"Bearing Witness": The context of choice, behavior change, and changing the system

image by *Skia

[I wrote this post back in summer 2011, when I was deep into my anthropology MA program, but never published it, so I’ve decided to bring it out of the archives]

A warning: this article is a bit misanthropic in nature (we all feel this way from time to time, right?). For myself, I think it has a lot to do with my training in anthropology (ironic?) from a political-economic/critical theory perspective, as well as my good old liberal arts education (those damn leftist socialist commie professors, infiltrating our youth at colleges across Uh-mur-ica!)

Back in my Culture and Consumerism class in Fall 2010, I read Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, in which she discusses the Quaker concept of “bearing witness” to what all is going on in the world (and by “what all”, I mean all the crappy, horrible stuff that human beings are fond of doing). She promotes a poignant, if radical, idea – if you know something is wrong or unjust, you have the moral obligation to let others know and to take action to fix the injustice. But what does this really solve in the long run? Is it always appropriate to get involved, and if you do, when is it appropriate to do so? What are the consequences of taking action? Are the consequences for not taking action worse? How and where do you strike a balance?

A lot of people in the United States simply sit back and let this crappy, horrible stuff happen all around them. Think voting, politics, national decision-making, poverty, racism, etc. I’ve often thought that it’s a lack of education that causes apathy or a lack of concern – just educate people, and they’ll doing what’s right, for them and for others – but I don’t think this is entirely true. I’m sorry (actually I’m not sorry), but when I see a woman hitting or verbally abusing her child in front of me at the store, it is extremely difficult for me not to say something to her. It makes me wonder if she realizes what she is doing, or if she cares. We can talk all night long about the stresses of parenting and the stressors of living in poverty that may affect parenting, and I am the first to empathize with people in these situations because of my own life experiences and my training in anthropology. But some things, some people, must be defended, or defended against. Then there is, of course, the idea of minding your own damn business. My question is, when does an injustice become someone else’s business?

We all do things we know are bad for ourselves, for others, and for the environment. We eat foods that make us fat and unhealthy and give us heart disease; we smoke cigarettes even though it wrinkles our skin, gives us cancer and endangers those around us; we abuse our children without considering how it will affect their social, emotional and cognitive development and that oftentimes the abused become abusers, only to continue the cycle; we buy, buy, buy without thinking of the consequences of our actions, and support products without considering the labor or materials that go into them and where the products go when we throw them into the seemingly never-ending black hole of, as Leonard calls it, “away” (as in “throwing away” something).

I think lots of people realize what they’re doing, but for one reason or another they don’t want to change or maybe don’t feel like they are able to, or are so wrapped up in their lives that they don’t stop to think about their actions. It really all comes down to value, and not in the “rational consumer” sense of value, but in the cultural, political, individual and social meaning of the term. In the cost-benefit analyses that pervade our every-day decision-making, we ask what benefits will our actions bring us, and is there any harm or risk involved? Fast food is cheap, easily accessible and convenient, so why buy fresh, whole foods and cook a meal at home? Why take the two-hour bus ride to get to the grocery store (because you live in a food desert) when there’s a convenience store selling the calories you crave within walking distance? Why quit smoking if your great aunt took up the habit when she was 16 and lived to be 105? An N of 1 works for me. Why go to therapy and quit abusing substances when your kids are within an arm’s reach, the perfect targets for releasing stress? And hey, it doesn’t matter what we throw away since it all goes somewhere else and we don’t have to deal with it ever again. And recycling is too much of an inconvenience to even bother with. Global warming? An inconvenient truth. There are so many factors and circumstances that come into play in each situation – can we actually expect people to change their behaviors “for the better”?

No matter how much you try to explain things to people – the dysfunctionality of capitalism; the relationship between poverty, history, racism and the global economy; the merits of eating and buying healthy, local foods; why eating at Taco Bell on a daily basis is probably not a good idea; the consequences of feeding your children processed garbage; the ramifications of an industrialized food system; the effects of picking pesticide-ridden vegetables on immigrant farmworkers and their children; or the problems inherent to the current take-make-waste system (to reference Leonard again) – there are some things that may never change, simply because the value is not great enough to warrant one, and because people’s lives are just too damn complicated. It’s not just about choice, as in “yes, I’m going to do x,” or “no, I will not do y anymore.” It’s about the context surrounding a choice being made within a very specific moment in time.

So, when is it appropriate to get involved, and to what degree? Is it always a good thing to try and change the world for the better? How do we define “better”? I’m afraid the answer is not such an easy one. 

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