Saturday, January 02, 2010

Be the Change, or Change the Policy?

Some days back, a few of us were discussing whether to attend a circus which is currently showing in the city. A friend was insistent that he would not go because he did not approve of the abuse of animals. Notwithstanding the use of animals in agriculture, dairy, honey, wool, leather, poultry, meat production, etc. this led me to think of a deeper issue: Whether an individual's actions have any significance? The circus will go on, the animals will continue to get abused. It was not my friend's contention that he doesn't enjoy seeing animals performing tricks (I, on the other hand, find animal tricks silly), he insisted that he was engaging in a form of individual protest by not going to the circus.

Many people, as a matter of principle, change their lifestyle in small ways to be consistent with their opinions or knowledge. A friend of mine does not attend weddings because he considers them to be the formation of a potentially limiting lifelong attachment. Another uses both sides of a paper, in order to conserve rainforests (though he can be seen driving an SUV). Another does not like using plastic bags. Then there are those who do not like to consume Coca Cola or wear Nike shoes, as a form of protest against their corporate policies.

I have nothing against someone drinking coke, or someone not drinking it. In my understanding, individuals don't matter when it comes to large-scale phenomena, and individual acts of protest are meaningless, especially if they are passive and non-participatory. What makes a difference is a policy-level change (e.g. one which takes care of the corporate abuse) through sustained effort. A few people refusing to use plastics, or refusing to drink Coke (let's say 1000 people in a population of 1 million) is a literally negligible change - 0.1% to be precise, more akin to noise, and is even less than the normal fluctuations between the daily consumption figures of plastics or coke in a particular city/region.

Yes, if 2012 was at hand, such acts would delay the apocalypse by a minute. But is it possible to make use of one's understanding of an issue in a better way than to waste one's time trying to live up to a lifestyle choice (for example by insisting in every shop that one won't take a plastic bag, or by asking for a glass of juice when everybody else is having coke)?

Now if a person doesn't drink coke due to its presumably ill effects on health, I can understand his decision (and the polite thing to do, when offered the drink, is to smilingly refuse, without explanation). What I don't understand is the assertion that somehow his decision (limited to not drinking coke) is a meaningful protest against the Coca Cola company. If he writes a letter to a newspaper, or stands besides a cold drink vending machine and distributes a pamphlet describing the corporate policies of Coke, I could find some merit in his stand, but as an individual refusal to drink coke, I find his decision a feel-good act which actually does nothing.

One argument in favour of such acts is that they may propagate via individual interactions with such people. However, it is unlikely that the deep understanding and research which ideally lies behind such decisions can be communicated in 2-3 minutes (except by being highly biased and selective) to another person. Hence, such propagation is likely to be opinionated and half-baked, and usually results in an "us-versus-them" mentality.

On the other hand, by assisting in policy level changes by addressing the authorities in charge, one has a real chance at making an effective change. But this is hard, usually requires writing skills (whereas most righteous folks have unquestioning, and hence questionable, reading skills only) and requires persistent engagement. As an example, some citiies in India have banned certain forms of plastic bags after sustained efforts by some NGOs, and in one swoop have done far more than an individual could have done in a lifetime of resisting plastic bags.

But what is that someone to do, who is admittedly unable to engage with the public authorities? Should he/she just go on doing what he/she used to do? What about the guilt that one would have everytime one consumed a coke? I think it is reasonable to want to avoid these feelings of guilt, but maybe one can temper one's ego and self-righteousness by keeping in mind that an individual act is meaningless insofar as making a difference to the world is concerned. That the world is not a "fair" place in any sense of the word, and that one has only symbolically addressed a particularly known form of unfairness by a rather easy act.

What do you think?


Baakanit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pankaj said...

i agree. such acts are mostly ego appeasing. we had learnt in "organizational behavior" that humans tend to find consistency between different attitudes, and acts and attitudes to reduce dissonance - "i have said somewhere that i am against global corporations, hence i should not drink coke (even though it is tempting)". i think this is a case of that.

in some cases however, small acts in themselves may be significant. being kind to an injured pup or hungry dog may not add much to the animal rights movement, but the act in itself brings relief to that animal. adopting a child may not help suffering children much in aggregate, but that one child's life is changed.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pankaj,

You are right. Individual acts which have a large impact on another complex life form are significant for that life form.

