The case against vegetarianism

It might seem odd, even hypocritical, for an environmentalist and Buddhist such as myself to come out in favour of eating meat. There are many great reasons to practice vegetarianism and it’s a personal choice that I respect. I’ve noticed that at social gatherings the topic comes up frequently and there’s a growing awareness of dietary diversity. I think it’s great that people are willing to accommodate each other now more than ever.

Another thing I notice, though, is that when people talk about eating meat they often express guilt, like it’s not the socially evolved or politically correct thing to do. So in today’s post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic and explore the discourse around vegetarianism.

I’ve taken a shot at being a vegetarian and it wasn’t my thing. Ultimately, I just don’t believe that eating meat is wrong. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but it’s a conscious choice that reflects my understanding of how I fit into the natural order of things.

To start with, animal rights are important to me. No, really – they are.

PETA

I’m not a big fan of PETA but I do use their search engine to identify cruelty-free companies. Some might say it’s a contradiction for me to be concerned about testing on animals while, well… eating them (and enthusiastically, at that!). Following are some valid questions along with my best crack at what I trust are sensible answers.

“But aren’t you a Buddhist?”

In spiritual traditions that sanction a carnivorous diet there tend to be rules around how it should be approached. Of course, in some religions it’s altogether forbidden. Many (and possibly most) Buddhists are indeed vegetarian. Buddhism teaches ahimsa – the principle of non-harming – and of course this is part of the more fundamental teaching that it’s wrong to kill. However, there are many variations of Buddhist practice. Some Buddhist texts discuss the concept of “clean” meat and some Tibetan Buddhists including Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama himself) are not vegetarian. Ultimately, if a Buddhist is truly concerned about contravening the texts and teachings on this matter, the safe bet would be to cut out meat entirely or to only eat certain types of meat as directed. It’s evident why anyone regardless of persuasion would believe that killing is wrong, but the Buddha had a much more nuanced understanding than categorical dos and don’ts. Surely there are instances in which it might be acceptable. Personally, I’m satisfied that nutrition and hence sustenance are good reasons, in keeping with certain conditions which I’ll address further below.

“You’re an environmentalist, right?”

Much has been reported about the ecological impact of Western meat-heavy diets. I think it’s fair to say that we eat way too much meat and need to cut back substantially. Livestock do contribute to global warming by releasing an awful lot of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There’s no getting away from the fact that the list of environmental impacts is long, but it’s important to ask why. For me the overriding problem is the way we produce food – namely factory farming and industrial agriculture. Methane emissions can be largely attributed to the diet that livestock are fed. Cows simply shouldn’t be fed corn, soy, or other grains because they can’t properly digest these foods, so I’m happy to see that grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly accessible. While this means that more land will be required for pasture, less land will be necessary for the crops dedicated to this feed. Monoculture or cash crops themselves are bad for biodiversity and involve the use of GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc., all of which are prevalent in this model of food production. This system treats both animals and plants as just another raw input or commodity. The only value they’re assumed to have is in the profit they generate and that’s not a healthy, mindful or ethical way to nourish our bodies or participate in the processes of nature.

“Shouldn’t we know better by now?”

While I think it’s legitimate and commendable that many people are analyzing their food consumption and make changes out of consideration for animal welfare and our environment, it’s also part of a popular trend. There’s a degree to which being vegetarian, and vegan even more so, gives one an image boost in some circles. But honestly, I don’t see why it should. It’s one thing to use persuasion to further important causes; it’s another to wear one’s vegetarianism as a badge. You’re vegan? Okey dokey. But really… so what? It shouldn’t be an excuse for self-congratulation.

I simply don’t believe that observing a vegetarian diet makes one a better person. Part of my reason for saying this is the logical insinuation inherent in such a belief. Is vegetarianism actually a criterion for enlightenment and civilization? Did our non-vegetarian ancestors just not know any better? What about indigenous peoples who not only live off the land and depend on animals for their survival (food, clothing, etc.) but have woven the existence of these life forms into their very cosmologies? Are these people somehow less evolved than modern vegetarians? Certainly not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a culture’s propensity to eat meat and their evolution as human beings. In fact, it’s the societies that live closest to nature, firmly embedded within it, that are most involved in hunting animals.

