Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Personal is Political: Part 2

In a previous post I briefly defended the slogan “the personal is political”. This slogan can mean different things to different people. Feminists like Susan Okin, for example, invoke this principle to highlight the fact that what goes on in the family (e.g. who does the domestic labour, how we raise our children, etc.) is political. And I agree completely with Okin about this. In this particular instance the action of just one individual can have a direct positive impact- reducing oppression- on the people closest to us (i.e. one’s spouse and children).

I disagree, however, with G. A. Cohen’s egalitarian invocation of the slogan. Or, perhaps more accurately, I disagree with Cohen’s suggestion that John Rawls’s difference principle (which requires us to maximin) should apply to the decisions we make concerning the kind of work we are willing to do.

When it comes to deciding what kinds of jobs we will spend most of our waking hours doing I do not think a stringent prioritarian principle is defensible. But I do think our attitudes towards consumption are political. And in that earlier post I argued that such attitudes can be unjust when they impair our ability to implement the demands of socio-economic justice.

A few months ago I read this column in the Globe and Mail entitled “Single and Green”. And this article made me realize how easy it is for advocates of a particular cause to push the “personal is political” slogan too far. So far that they run the risk of jeopardizing the very cause they wish to promote. In this case the cause in question is the environment; no doubt a worthy cause and one conscientious citizens should take seriously. But the author of this article goes too far by characterizing single adults as “environmental time bombs”. She goes so far as to suggest that, to help minimize their ‘ecological imprint’, single people should consider living in co-housing accommodation (so they can share amenities with others), or participate in community kitchens. She ends the piece by stating:

Short of mating for life or joining a commune, if you happen to be unattached and environmentally conscious, it may be time to test your horse sense and peruse the classifieds: Eco-friendly person seeks like-minded roommate to lessen ecological footprint. Must be cat positive.

Highlighting the ecological consequences of being single, or getting divorced -which she also seems to condemn for its ecological consequences- raised a number of interesting and heated responses from her readers. In fact, I found the posted comments the most interesting thing about this article. Here are a few (unedited) responses posted on the Globe’s comments section:

'Solo dwellers are an Environmental time bomb' ....more sensationalist drivel and meaningless generalizations featured in this ludicrous article. Excuse people for having to live. Excuse people for wanting a sense of privacy. We are not ants. Heidi Sopinka needs a reality check. We can do with less of the subjective, hysterical sensationalism this article purports. My response to this article is.....So What??

....Halarious. This is your future, Canada. Living with 6 people, in 600 sqft boxes in the sky in the center of your city, bathed in the cold, sterile glow and hum of a nice, efficient, CFC lightbulb, eating raw patatoes grown down the street, shivering in the dark while clutched together to stay warm, but content with the knowledge that you are doing your part to save the planet from warming by 0.1 degrees by 2421 AD.

....Totally ridiculous. First they feel bad because they are alone and now this nut bar is trying to make them feel about it! Last I looked these single people aren't living in 3000 square foot homes in the burbs, driving their SUVs to work and running their gas mowers for hours a week to mow their massive lawns. Most single people I know live in high density condos! On another note, I wonder what people like this author are going to do when global warming is proven to be a hoax. A whole industry of playing on peoples fear and guild will evaporate.

....Great -- first we have the smug marrieds, now we have the smug 'I did all my air travelling before air travel became environmentally uncool -- now all you lot need to stay home like me and live in ant colonies to save the planet' whatever-you-want-to-call-thems. Never mind the couples with the aforementioned kids, suburban homes, SUVs, mini-vans, multiple TVs and computers, Wiis, etc. etc. etc. The 'logic' of this article completely escapes me. The insufferable air of moral superiority does not. As if singles aren't stigmatized already for being single, usually by the smug marrieds themselves who conveniently ignore the infidelities going on right under their upturned noses. Better to be single, I say, than be stuck in a miserable relationship for the dubious benefit of the planet. Besides, having a cat on my lap helps me keep the thermostat down. PPTHPTHTHTHT!

....Well you need 'content' for fill the paper. Let see what will come Monday shall we?

....Oh, peachy. First my mother, and now the Greens, are after me for not marrying and reproducing. I don't know what is more insulting, the implication that singles aren't environmentally aware, or the slur on our culinary abilities. Fast food packaging is a serious problem? Have you ever watched a carpool mom in a minivan go through a drive-through? After a long day at work, time alone in the kitchen is a blessing. I garden, visit my local farm markets in season, compost, recycle, and toss half the waste my neighbours do. And you'd be lucky to get a dinner invitation, I've baked for Julia Child. There are so many flaws in this story, I don't know where to begin.

....I confess! I don't have a girlfriend and I live alone. Not only does this make me a loser, but an environmental misfit as well. Thank you for showing me the light, Globe and Mail! Now I'm off to the earth temple to beg forgiveness from Gaia. Maybe they will have communal meals there. And women.

....'Leaving a small footprint' is about the most irrational thing that has come down the environmental pike. People have a right to exist; people have a right to survive, people have a right to live a lifestyle superior to that of a cave dweller. Having said that, we should be doing all we can to be energy efficient and reduce pollution. If you want to minimize your 'ecological footprint'--lay down and die. That is the reductio ad absurdum of this argument.

I do not agree with every point made in response to this column but I must admit I think many of the responses were much more defensible than Sopinka’s suggestion that single people should radically re-think their life plans in light of its sub-optimal ecological consequences.

For me this article is a good example of the potential danger with the invoking the slogan “the personal is political”. The danger is that when one invokes the slogan to highlight any particular cause (e.g. the environment, egalitarianism, feminism, etc.) there is the risk of treating that particular cause as if we exist in a moral vacuum. As if no other pressing (and conflicting) concerns arise. This danger is unavoidable when the moral discourse is dominated by the appeal to abstract principles (rather than virtue).

Rather than consider how every particular aspect of our existence can negatively impact the environment, those serious about this cause need to frame their arguments in a proportionate and fair manner. Otherwise they run the risk of alienating people from the cause. Like most things in life, the real challenge is figuring out what constitutes a reasonable balance between the competing demands that are placed on us. Anyone who thinks the answers are obvious, and the solutions simple, is not giving these issues enough consideration. As social, temporal, finite beings we have a deluge of diverse moral obligations thrust upon us. Obligations to ourselves, to our closest intimates, to compatriots, to non-nationals and to future generations. Serious moral discourse requires much more than simply adding more obligations to this ever-expanding list.