Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Inreach vs. Outreach

Jo Tyler has a great post on her site, which she's graciously agreed to let us reproduce:

Lately, I've gotten sidetracked. I've allowed myself to be lured into lengthy, fruitless debates about the importance of "personal ethical consistency" in veganism. My feeling is that the goal of personal ethical consistency is at best unattainable, and at worst, an exercise in self-absorption. That is to say, an excercise in Vegan "In"reach as opposed to Vegan "Out"reach. 

Those who make personal ethical consistency their main priority can find themselves caught in a spiral of paralyzing (and often unproductive) self-reflection. Unfortunately, this can also lead some to start policing other vegans with regards to everything ranging from their chosen method of advocacy to their decisions on where they draw the line regarding unavoidable animal byproducts. Of course "unavoidable" is a subjective term. As most vegans are well aware, animal byproducts are used in a multitude of everyday, common items - ranging from drywall and refrigeration, to books, magazines, printed labels and printer toners, to car tires, film, fertilizers, sugar, and even municipal water.  

I trust that vegans will avoid all obvious animal products and that we will each do our individual best to avoid byproducts, hidden ingredients, manufacturing processes that utilize animal byproducts and so on. But we all draw the line somewhere...and it's unlikely that everyone will draw the line in the same place. So, does it make sense to spend time critiquing and judging one another? Is a vegan who has decided (arbitrarily? conveniently?) that it's acceptable to purchase magazines (which are often coated with gelatin) but quizzes waiters about the manufacturing process of the sugar contained in their ketchup somehow "more vegan" than someone who does the reverse? It's easy to see how this can quickly devolve into a contest of personal virtue - and an unproductive focus on the self.  

Tragically, we live in a culture built upon the exploitation and use of animals, and as a result, it's next to impossible to live without using some product or service that has ties to animal exploitation to some degree. Does that mean we shouldn't try to avoid what we can? Of course not. But let's just not lose focus of what really matters.  

I recently read All On Fire, a biography of William Lloyd Garrison. I found myself thinking how grateful I am that anti-slavery activists didn't get sidetracked by judging one another and obsessing over which of their suits were made of cotton picked by slaves, or whether the chairs they sat on, or pulpits they spoke from were made from wood chopped by slave labor. I'm glad they didn't refuse to travel to give speeches and spread the abolitionist message because of the racist policies of trains and ships. And that their meetings focused on how to end slavery and did not devolve into a worry-fest over the origins of their pens and ink. I can only imagine what an impediment that would have made to their progress!  Did their lack of focus on those matters make them less "ethically-consistent"? Possibly. But thankfully personal ethical consistency wasn't their goal. Thankfully they kept their attention focused on what really mattered: the abolition of slavery.