Why do such people have a profound understanding of and respect for animals and yet see nothing wrong in eating them? It’s a matter of cultural paradigm that involves a deep and complex appreciation for the interdependency of all life forms on our planet. Relationship is key. So is an understanding of the origin and meaning of life.

“How can you kill something you love?”

Quite simply, life is death and death is life. We as a species would have never evolved to the present had we not eaten animals. We are animals. We can choose whether to eat other animals (at least those of us who feel being vegetarian wouldn’t be detrimental to our health) – but having that choice doesn’t say anything about what that choice should be. When we observe carnivores or omnivores we see that there is some natural law whereby they never cause unnecessary suffering, and yet they don’t hesitate before eating each other alive. Nature doesn’t ‘think’ that this pain or death is wrong. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature itself.

From a Western modern anthropocentric standpoint, death is bad. But every spiritual tradition teaches the cyclical nature of existence and treats life and death as interchangeable. Even in Judeo-Christian religions that place human beings above other species, nature is still understood as being simultaneously destructive and creative. The idea of resurrection and the salvation it supposedly brings is based on the reality that death is life.

It’s the practice of cooperation and respect that determines the dignity of relationships between entities. I have a feeling that the deeper our disconnect from nature, the easier it is to forget this. There’s something about vegetarianism that for me personally would represent a kind of implied separation between myself and other forms of life on Earth, as weird as that might sound. I just don’t feel guilty when I eat meat. Instead, I’m grateful for that sustenance.

 

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
– Lao Tzu

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What do Stephen Harper and Hitler have in common?

In so-called Western democracies like Canada, people often complain about corrupt and self-serving politicians but there doesn’t seem to be much fear that an individual could come along and change the very foundations of this country. A fascist government? In Canada? Never! We look at politically unstable countries and assume that we’re immune to the problems they face. But we’re not. All it takes is one person. It’s happened countless times in many different countries around the world. Some of these leaders seize power through a coup or some other violent or underhanded method. Sometimes, they’re elected.

People seem content to rest on the assumption that if a head of state ever did want to transform our nation, we would know. Somehow, we would see it coming. And granted, Harper did warn us that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once he was through with it. How far along does one suppose we’ve gotten at this point? When the Fair Elections Act was introduced, I read that only 23% of those polled indicated that they were aware of the proposed legislation. Something as important as a plan to make substantial changes to our electoral system – and one that was actually being discussed in the media – escaped the notice of so many people. Clearly we don’t even pay attention to the big things.

We’re all very busy and these announcements often occur on Fridays when we’re least likely to notice. And to be fair, so many alterations have been made that it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s hard to know which ones are worth really worrying about. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The next time someone suggests we’re overreacting when a new law is passed, another “action plan” is advertized, more scientists are muzzled, or additional research programs or departments are crippled or shuttered altogether, feel free to quote Adolf Hitler:

 

ahmk

 

While we’re talking about Harper and Hitler, I would submit that the topic of genocide is relevant here too. Every iteration of the Canadian colonial government from its inception has either exacerbated or failed to challenge the racist nature of its policies with regard to First Nations and Métis peoples. Not a single major political party has called our government out for what it is: a tool for racist oppression. Even leaders who talk about cooperation and reconciliation are rationalizing the foundations of what is still a paternalistic relationship. The only answer is to decolonize, and that would require the government to relinquish its control over indigenous peoples in this country and thus much of the land and natural resources. Recognizing indigenous rights means abandoning a centralized economic policy that would see the extraction of natural resources as perpetual fuel for a capitalist fire. And every party wants to stoke that fire – but that does not mean that they are interchangeable. Stephen Harper is the ringleader for those who wish to do more than maintain the status quo; he seeks to address the “Indian problem” with far more malice and surgical precision via his First Nations Termination Plan [PDF].  As Russ Diabo details in this presentation, the Harper government is expanding on an aggressive program whose goal is to eliminate First Nations title, status, and rights altogether. How else can we describe this but as genocide in a neocolonial context?

