Tag Archives: social justice

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

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Reading Qf&p Chapter 23: Social responsibility

“Evils which have struck their roots deep into the fabric of human society are often accepted, even by the best minds, as part of the providential ordering of life.” – William Charles Braithwaite, 1919, 23:05

Of all the memorable passages in the chapter, this one has remained with me since our discussion at Watford Meeting last Sunday. It raises a number of questions; some, obviously, are about what we should do about these evils once we know what they are, but I am more interested in the first stage – identifying them as evils. What injustice or other evil might I be unable to notice because it simply looks like the fabric of society?

History can help to illustrate some of the possibilities (slavery, disenfranchisement of women, colonialism, etc.), but of course the point is that we can see the evil in these social patterns very well with hindsight; people at the time struggled to see, and even now there are people who fall into the same patterns (of racism and xenophobia, for example). Some of these evils may mutate through time, taking many forms but apparently never disappearing (even in this country, let along worldwide, we are hardly free of anti-Semitism among many others). How can we come to see the evils which are in our society today?

Braithwaite suggests two ways. One is that there may eventually come a direct threat to human welfare arising from the evil in question – perhaps this is where we are with pollution and others issues around care for the environment today. Sometimes, though, people seem to be wilfully blind to suffering, even at home, even when their actions or states of society which benefit them are directly implicated. (It’s easy to be blind to suffering which can be declared someone else’s responsibility). Having identified these evils it is possible to create a plan for responding – how ineffective it is, I can at least write to my MP, donate to charity, or change my lifestyle in response to problems which I have identified and which are also at least partially visible to others in society.

The other way Braithwaite suggests we might bring these evils into the light is by ‘dragging’ them there, something he says will require people “of keen vision and heroic heart”. This is good; if we can see and name an injustice, we may be able to bring it to the attention of others, even if this is difficult.

It doesn’t solve the core problem, however. How do we see these things in the first place? I can sometimes see injustices which are being done to me – although I am often encouraged to view them as personal failings rather than social problems. I can sometimes see evils visited upon my nearest and dearest – although they may not see them in the same way. I also need to be listening to those of “keen vision and heroic heart” in other parts of society – people who through my blindness I might be inclined to discount or might never meet in the first place – in order to break through the blocks which my society, and my social training, set up.

TL;DR – the development of Quaker social testimony could benefits from insights from Standpoint Theory.