities. But where conservatives want to put up a wall, beyond which their responsibilities don’t go, anarchists have always understood that resolving our problems requires taking responsibility on a worldwide scale.

Like liberals, anarchists are concerned with the vast majority of people who struggle to have even the basic necessities of life. But anarchists don’t want to install themselves in positions of power where they can met out drips and drabs of whatever liberals have been willing to give up. Anarchists want to work side by side with people, questioning the hierarchies and privileges that cause those inequities. We are not creating dependency, we are recognizing interdependency…

If we want problems to be solved, we need to take responsibility for solving them. And anarchism is a philosophy built around taking responsibility.

That describes many of the problems I have had with the ways in which the word “responsibility” is frequently used. This author is using the term very much as I think of it; gadugi is based in this kind of responsibility and pragmatism. (Including ideas of “detsadasalidihesdi, we raise one another up; detsadatliyvsesdi, we hang on to one another unconditionally; and detsadalvquodes, we’re stingy with one another (hold on tightly), which is about the only context in which being stingy is a good thing”.) This responsibility does not only extend to humans.

One recent post from Amanda at Ballastexistenz really resonated with me again, and deserves a response of its own: Dealing with Cats, Part 1: What is respect?

I believe that everything, human or not, animal or not, conventionally considered alive at all or not, is worthy of respect.

I do not believe this in some fluffy insubstantial manner; fluffy sorts of people have been attracted to me in the past because the words I use superficially resemble words they sometimes use, but as soon as they find out a bit of what I am actually about they have a habit of running away rapidly. It is serious to me, solid, and ethically demanding. I also happen to believe that everything communicates and can be communicated with. I do not mean sitting around speaking out loud to rocks and having them speak out loud back. I mean that everything conveys information to everything else, whether or not that information is transmitted through the laws of physics or through complex linguistic patterns.

What she describes is very close indeed to the way I have always perceived things. This didn’t conflict so much with my immediate culture growing up, but I did seem to take it further than most people I knew; as I got older and spent more time immersed in dominant U.S. (and now U.K.) culture, just how uncommon this view is became more obvious. Respect and responsibility go hand in hand. Yes, fluffy people have also run away from me, including Right Lifestyle types and some Neopagans**; some of them have even concluded that their interpretations of my views made me “dark” and “negative”.

A couple of other posts I ran across recently may be interesting in the context of Right Lifestyle vs. Right Livelihood (which does not have to be dressed in Buddhism): NellaLou’s Gratitude vs Gratification-a little Pali exercise, and Compassion and Pity at Daily Buddhism.

Now I’m a bit concerned that this post looks like an exercise in self-justification, if not trying to brag about How Great Urocyon Is. (As compared to those “Less Virtuous ‘Others'”?) That wasn’t my intent. Sort of like the gender and sexual identity post–which has attracted far more readers than expected!–this post mostly comes from my trying to sort my thoughts and motivations out, aloud. Maybe someone else will find these observations useful in sorting out their own.


* I’m from the Virginia mountains, and just assumed a car would also be necessary on the fringes of Greater London. It’s 5.5 years, and we still don’t have one. It’s a pain sometimes, but mostly works out OK.

** No disclaimer should be necessary, but I am not talking about anywhere near all Neopagans I have known and hung around with.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2009 11:44 am

    The thing about “education” fixing everything… I have seen it somany times before and it’s fricking INSULTING. “The reason you don’t do this really expensive thing is because you don’t KNOW better.”. Grrrrrrrr. And yet when I really NEED someone to use their class privilege to help me, where are they? Oh yeah, they’re over there squirming and looking uncomfortable that I am trying to demand some basic (without it I will die) thing as my right, especially since desperation always looks so IMPOLITE (not to mention dirty and disturbing) by middle class standards. So they would rather watch me die than help, although they might toss a book on “how to do impossibly expensive things” at me while I am busy drowning and screaming (how rude) for help. And that will make them smile and glow with virtuousness as I go under.

  2. December 26, 2009 12:12 pm

    Oh and an example of the fluffy thing:

    A woman invited me over, and told me to try eating a leaf of a potted plant. I did so, and she was scandalized: “You didn’t say thank you!”. As if saying thank you out loud to a plant is going to make a difference to the plant, or is the only way to show respect. That woman ended up running from me a year later when she realized my life wasn’t sufficiently purified to her liking.

  3. December 27, 2009 4:36 am

    Great post. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote:

    People who eat crappy food and drive a polluting cars are more “dirty” and less “virtuous” than lifestyle activists. They don’t really “understand” what they are doing. They don’t “care” enough. They don’t really “understand” that they should be taking their time to create community gardens or joining a community farm co-op.

    I feel that the root of the problem is that “lifestyle activists” are more concerned about personal purity than they are with actually saving the planet by changing policies. We could all recycle and ride our bikes and buy energy efficient light bulbs and eat vegan but that wouldn’t solve the environmental problem, because the environmental problem largely the result of corporate and government activity, not individual activity.

    This is not to say that we can totally separate individual activity from corporate or government activity, but in spite of their interconnectedness the fact remains that “lifestyle activism” does not accomplish much, even wide scale lifestyle activism. Often all it does is create niche markets for lifestyle activists, who can then feel warm and fuzzy inside about “buying organic” and increasing their personal purity. Meanwhile, the corporations and the governments they have bought off continue to destroy the natural environment, oppressing impoverished workers and indigenous communities at home and abroad, and waging war.

    In all fairness to lifestyle activists, I do think that the traditional avenues of resistance (street protests, writing letters to Congress, mass movements, etc) have become totally impotent and ineffectual. There is often an extreme sense of powerlessness, and it becomes very difficult to see what else we can do on anything other than a personal level. And while I think making personal changes is a positive and necessary first step, we can’t just stop there. And have to keep asking tough questions, we have to think outside the box the system has handed us, and we have to be willing to face the frightening reality that in spite of all our “lifestyle changes” the problems persist and may be getting worse. That’s not “negative energy”, it’s just reality, and while we may resent its intrusion into our comfy, groovy little circle of lifestyle activism, the whole purpose of activism is to effect actual changes in the real world, not just to feel good about oneself. It’s like the difference between giving money to charity (which is a good thing to do) and attacking the root causes of poverty which make charities necessary (which is a great thing to do, and far more effective in the long term even if it is also more difficult and more dangerous).

  4. December 28, 2009 3:13 am

    Yes, thank you! These are things that have bothered me, too.

    The image of building up a wall beyond which one’s responsibilities do not extend is a very helpful one, and one which encapsulates so many of my problems with mainstream liberalism.

    Anymore, I tend to think the only differences between conservatives and liberals is where they decide to put the wall.

  5. December 28, 2009 3:14 am

    (Also, *big* fat “yes” to everything Kaosu just said!)


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