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Feminist Thought of the Day – The Third Wave – Gail Dines

Lavender Blume:

Third Wave Feminism in a nutshell.

Originally posted on Dead Wild Roses:

Just a handy reference slide for your perusal.

Thirdwavefems

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What will it take to end sexism?

The topics of gender-based discrimination and abuse continue to pop up in the Canadian media. Personally, I’m still rattled about how conversations about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal have exposed our limits to addressing sexism. It brought me to many videos and articles that helped me probe how I feel about these topics more deeply, especially since I realized how much this has affected me on an emotional level. Looking back on my past, I realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted many times but have never really acknowledged it. Firstly because each time it’s happened it became more normalized in my imagination and secondly because it was almost always at the hands of men I knew and trusted. With each incident, I told myself it could have been worse so it wasn’t that big a deal. They weren’t things you could tell the police about and expect action to be taken. Ubiquity and powerlessness lead to acceptance. But together, these things add up. And while it may seem like we’re getting somewhere because we keep hearing about new allegations of sexual harassment even within government, this isn’t what I would call progress.

While we’re okay with discussing violence against women and sexual misconduct in the public sphere, we should pay close attention to what happens when we land on the concepts of patriarchy and privilege. It quickly becomes apparent just how resistant many people are to acknowledging the fundamental machinations that produce gender-based injustice.

In a recent article, writer Denise Balkissoon articulated something very important while making many men uncomfortable in the process (take a look at the comment section). In Sorry, we haven’t reached a ‘watershed’ on violence against women, Balkissoon says:

I don’t get what is known now that was a mystery yesterday – or why what was ignored yesterday is now so urgent to address. All that’s different now is that we know one guy’s name, and that guy happens to be famous.

This is a sobering point. Why haven’t all the shocking stories we’ve heard jolted us into making substantial progress? What will it take to change things? Every time we try to take a step forward we’re met with a backlash. Expecting that the problem would go away if only women would come forward is unrealistic and unfair. These things don’t happen because of the conduct of the victims. And in addition to being discouraged from coming forward or fighting back, doing so may actually place us in greater danger, as comedian Amanda Seales explains in the video below. She cites the case of a woman who was murdered in Detroit after rejecting a man who asked for her number (of course, the clueless dolt debating her thinks she could have solved the issue by carrying a gun). As much as this guy pisses me off though, watching this is a guilty pleasure because Seales’ facial expressions are priceless.


I’m sick and tired of being smeared for standing up to sexism. There’s a plethora of labels and insults reserved for women like me. The moment I try to get to the root of the problem, I’m met with hatred and disdain. It happens all the time and it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s trollish behaviour. These trolls work with us and ride the subway with us. They’re real people and this is not a game. We need to stop bullshitting each other about how serious this problem is. And not only does the “not all men” excuse do nothing to neutralize the impact of sexism, but as Michael Laxer explains with razor-sharp precision, actually, it is all men:

We, collectively, and most commonly as individuals, are responsible for creating the conditions that not only facilitate Ghomeshi, but that ensure he will exist. This is a very uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. It is all men and the society that they produced that allowed a misogynist, alleged serial abuser to rise to and feel comfortable within the halls of media and fame, despite the now known and clear indications that he was a predator all along and that many, many people could have done something about it but did not.

That’s the ugly thing about privilege: even individuals who aren’t actively abusive benefit from it. Another great point by Root Veg quoted from the comment section of Laxer’s article:

You all benefit from the Jian Ghomeshis of this world, not just because it ensures men’s dominant status, but because other men’s terrorism of women lowers the bar for your qualification as a Good Guy to the absolute bare minimum.

This one hit me like a punch to the face. Now I understand what had me on high alert when I learned about the social media campaign known as MANifestChange. MANifestChange among other things encourages men to speak out by snapping a picture of themselves and pledging to help fight violence against women. Awesome! Or is it?

