It doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict, when I think about it in the comfort of my mind. I have desires I can recognize by introspection relating to happiness, health and well-being, and I have a skill for empathy that allows me to see how other people would want those things as well, and how a properly flourishing society might benefit everyone. I then comprehend the concept of injustice as a deviation from this pattern and seek out its instances, in isolated events and institutionalized inequity. It then takes a great deal of work and courage to discover the causes. Plenty of people and institutions have it in their best interests to stop anyone from doing exactly that, and in the case of societally enacted injustice, the hypotheses can at first appear unfalsifiable without properly conducted longitudinal studies. The possible solutions and their implementations can be even more difficult given the lack of evidence for any particular plan we have to work with. All for the goal of human welfare. Sam Harris and Si Kahn would be proud. It’s an alignment of evolved, passionate instincts with the right way to achieve goals and sub-goals.
And yet, it sometimes feels that, to be an environmentalist, I have to think about the world in terms of inherent value and beauty and mystical energy, and I just don’t. In fact, I don’t even think that sustainability and keeping the environment pristine are intrinsically moral propositions. Genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy should be opposed on principle, but my consequentialist ethics just don’t get me there. Over the course of my life, I’ve switched from viewing feminism as making sure that individual women can achieve the goals they set for themselves, to seeing it as a social movement dedicated to eradicating institutionalized discrimination and sexism put into place by hierarchical, patriarchal systems. It explains why sexism and capitalism often go together, and why sexism is often perpetuated by non-sexists. It makes things like the porn and sex-worker issue rather poignant. I’m mostly drawn to Greta Christina and other pro-porn feminists who recognize the fantastic work that the second wave did to alert us to violent sexism in the industry and in the very concept of making money off of encouraging sexual objectification, but who have decided that the most empowering system we can currently support is one where instead of rejecting industries whole-heartedly, making them safer and less patriarchal places to be. But then I read something like this, and I have to rethink.
Rethinking is hard. It means a massive intellectual undertaking, and while I do it, I can’t define myself, I find it more difficult to take strong positions (because I don’t like to pretend to be sure about things I may be reconsidering), and I can’t take action. So people I might be able to help aren’t being helped because I’m having a philosophical crisis. I remember during the Obama campaign, I canvassed with my dad, and one day I was just having an intellectual breakdown. I couldn’t remember why I supported him anymore, why I was a liberal, why I was doing what I was doing. I asked my dad why we supported Obama, and he gave a good answer, but still an unconvincing one, and I felt terrible asking people to give their votes and approval to something I didn’t agree with. When I’d reconsidered, I felt terrible for not having been able to be sincere about something I believed in. I give credence to those mental glitches, but they make activism extremely difficult. In the political world, we don’t really let people rethink, and we give them hell for changing positions. But that’s exactly what being an intellectual is all about.
My grandmother doesn’t seem to have any problems with intellectualism and activism. She has dedicated her life to grassroots activism, advocacy at the highest levels, worldwide justice, rectification of historical inequities and giving voice to the voiceless, and that’s after her time in politics. At the same time, she introduced me to the joys of sudoku and ken-ken, and once got two bingos in a single scrabble game. One memorable holiday evening in Vermont was spent solving the full page Boxer Day puzzle in the New York Times, with witty repartee all around and compliments given as good answers warranted. I saw her call her sister when the finished a crossword to see who had finished it first. It’s pretty incredible.
Her mother, too, embodied these principles, serving as PR director of the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years after deciding not to be a professor of symbolic logic (on which she wrote a paper proving Bertrand Russell and/or Newton wrong) because being a woman in math, or in academia, was too much of an obstacle. We tell stories about her in my family, of how she used to start crosswords in the upper left corner and never do a word if it didn’t connect to another one. When my grandmother corrected me once when I said there were less moguls on one side of a mountain, I was told that in order to carry on my great grandmother’s legacy, I had better say “fewer.” I could go on.
My dad is a professor of human development with a secondary appointment in pediatrics and a third in electrical engineering. He introduced me to activism of all sorts. He used to do the AIDS Ride for years, and I couldn’t wait until I was allowed to join. He and I have always done the Hazon ride together. He took me to my first rally in 2003, against the Iraq War. We also canvassed for Obama the summer of ’08. Maybe you really can have it all.
But for me, the dilemma remains.
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