Compassion for Sale? Doublethink Meets Doublefeel as Happy Meat Comes of Age
By James LaVeck
Satya (September 2006)
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.—George Orwell
Last fall, an intelligent, socially conscious, and compassionate person told me that after seeing a Tribe of Heart documentary at a local film festival, she had made a commitment not to participate in animal cruelty anymore. From now on she would only purchase “happy meat” at Whole Foods Market.
Something about these words, offered with sincere appreciation for the work I do as an activist filmmaker, was deeply troubling. I knew they were part of a trend I’d been seeing build amongst audiences over the last few months. The same films that had once inspired large numbers of people to completely reconsider their participation in the exploitation of animals were now triggering something new, an enthusiasm for the moral advantages of “humane” meat. I began to think about how this had come to be, and why the implications seemed to loom so large.
Eerily, the first thing that floated into my mind was George Orwell’s book 1984, with its depiction of a gloomy world in which nameless bureaucrats would daily redefine the meanings of words in the dictionary as a means of controlling the thoughts of the masses. “Doublethink,” said Orwell, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Let’s open the door to increased pollution and call it the “Clear skies initiative.” Let’s eviscerate funding for schools and call it “No child left behind.” And let’s drop bombs on innocent civilians and pitch it as a noble effort to bring those same people “freedom and democracy.” Yes, Orwell saw it coming, a kind of moral retrovirus that was poised to take over our world. The only thing he got wrong was the level of marketing brilliance that would go into disguising the discombobulation of our ability to think critically, and the consequent enthusiasm with which we could be induced to take part in our own undoing.
Environmentalism’s Third Wave: A Cautionary Tale
In the midst of this disquieting interlude, I was lucky enough to share a meal with John Stauber, co-author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. “This has all happened before,” said John, after patiently listening to my tale of woe. “Read Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century by Mark Dowie.”
So I did, and the plot thickened. What was bothering me, I realized, was the devastating consequences of allowing the core language of a social movement to be distorted as a means of accruing short-term gain. Consider, for example, words such as “environmental” and “organic.” In the beginning, these concepts meant little to most people. Then, countless scientists, educators and activists worked for decades to imbue them with meaning and moral value. Wrapped up in these words were hard-won principles of ecological reality, concern for the common good, respect for our planet, and the timeless wisdom of indigenous peoples.
Enter Mark Dowie and the sad story he tells in Losing Ground. Some of the very people who had labored to give the concept of environmentalism so much power, unwittingly played a part in its dilution during what has been called the environmental movement’s “third wave.” Massive corporate donations, prestigious seats on corporate boards, lunch with powerful legislators, highly publicized “win-win” collaborations with industry—watch as the budgets and membership rolls of environmental organizations skyrocket. It all feels so good and so right.
But over time, says Dowie, something subtle starts to shift. Non-profit environmental groups begin to compete more vigorously against each other for press coverage, money and members. Cynicism creeps in. Program priorities inexplicably drift toward those activities which will bring in the greatest financial return. Large organizations start taking credit for the work of smaller ones. At the same time, interest in education and grassroots empowerment falls by the wayside, displaced by a fascination with congressional lobbying and partnerships with industry. Reliable access to national publicity and the corridors of power becomes an end in itself. A grassroots movement morphs into something more businesslike and professionalized, and what were once vibrant gatherings characterized by diversity and passionate dialogue come to resemble the meetings of a trade association or cartel. Every organization must learn how to make more money, how to recruit and retain more members, how to build its advocacy brand, and how to dominate the marketplace of meaning. The idealism of millions of caring citizens is shoveled like coal into the furnaces of never ending corporate growth.
Soon enough, a schism opens up between those who enthusiastically collaborate with industry and those who think this way of operating represents an inherent conflict of interest. By and by, a kind of auto-immune disorder sets in, turning people of good will against each other. One camp, filled with righteous indignation, holds faithfully to the “old ways,” and battles daily with disempowerment and isolation. Another camp resolutely does what it must to gain a place at the table where the big decisions of society get made, and does their best to resist the creeping temptations of complicity.
Before too long, the word “environmental” comes to be applied to the policies of some of the worst polluters, and to a president who has done more to damage the earth than any other in history. In this topsy-turvy scenario, even Monsanto claims to be a green company, presumably run by environmentalists.
Meanwhile, as some of the people at the center of the environmental movement become indistinguishable from their former adversaries, others walk away utterly demoralized. Many more just have a feeling of confusion and loss. And the challenges multiply as industry comes up with more and more clever ways to blur the distinction between those who serve the common good and those who serve their own self-interests.
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