What I like about this idea is that it places the onus on males to do something. I’m glad there are men out there who want to end patriarchy. I’m just not sure that challenging male privilege means taking cookie-winning selfies. If you’re a man with a conscience, the best thing you can do to help us gals out is to actively challenge your male privilege on a daily basis. It’s hard work. You probably won’t relish the effort involved or the flack you’re going to get. But guess what? If it’s not inconveniencing you, it’s not really helping.

While participating in initiatives like MANifestChange can be just a part of the work someone does, this aspect of the campaign still bugs me. It’s cute. It’s fun. Guys score brownie points with the ladies. And see, I think that’s the problem. This isn’t supposed to make you look good whether you mean it to or not. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to see a closeup of your mug so we can appreciate how nice a guy you are. Just be that guy. Do it anonymously. Like the philanthropist who donates to a hospital but refuses to put their name on a plaque. That’s how you make sure it’s 100% not about you.

I know we all want to support each other in solidarity and be nice by acknowledging that every little bit counts. But is it really true that every little bit counts in a good way?

How effective is a campaign like HeForShe in addressing oppression, for example? Sometimes what we gain in attracting attention to our cause by putting a celebrity in front of the microphone is erased when they stumble over their own privilege and ignorance, thus undermining our ability to have a really deep conversation. These incidents remind us that within movements of the oppressed, some of us (e.g. white females) still don’t get it and that’s usually because we have privileges of our own that need to be checked. Mia McKenzie’s Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N. is a must read because it elevates some important caveats about privilege and how centering these issues on the privileged (e.g. “Guys suffer from patriarchy too!”) is a really good way of protecting them from acknowledging that they’re, well, privileged.

Thankfully, the folks at MANifestChange seem to have a lot more up their sleeve:

Like many people who possess privilege, many males are willing to acknowledge that sexism exists but tend to assume they’re not part of it. By looking at the representations of women in video games, Anita Sarkeesian holds up a mirror to society and the results are horrifying. Yes, we know that women are constantly eroticized and objectified, but does its deeply systemic nature blind us to just how bad it is? I don’t play the kinds of games that Sarkeesian reviews in the video below (not many women do), so I was legitimately shocked when I saw how normalized it is in the minds of boys and men alike (please note the content warning):


Challenging your own privilege isn’t supposed to be fun because it means denying your ego and giving something up. That’s why people feel threatened when they’re called to do it. It means being silent and letting people share their views and experiences, and then taking the time to seriously think about what they have to say. In our rapid fire culture of communication, the fact that we’re hardwired to react doesn’t help. But I don’t believe that sexism is any less of an issue than it was three decades ago. So while sympathy may be a nice gesture, it’s just another way of avoiding the problem. And empathy is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from decent people anyway. Much work remains to be done.

 

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Sex, power, and the myth about consent

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that Jian Ghomeshi, a well-known Canadian broadcaster and radio host, is no longer employed by the CBC. The CBC has vaguely stated that the reason centres around information they received about Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi claims that he was fired because his employer was afraid that the details of his sexual life might become public and create unwanted controversy. Ghomeshi is now suing his former employer for about $50 million and wasted no time in posting his side of the story on his Facebook page, claiming that he’s a victim. Some people question why he would spill the beans on his BDSM lifestyle, but I think it makes sense if it’s all going to come out eventually anyway. Juicy details will inevitably emerge as a result of the suit, so maybe he figured he’d just get in front of it. It’s certainly one way of demonstrating that he thinks he has nothing to hide and has done nothing wrong.

Some time ago, I read an article by a woman about a bad date she allegedly had with Ghomeshi, whom she characterized as a womanizing, sexually aggressive creep. It’s true that it’s easier to make an accusation than it is to defend it and that men can be targets of false accusations by women. But it’s also true that women are objectified and abused by men on a daily basis, and much of the time they don’t report it for a variety of reasons that may not seem logical but are nevertheless compelling and reaffirmed by the reactions they’re met with when they do speak up. Just because a woman says she’s been abused by a man doesn’t mean she has, but just because she hasn’t reported it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. At this point, what we know is that a number of women allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them.

