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Environmentalism As Politics Versus Environmentalism As Lifestyle

Environmentalism is, at heart, a political project. It aims at the achievement of certain outcomes -- changes in the way our society relates to the natural environment. One important avenue for achieving that change is alteration of individuals' lifestyles*. Yet there is a danger here -- green lifestyles may take on a life of their own, such that the pursuit of a certain lifestyle is pursued as an end in itself without reference to the original goals.

One example of this environmentalism-as-lifestyle thinking can be seen in a recent post by Dave Pollard (who is normally better than this) discussing tips for living a simpler life. I agree that in many cases, choices that we would consider "simpler" are better for the environment, and I agree with quite a few of Pollard's specific recommendations. But Pollard's post fetishizes simplicity. For example, he advises us to have storage space built into the walls of our home, rather than having furniture to put stuff on. Now, I suppose it is simpler in an Occam's Razor sort of sense because built-in shelving means that you own fewer separate objects, but I don't see how it would simplify my life in any meaningful sense for my bookcase to be bolted to my wall.

On the other hand, Pollard advocates veganism. Veganism is certainly good for the environment, but it's far from simple. After all, one of the simplest foods in the world to prepare is a steak. And I'm not sure what is really accomplished by simplicity for simplicity's sake in food -- my favorite vegan meals are various curries, which are much more complex to prepare than meat-and-two-veg, but all the more enjoyable for it.

Pollard also gives us a vision of the ultimate goal of lifestyle "simplification," in a hypothetical visit to a clothing-optional commune (a commune which has apparently been simplified by exterminating all those pesky complicated old people and ugly people). A key feature of this commune is polyamory. Now, I have nothing against polyamory. But there's nothing simple about real polyamory. It requires a lot of work to maintain the complex balancing act of multiple partners. And whatever its other benefits, polyamory is no better or worse for the environment than monogamy (one might -- incorrectly, I think -- claim that polyamory is more natural than monogamy, but that brings you out of environmentalism into the territory of naturalness-fetishism).

*Though I think modern environmentalism has a tendency to go too far in this direction.

Stentor Danielson, 01:15, |


A Few Notes On Hugo's Dinner Parties

Hugo Schwyzer's recent post about WASP dinner party seating arrangements has apparently touched a nerve with a lot of people. Commenter Malachi does a great job of framing Schwyzer's approach as extrovert privilege. I'd add that the responses of defenders of Schwyzer's approach -- particularly Schwyzer himself and Phil Hoover-Chicago -- bring up a number of the classic privilege-defender lines: "If you don't like it, go somewhere else." "Geez, what are you people so worked up about? It's no big deal!" "I know some people who are members of the disadvantaged group but who accept this practice." "You're hurting us by your refusal to conform to our norms."

Hoover-Chicago also comes out with Geek Social Fallacy #4 -- the assumption that if two people share a mutual friend, they too will be able to be friends. It's telling that GSF4 is a geek social fallacy, since geeks tend to be introverted. So for Hoover-Chicago, it's probably true that he would get on well with any friend-of-a-friend he encountered. But this blinds him to the fact that this is not so for everyone.

It's also unclear what the moral basis for the much-cited obligation to socialize is. Who, exactly, is being hurt by my failure to talk to lots of strangers? I can understand the problem if the party becomes so clicquey that someone who wants to socialize with a stranger is unable to break in, but the obligation to socialize goes farther than that. The most I can discern in terms of justification is Schwyzer's commitment to Calvin's Dadism -- if something is hard, then it's good for you.

Stentor Danielson, 20:48, |


Illiberal Opposition To Horse Slaughter

I would have missed this if the Onion hadn't done a "What Do You Think?" on it, but it appears the House recently passed a ban on the slaughter of horses for meat. While there are arguments to be made in favor of banning all meat production or allowing it all, as well as for making some distinctions among animals (e.g. saving just certain "higher" animals), I can't see what valid philosophical argument can be made for singling out horses for protection while allowing the slaughter of cows and pigs.

