activism,  politics,  the ethical life

The true reason I haven’t been involved in political activism for a while: not time shortage but fear of being wrong.

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Life is complicated. I look back at so many things I used to believe and I don’t hold those beliefs anymore. The knowledge of how my beliefs have changed makes me a bit more hesitant to express my beliefs. What if I say something now, and then look back at it a few years later and think “oh, how ignorant that was?”

That is, of course, the reality of life. We all should be growing, changing, and accepting that our beliefs don’t hold still and we shouldn’t let that stop us from speaking about what we believe now. Yet perhaps it still needs to shape our actions. The awareness that we could be wrong about anything makes a good addition to our moral toolkit, to our ways of shaping what we believe is right or wrong.

I think about this MacLean’s article about someone finding a SOS from a worker who produced the Halloween Decorations she bought. The note asked that it be passed on to a human right’s group, but the woman wrote:

Still, I second-guessed my decision afterward. Some people told me that because I publicized the letter, people in Masanjia would be punished, so I should have minded my own business. Had I endangered people halfway around the world, or upset the Chinese government? Maybe. Despite this awakening, I didn’t fully understand the consequences.

To take action – to stand for what one believes is right – is so incredibly important. And yet, there’s always that possibility of unintended consequences.

We can’t stop all unintended consequences. We can’t freeze and remain inactive because of fears of unintended consequences. Yet we need to be willing to learn, to listen to those who might be harmed, and to admit our mistakes.

I used to volunteer with a breastfeeding support organization and believe, oh, so much of the propaganda that I no longer believe! Breastfeeding is great. I loved it. But, I was wrong to think that people just need more support or that the benefits it brings are so overwhelming women should feel bad not doing it. They shouldn’t. Fed is best. No one can look at kindergarteners and tell which were breastfed or not. The long term benefits do not outweigh the harm done by pushing breastfeeding on those who don’t want to or who struggle to produce enough milk. It’s a silly thing that I got caught up in and as an individual I probably didn’t do too much harm, though I feel bad about some things I said.

However, hospitals are realizing that the “baby friendly” breastfeeding promoting policies they adopted are not consequence free. There are unintended consequences. Some of the policies are quite dangerous. I wonder how many hospitals are reversing the policies. Science based medicine has to be able to admit mistakes and correct it, but humans tend to dig in and defend what they have invested in.

(Note: I use the example of breastfeeding activism just because it is an example of both individual activism and institutionalized policies based on ideology. My involvement in the breastfeeding organization was generally a positive community thing in my life and it definitely is not “why I am hesitant to speak out on things now.” It is just one of many things that keeps reminding me to be humble about beliefs.)

I think the desire to not make mistakes again – to do things right – is part of why there’s a growing emphasis on listening to people with “lived experience.” The idea is that if we listen to the people affected by policies, we will make better policies. And that’s true, in a way, but there’s also problems with that. For example, there’s a push that if prostitutes say they are sex workers and that sex work is just like any other work, we should listen to them and believe them. Yet there’s problems in that too. First of all, many of the vocal voices there promoting that come from privileged positions within the range of sex workers / prostituted women. A woman working as an escort in a wealthy community may experience her work quite differently than a woman lured into a legal brothel with the promise of a job housecleaning only to agree to prostitution when her family’s lives are threatened. Or even a woman who voluntarily enters the field at a street corner and advocates for it now may at some point realize that it was a bad option forced upon her by poverty and a lifetime of trauma and that destigmatizing it doesn’t make it safer.

People often speak out of a sense of defensiveness or attempting to justify their current decisions. That isn’t too say we shouldn’t listen to others voices, even if their view might be biased for various reasons. But it does mean we can’t just uncritically accept others views. Everything needs to be held in balance.

But we can’t let “holding things in balance” be an excuse to not take actions or to not speak out. The middle isn’t always the best. We can’t say “both sides have valid points” and just leave it there. If and when both sides of an issue have valid points (and they don’t always) we need to take those valid points and wrestle with them to find new positions, new ideas, new possibilities.

I used to be a strong believer in organic, locally produced food. Learning more about poverty – as well as about the challenges of producing ethically harvested organic food – has made me more skeptical of the idea that we can buy our way to a better world. I start to see the way buying organic becomes virtue signalling and how it comes out of a privileged position where one can afford to spend extra. I started to realize that our capitalist system is perfectly willing to have expensive organic food exist in conjunction with less ethically produced food and that buying organic won’t stop the harms of the conventional food. To get a better food system accessible to all we’re going to have to apply regulations to the mass producers of food, bringing them in line.

Yet that belief that regulation is necessary has been part of my hesitancy towards charity. No, not hesitant to giving to charity, but hesitant to believe in it as a means of improving the world. We can’t rely on charity. We need justice, I tend to think. We need economic justice. Environmental justice. Social justice. Regulation. Yet, as I recognize the possibilities for mistakes and the difficulties in trying to find good policies, my mind flits back to charity. At least we can do something as individuals. At least we can help one person. Someone I was interviewing recently talked about that in the context of talking about the Dutch Resistance Movement during WWII. They knew they couldn’t stop everything, but they did what they could.

There have been lots of little things pushing me to think about these topics. One of them has been the discussions I’ve had with Outschool teachers. I’ll embed one of the videos here. This is a video of a conversation I had with Michelle Parrinello-Cason about a class she’s teaching on The Good Place.

In the Good Place there’s on character – Chidi – who suffers from analysis paralysis. I think I’ve been suffering from that too quite a bit. As an individual I don’t need to know how to fix the problem of prostitution – though even using that word or the phrase “sex workers” ends up taking a political position – and I don’t need to set the policies for hospitals on how to support breastfeeding without guilting mothers or creating other unintended consequences. However, I know we live in a world filled with injustice. I do need to find ways in which I can work to promote justice. Somehow. In some way. I can’t just say “oh, it’s all to complicated, so what does it matter if the products I buy are made by slave labour?” I have just been making excuses recently, and I need to stop that.

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One Comment

  • Margaret Beresford

    Wobbling is the word I would use to describe this thoughtful explanation for ‘second guessing’, any action which might be considered controversial.
    Balderdash. In truth, if all our paid government officials and legal wogs had done their due-diligence in 2008, and brought our legal system to bear on those investigated and found afoul of all our nation’s laws, our entire global system and the rules, would have strengthened all of our acts (small or costly).

    Its as if a crack with no air has created a void between us, that have always paid and those that now, are so numerous with money/power, they can simply flaunt laws, borders , even the lives of unknown others. That’s where our fears began and need desperately to see them finally be fully readdressed, permanently.

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