One of the things people are arguing about is the issue of consent; it doesn’t matter so much whether Ghomeshi enjoys having kinky sex as the fact that these women are saying that he acted violently toward them, and not in a way that they had discussed or consented to. In other words, the allegation is that he didn’t just have a raunchy, rough tumble in the hay with them – he outright assaulted them. And you can’t consent to assault.

So why are we talking about consent? For one thing, it’s a touchy subject in part because a lot of people (mostly men) still don’t seem to understand what consent means. We’re also becoming more sexually liberated as a society, so in addition to talking about consent in the context of rape, we’re also becoming more knowledgeable about alternative or fringe sexual lifestyles. Books, movies, other sources of information and forms of entertainment have added to the discourse and practices such as polyamory are getting more mainstream attention. It is possible for adults to engage in genres of consensual sex that most people don’t find arousing or pleasant. Leaving aside what “most people” actually means – because we don’t really know what people do behind closed doors – what I’d like to argue here is that consent isn’t a magical ingredient that makes everything okay all the time. While unequivocal consent is critical, it doesn’t automatically cleanse any given situation of ethical questions. This is where I think discussions about BDSM can get messy, so naturally it’s at this juncture that I think we have the most to gain in terms of how we approach the topics of sex, power, and gender.

I don’t practice a BDSM lifestyle, but I’m familiar with it to a limited extent through people I know who do. I think there’s a level of comprehension about what it is and how it works that a person on the outside can’t fully grasp. It can take on an endless number of variations and involves complicated protocols. It’s not a license for random debauchery; it’s a structured way of satisfying one’s urges that’s based on trust and communication. What many people take to be kinky (e.g. hair pulling, handcuffs, spanking, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as kinky in the BDSM world. Buying a racy toy at a sex shop is a far cry from joining a leather family. One thing I can safely say is that it includes many different types of people, tastes, and practices, and it’s ultimately what the participants make it.

I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to say that BDSM is either good or bad, full stop. I believe that people should be free to explore their own sexuality in an environment that’s supportive and inclusive. But not necessarily in every and any situation – and not simply because all parties consent. I think it’s something that would need to be considered on a case by case basis. Context matters.

I’m the sort of feminist who believes that patriarchy still governs our daily lives on multiple levels and that consent does not erase this reality. I believe that like any form of oppression, sexism can be internalized and reproduced even by victims, in different ways and for different reasons. So the contention that no exploitation can possibly exist where a woman provides her consent just doesn’t fly with me.

In a recent Twitter spat, someone told me flat out: you either accept all forms of sexuality or you don’t. This was their response to my opinion that in a patriarchal society, a man who craves the sexual domination of women has issues. I know that’s a strong statement and I’ll expand on it in a bit. My opponent’s argument was that this was like stating that homosexuality is wrong because it’s underpinned by the same moralistic attitude. The thing is, the only reason anyone would be critical of homosexuality would be as a result of religious or cultural conditioning. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong about the idea of people of the same gender acting on their attraction for one another. I agree that ignorance still factors into social norms regarding sexuality. We’re raised to think in predetermined ways about what’s acceptable and what’s not, so anything that falls outside of “respectable” or “vanilla” sexual encounters is frowned upon without much examination. But equating criticism of one person acting violently toward another to criticizing homosexuals who have consensual sex is terrible logic that not only uses homosexuals as pawns but also ignores some important considerations.

I’m loudly and proudly supportive of LGBT rights. But no, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. I don’t live in binary world, and I don’t think rights work that way either. Just because something turns someone on, they shouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue it with abandon by virtue of that fact. There are people who are sexually aroused by morbidity, including things that very few people would consider acceptable. Even in cases where consent exists (I’m thinking of men who agree to allow other men to cannibalize their sexual organs), whatever the reason or cause for that type of fixation, it’s not healthy. Period. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. This may be clear when we cite extreme examples, but not so much when we talk about the many things that fall under the broad BDSM umbrella. People have different limits – that’s why we have safewords. But even where these are established, it would be irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.

