Friday, February 26, 2010

Junk-food activism

I think I've coined a new phrase: "junk-food activism." It's any awareness-raising activity that's designed to get the participant to feel empathy for or show solidarity for a particular group or cause, without actually doing anything to fix the problem. (Examples: sleeping under a bridge for one night to show solidarity for the homeless, or spending only $7/day on food for a week to understand what it is to be hungry, or wearing a colored ribbon to show support for a cause.)

What's wrong with these activities? Nothing per se, except that they don't go far enough. If the activity were always followed up by meaningful action -- say, volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving money or in-kind donations to a local food bank -- it wouldn't be such a bad thing. But many of these exercises do not even suggest that such follow-up action be taken. Thus in some cases junk-food activism can be worse than taking no action at all, because the participants walk away feeling as though they've done something significant, even noble, to further the cause -- yet nothing has been done to improve the situation. It's like empty-calories compassion.

Imagine if a woman were drowning in a local river, and on the bank there had gathered a throng of well-meaning people stopping random passersby and saying, "Drowning is a terrible way to die. Come join us in raising awareness! We're going to wade out into the river to feel how cold it is, and maybe put our faces in the water so we can understand what she must be going through!" OK, fine, but in the meantime the victim's lungs are filling with liquid and her life is slipping away. It only takes one person to push through the throng, ignoring the multitudinous cries of compassionate solidarity in favor of swimming out at personal risk in order to pluck a dying soul from the current.

Don't get me wrong; I think one ought to take the time to discover the social and spiritual ills that plague humanity in general and one's community in specific. But I think it's far more important to do what can be done to ameliorate such ills. It's not enough to recognize the weak, the weary, the downtrodden all around you, if you're not willing to strengthen, shelter and lift up -- to get up and do. Compassion for others -- charity in the classic sense of pure love for one's fellow man -- is an emotion designed to spur one to take action, not merely to be an actor.

And that's all I hafta say about that.


D. Cootey said...

I remember when we were supposed to wear red to show solidarity for the monks in Burma. So many people pleaded for all to join in, and I wondered, “What good does it do?” How does my red shirt worn in my kitchen while I type at a computer help prevent monks from being beaten up? It was very much like your example. Silly.

Then an activist in Iran during the uprising last year pleaded for people to put green in their avatar. It was different then. The people being affected wanted to see this show of support. It was easy to comply with the request.

That’s really the difference for me. If Anna Activist gets teary eyed for the flagellumless spotted North Western paramecium and pleads with people to wear polkadotted shorts to show solidarity, I’ll likely laugh and ignore her. If Mr. Paramecium asks me personally to do it and he can gain some benefit from it, I’d hike those shorts right up.

In the privacy of my kitchen, of course.

tlawwife said...

My son's fraternity used to do what they called a box village where they spent the night in refrigerator boxes in the Wal-Mart parking lot. They would park one of their pickups by the front door and collect food for the homeless shelter. Once he said the pickup was rounded up full. Then the Wal-Mart got a new manager who wouldn't let them be near the door anymore.

Soozcat said...

Your son's frat is awesome. Shame about the manager, though.

bridget said...

May I also point out that it's sometimes very counterproductive, since the "activism" relies on totally inaccurate "facts"?

Take, for example, the $7/day statistic. Yes, it is true that the SNAP programme assumes that an individual will spend $200 per month, or a little less than $7 per day, on food.

But this faux-activists will then take $7 and go into the grocery store, or a restaurant, assume that there isn't so much as a bag of flour or some sugar in their pantry at home, and complain about how hard it is to plan three meals on that money. They will also totally ignore the fact that they are changing the rules - no one on government assistance lives under those constraints. Rather, they are given $200 at the beginning of the month, and can thus shop in bulk, use what is in their pantry, re-stock what gets used up, and otherwise make ends meet.

Besides being useless, it's completely disingenuous.