Modern Man said...

Greetings Harman,

I wonder if these insignificant personal protests against established norms (such as abstaining from Coke, or not eating meat) play an important role in an individual's perceived autonomy. I'd venture to say that most realize - on some level - that "individuals don't matter when it comes to large-scale phenomena," and these personal rebellions merely represent an individual's attempt to regain some power (however illusory it may be). Unfortunately, this easily gives way to those pesky feelings of self-righteousness, as well. But I think more people are aware of their futility than this post might make it appear. If not, then I lament the super-egos lying at the base of all of these personal protests!


Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi MM,

I think you raise a very pertinent point. The feeling of helplessness (due to the very structure of the modern world and social institutions) makes people want to regain at least some form of decision-making against what they perceive is endless brainwashing, and more.

Their thinking might go as: I can't change anybody else, but I can change myself at least.

And you are also right that there is nothing wrong with such acts of protest unless they feed the ego.

Surbhi said...

Very well put comment. This helplessness also makes people take up collective action such as protest march/debate, when the effect of mindless action of some are detrimental to a large populace. While the biggest change one person can wrought is within him/her self, human beings are social animals ( so to say) and hence actions of one can have a cascading effect. If change is brought in one person alone and does not inspires others or helps others , it is as good as oiling one's scalp to avoid/cure dandruff, which is healthy for one person alone. Collective action with correct intention is likely to bear benefit for humanity.

Change said...

I would say that it is not a matter of just the Principe at the deepest sense. As you said, refusing to see the circus by very few is not going to stop the abuse of animals in that circus. And as you rightly said, abuse (or use) of animals in many other aspects like in the farms, honey extraction, milking, etc. In that sense, we are abusing the other living beings like plants for our food. But we can’t say it is abusing, but it is absolute necessity. May be we can correlate this within our work place. In our workplace we can be used for getting the work done and we can be abused for self gratification of somebody else who is above us in the organization ladder. There is absolute difference in these two acts of using and abusing us in the work place. I feel, the same is applicable (may be little bit altered way) to the sense you mentioned in the circus phenomena.

For example, one third of the human population in this earth is said to be not having two meals daily on one side and many of us waste food exorbitantly on the other side. There were many appeals not to waste food and possibly skip a meal once in a while to this cause. If we are not wasting the food or skipping a meal once in a while doesn’t mean that what ever food we are saving by not wasting is going to the one who is not able to get two meals a day. This could have an economic sense at micro, micro level. But I feel that economic sense is not considered for refraining from wasting food and skipping a meal once in a while. It is basically the deepest sense of belongingness to this community of human population. It is due the deepest sense of appreciation of food and its necessity for us. It is due to the deepest sense of awareness of conserving the natural resources and playing our part towards this and so on. If I elaborate further you may consider it as leading to universal Love and compassion. I am not talking about them. But the deepest sense of our feeling and belongingness in this community or humanity or planet or cosmos, what ever way we can consider of it.

Now, every one of us has adapted certain life styles. We are used to have certain way of expressing us. Hence, it is natural that some one who considered drinking coke is not good for him, start giving explanation for his act. The depth of that explanation depends on his capability of expressing it in words. It may irritate us in certain way. Hence I would be suggesting that if we are offering coke to such a person, just listen to him with out any reaction and move on. This is the only way we can respect that person as an individual or as a fellow human being.


sunson said...

Every rupee has the nature of incentivizing the activity it is paid for. If I bought a "Tata Nano" the profit from that single sale would help Tata further expand their territory and "ways" of operation in one's own small way. By instead diverting that money elsewhere, there is both an economic discouragement to the 'bad' product while encouraging an alternative to flourish. Its -1 you vs +1 competitor.

However, without letting people know the reason why one wishes to say 'no' to a product, it would be meaningless for oneself to follow such a 'rule' because, it doesn't work that way. Even reducing the consumption would work towards bringing the said 'empire' down (for all commodities except Energy sources).