Does gender matter in BDSM, and if so, why and how? One problem is that it can be very difficult (and paternalistic) for someone on the outside to determine when exploitation exists. BDSM, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But is it always that simple? What if a participant is vulnerable because their personal history has predisposed them to a normalized view of sexual abuse or aggression? The fact that this can be difficult to determine doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that it’s not wrong, or that it can’t be prevented. If we consider such a relationship in a male homosexual context, it still wouldn’t be acceptable.

How is it ever okay for a person – male or female – to be gagged, made to vomit, choked or punched? Why would anyone get turned on by having those things done to them or by doing it to someone else? Analyzing what it means to want to be humiliated or to want to humiliate someone else isn’t a matter of imposing normalcy on people with freaky habits. It’s not healthy. There’s a difference between raw, even rough passionate sex, and domination. We’re strange creatures. We don’t always understand our impulses. We might want to be ravished – but that’s nothing close to, say, being tied up and having sensitive areas of the body zapped with electrical currents. Or walking on all fours with a dog collar around your neck.

Is there a substantial difference between humiliation and pain? Many people feel that there’s a physical connection between pain and pleasure because they can push us beyond our boundaries both physically and emotionally. They can be transcendent. I think that in some cases, this is all a person might crave, and someone they trust helps them to fulfill that desire. For them, gender, income, etc. don’t matter – they’re just two human beings sharing a private experience of their choosing. Why should that be our business? I get it. Still, I wonder how many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly personal territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism. It happens. It’s not right and we shouldn’t ignore it.

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting – that’s a different story. It’s simply not true that everything that happens between consenting adults is between them and them only. Consider the case of a battered wife. She doesn’t consent to the battery, but if she stays in the relationship and refuses to call the police, the abuser has license to continue. Should we do nothing?

There’s a reason for the distinction between civil and criminal law. In common law, a tort is a private wrong, whereas a crime can involve something the assailant does to just one other person – and even behind closed doors, on their own property – but they can be charged with a crime by the government on behalf of society. When a harmful act is serious enough, our legal institutions say it involves all of us. That’s an important tenet. The concepts of consent and privacy in sex and relationships have legitimate bases and should be respected, but they shouldn’t be exploited by extrapolating those concepts to every private situation imaginable in order to shield individuals from accountability. You can’t draw an imaginary boundary around your bedroom and pretend that anything goes.

Furthermore, when a person who holds a position of privilege acts in a violent way toward someone who lacks that privilege, don’t we understand that as an act committed against that entire group of oppressed people? When a person hurls a racist slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. That’s not a one-on-one situation. And why should it make any difference whether the act was of a sexual nature, or whether she begged for it?

Even if a woman is intelligent, emotionally stable with no history of abuse and fully understands the implications of a dominant sexual relationship (which I recognize is true of many women who participate in BDSM), the man isn’t home free as far as I’m concerned. What are we to make of men, all of whom possess male privilege whether they’re sexist or not, who argue that they’re not doing anything wrong as long as a woman consents to sexual aggression, torture, submission, discomfort, control, or violence? The key question is this: Why, in a patriarchal society, would a man crave the domination of women, sexual or otherwise? He already has plenty of power and privilege over women. Why the thirst for even more control? What is it about that exactly that excites him, and why? The only way this makes sense from a pathological standpoint is if a man harbours feelings of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, loss, or uncertainty. Somewhere, somehow, there’s an insecurity that gives rise to this fetish of domination. And when a person with more power than many of the people around them feels powerless, that’s dysfunctional. And potentially dangerous.