The arguments offered by proponents of the bill are pure cultural imperialism, and hence incompatible with a liberal state. On the one hand, they appeal to the special status of horses in our culture, a status that is taken as too obvious to need any defense or justification despite the fact that other cultures come to quite different conclusions. We think of horses as beautiful and having personalities, and we think (in contrast to nearly every other meat-eating culture) that respecting an animal is incompatible with eating it. So the law's purpose is to enshrine the dominant cultural preferences. The welfare of the horses, if it enters the argument at all, enters only as a corollary of horses' elevated cultural status (thus freeing us from having to wonder whether slaughtering other animals is also painful to them).

The cultural imperialism gets even more overt when the French enter the picture. Most of the horse meat from the US is apparently exported to France and Belgium. The implication is that Americans ought to be prevented from supporting the weird cultural habits of foreigners.

Anti-slaughter advocates also propose a variety of instrumental rationales for banning horse slaughter, such as that drugs used on horses are not approved for use on food animals. Such instrumental reasons, though, would only justify stricter safety regulations on the horse meat industry, not an outright ban.

It would be one thing if supporters of the ban wanted a total ban on meat but knew that horses was as much as they could get given the political realities. But to try to establish "horses no, cows and pigs yes" as a final principle fails.

Stentor Danielson, 22:44, |


I'm sure everyone was dying to hear from me on this issue, since I'm such a popular blogger and I write about electoral politics all the time, but I'm willing to say with 95% confidence that the Democrats will retake neither the House nor the Senate this year, though they will probably gain a seat or two.

Stentor Danielson, 17:17, |

Ending Racism Versus Not Being A Racist

The Angry Black Woman contrasts two definitions of racism, only one of which would allow her to be (potentially) described as a racist. She prefers the sociological definition, "racism = prejudice + power." But she notes with frustration that people she debates insist on using the dictionary definition, "racism = prejudice."

In one sense this is a purely semantic debate -- after all, whether you call something "racism" or not doesn't change how morally acceptable it is. But in another sense it's a very important debate, because it's symptomatic of the way different people approach racial issues. The problem with people who cling to the dictionary definition is that they substitute semantics for ethics.

The (usually white) dictionary-ist reasons: "what's wrong in race relations is 'racism' (or 'being a racist'). Therefore we have to establish what 'racism' means. And, as any good linguistic descriptivist will tell you, 'racism' means whatever most people use it to mean -- a fact which can be determined by looking it up in a dictionary." This is, in effect, an appeal to cultural relativism in the defense of the status quo -- "most speakers of my language would/would not apply a condemnatory term to the conduct in question, therefore it's wrong/right."

The sociologist, on the other hand, begins with ethical premises: "what's wrong in race relations is when people get unfair advantages or disadvantages on the basis of their race. The creation or maintenance of such advantages or disadvantages requires both prejudice and power, since a powerless person can't have an impact on another's life chances, no matter how virulent their hatred."

In theory, the sociologist could leave the definitions as they are, and just promote the idea that some forms of racism/prejudice are serious ethical violations while others are trivial, based on whether they're backed by power (a la the "marriage in all but name, so the fundies will shut up about us redefining the word" theory of civil unions). But the fact that there are so many dictionary-ists in the world makes this an impractical strategy. We're therefore forced to try to change people's behavior by changing our usage of the relevant condemnatory words.

Another way of framing the difference between the two definitions is suggested in Ampersand's recent post. He points out that people of color tend to think about racism in terms of its effects, whereas white people tend to think about it in terms of the intentions of the perpetrator. In other words, people of color are consequentialists and white people are naive Kantians. People of color want to end the system of race-based advantages and disadvantages, whereas white people want to ensure that they're well-meaning. It's therefore in people of color's interest to recognize forms of real racial advantage/disadvantage so that they can be corrected, whereas it's in white people's interest to ignore them so that they don't trouble their conscience. And it's therefore also in white people's interest to push the dictionary definition of racism, since it's entirely about psychological states. That definition focuses on the cleanliness of their own hands (and the potential dirtiness of others') rather than on the actual effects of whatever conduct is at issue.

Stentor Danielson, 11:10, |