I’ll be the first to admit it, I arrogantly consider myself a liberal, altruistic, charitable individual who (often aggressively) shouts out for humanitarian activism and publicly flaunts acts of social crusading. I sign and make petitions, boycott, rally, lobby, heckle and dabble in a spot of protest to the point of your exasperation. Most of it I do sitting on my arse in a swivel chair. And I’m not the only one. Everybody has their own pet philanthropism; be it the preservation of London’s green belt, mice being doused in hydrochloric acid, Amazon’s magnificent tax evasion, Putin’s dubious-schoolboy homophobia, there’s always A Thing that Ruins People’s Lives that we will lay into and go up in arms over. Unless, of course, you’re a horrible person/moron who couldn’t care less. Tell me you’ve never signed a petition and I’ll eat my head.

In the end, it’s all pretty absurd given that virtually everything we indulge in throughout the day equates to pelting shit at someone else. Look at me boycotting Starbucks because they don’t pay their taxes! I’m a martyr for the downtrodden. Now instead I’ll just go home and brew myself a nice cup Tetley’s made from tea leaves hand-picked by Indian children living amid cesspools on $3 a day.

Fashion is another biggie. There was the recent scandal over Urban Outfitters glorifying mental health problems by plastering “EAT LESS” and “DEPRESSION” all over their t-shirts. Sure, as a recovering anorexic, I see that sort of thing as damaging and I would boycott UO’s products if I ever actually shopped there to start with. However, if I wanted to boycott all morally questionable retailers, I would probably begin with those like Nike or Primark, and eventually end up being naked or crafting outfits from my own hair because of the void in affordable, ethically manufactured fashion.

The environment is my personal fave. I recycle anally, wear (sweatshop made) jumpers when it’s cold and fancy Al Gore. Everyone likes to do their bit and looks in horror at the environmental damage being done across the globe, especially when melting ice caps or deforestation is shown to us in the form of an infographic. Yet many of us still use petroleum oil pilfered by Shell in the Niger Delta, an industry which has displaced natives and continues fuelling violence and obliteration. Aha, but I don’t drive, one point to me! But I do have an account with Barclays/HSBC and buy deodorant from Superdrug, who fund the destruction of Canadian tar sands by oil conglomerates. It’s all inextricably linked, see?

Or maybe human welfare isn’t your kind of gig. You might be sickened by Harrods for selling mink pelts because of that video you saw where adorable little foxies are peeled into screaming harlequin-baby lookalikes, but have no qualms tucking into that Mars bar which, after a lengthy research process of bunny slaughter, has finally, deliciously, found its way to your mouth. Why is it just cute animals anyway? I guess that fully conscious cow they whose trachea they just ripped out with a meat hook or the salmon they pump with colourants and antibiotics just don’t feel pain in the same way.

I remember the day I decided I would only ever buy free range eggs. I got so caught up in my own benevolence that I even began to secretly disdain anyone who didn’t. On criticising my own parents for not doing the same, the response was “do you buy free range ham?” To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “you have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” I realised that day that if I want to be a saint, I have to reconsider everything I do, not just the mainstream stuff. Be an ethical hipster, if you will. Or if you won’t.

Me with Parisians circa 2007 trying to offset some Western guilt

Me with Parisians circa 2007 trying to offset some Western guilt

Of course there are varying levels of livelihood destruction, from minor malice to full-on civil war. Maybe some issues concern us more than others so we’re more willing to act on our consumer behaviour, or there are certain things we’re just not aware of because of infinitesimal media coverage. It would be nigh-on impossible for us, as first-worlders, to live our lives completely clean from the exploitation of the less fortunate, and it’s endearing in some ways how we twist our knickers over some issues and not others, often depending on what our mate shared on Facebook or what we saw on TV. I don’t want to preach because I don’t necessarily practise; I just wish we would all look at ourselves and laugh pitiably whenever we think we’re doing something for the good of mankind because all factors considered, we probably just aren’t. Nonetheless, I’ll also be the first to admit, and exemplify, that there’s nothing wrong with a naïve sense of morality.

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  • meg
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    “In the end, it’s all pretty absurd given that virtually everything we indulge in throughout the day equates to pelting shit at someone else.”

    You write so well, but i don’t know why you are so keen to slate individuals at the expense of focusing on real world *systematic inequalities* which make the mass phenomenon of economic injustice and consumer behaviour you vividly depict possible in the first place.

    Yes, the material and economic basis of Western social life means, firstly, nobody gets out of ignorance easy and, secondly, it’s a maze trying to act ethically and consciously in tune with citizens worldwide. A long and painful process is ahead of us. Of course it’s wildly arrogant and unruly to think signing a petition is an act of world-historical significance, but isn’t that better than nothing? We can only hope the new technological styles of protest made for our disposable income and disposable time won’t in the long term make us passive and desensitized to the needs of planetary life.

    In December 2010 i organized a day of action against Starbucks’ tax evasion in Southampton because i believe a company which advantages so much from the current political and economic system should, at the very least, pay to maintain for the streets which guide people to their shops; a simple idea. Because of the internet, and people’s willingness to share information and discourse, the protest occurred, like-minded activists met for the first time, and the message might have struck a chord in the thousands of people who tune in to Meridian News. Hardly scratched the surface of post-fordist control-capitalism, but better than nothing, surely. Moreover it’s frankly deceitful and deeply anti-democratic for politicians to spiel on austerity whilst corporate theft from the public occurs on a massive, eye-watering scale. Raising consciousness is vital. What we still do from swivel-chairs is still an activity and a form of activism, or we might as well give up and read HEAT professionally.

    Public space is so organized that we walk daily through cathedrals of industrial capitalism and it’s not long before we break out. You are so right, we do indeed have to re-evaluate *everything* we do, if we’re serious about living in the world and untwisting its mess.

    By the way, you might be interested to know that the University are trumpeting their new deal with Royal Dutch Shell. Could you write about that?

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  • Sally Jensen
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    I completely agree with you, it IS better to do something rather than nothing if only to raise awareness, and it’s great you organised that day of action. My gripe is with the individuals who place greater importance on the issues closer to home (perhaps because they feel that it is something they have a greater potential to change) and put those who suffer extreme conditions in far away countries on a backburner because it’s always been that way. The “systematic inequalities” are essentially perpetuated by our consumer demand and when it comes to charity it fascinates me how some causes are given more prominence than others. Basically it’d be nice if people gave a bit more thought to what happens beyond their front door, otherwise there’s absolutely zero hope of changing the structures of global inequality.
    Ahh what I’ll take a look into that, sounds ridiculous

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