When I ask myself whether I would lose respect for a man if he was okay with indulging in rape fantasies, even if it was my idea, the answer without any doubt is yes. It’s my firm belief that a decent man would be alarmed by such a request and understand that it’s not the request or the consent that determine its ethics; it’s the question of whether it plays into the patriarchy that’s still a reality today. Any ethical person who possesses privilege should recoil from an opportunity to further entrench that privilege even if it’s sanctioned, and even if it piques their sexual interest (and arguably, especially when it piques their interest).

In the course of my discussions about the subject of BDSM and sexism, some people have asked me: What about women who want to dominate men? When we consider that women live in a world dominated by men, it’s understandable that a woman might feel empowered or aroused by the opportunity to dominate a man who agrees to submit to her. As long as gender privilege is a reality, we can never substitute a man for a woman and pretend that the situation is comparable. Personally, I don’t find the idea of dominating men appealing. Such a compulsion, however, may signal an underlying pathology that should be addressed with cognitive behavioural therapy or other forms of self-awareness that address the source of that compulsion, if it’s strong enough that a person wants to work it out (or take it out) on someone. That doesn’t solve the problem. It only provides temporary relief from some emotional discomfort. Is that wrong? Well, it’s not exactly healthy, and enabling someone to engage in unhealthy behaviour isn’t a good thing. This is something we should be able talk about without being silenced by people who would rather not recognize this reality.

Ultimately, no matter who you are, the idea of dominating another human being in whatever way is rooted in ego and the fetishism of power. I don’t know that that is something we should wholesale encourage or condone. It can be playful and reciprocal; it may not necessarily be expressed in harmful ways. So I think we can distinguish between recreational and pathological expressions. I’m just not a fan of the idea of handing anyone a blank cheque in terms of how they treat others, especially considering that certain groups are already disadvantaged as it is and that people who have been subjected to abuse are more likely to be victimized again. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine them because even if they are natural (and I’m not convinced they are), they have the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.

I’m all for sexual expression, but not where we use the principles of individuality and personal freedom as tools to take advantage of the willingness of others to be vessels for violence. Exploitation with consent is still exploitation.

As uncomfortable and slippery as discussing sexual appropriateness might be, I think we’ll always be debating what’s acceptable and what’s not. It seems as though some people assume that sexual liberation is a linear process, that one day there will be no laws or cultural norms. But I think that’s unrealistic. In our efforts to call out moralizing where it’s harmful and unnecessary, it’s unreasonable to gloss over everything humans do sexually just because we choose to do it or because of the nature of the activity. I hope we never get to a point where it’s acceptable to look the other way when a person agrees to be abused. It will never be okay to sit idly by while someone tries to slit their own wrists, drink themselves to death, or undertake other forms of self-harm. Why should willfulness or consent free us from responsibility?

Although we all live in a highly subjective reality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that some things just are wrong. Defining that is a messy business that will continue to evolve, but it’s precisely because it’s a controversial subject that we should seize the opportunity to establish why weird isn’t wrong, unusual isn’t wrong, and we should always be open to talking about what “wrong” actually means. The idea of wrong already rules our lives in legal and social terms, so why not bring it out into the open so we can figure out what it means for us today, rather than blindly condemning or condoning an entire subset of practices that might be quite different, one from another? We like to pretend that morality is relevant only when it concerns issues such as poverty and greed but irrelevant where it might infringe on individual and especially sexual rights. I wonder if it’s possible to find a balance because I don’t see a reasonable alternative if we’re being honest with ourselves.

It seems that the biggest challenge we face when discussing thorny issues like this is the tendency to resort to false logic and dogma on both ends of the spectrum. If I can articulate a well-researched and well-reasoned argument that reflects the principles of empathy, compassion, and justice, that will form the basis of my position on any subject. I accept that someone else can do the same and reach a different conclusion. But if you can’t explain why your actions are ethical other than to say, “It’s none of your business” or “They wanted me to do it”, that’s not good enough. We have to do better than that.

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Filed under Eastern & New Age Philosophy, Politics & Society

Gaza and schadenfreude: exploiting oppression

Rabble recently published an article entitled The Green Party wins ‘Worst Statement on Gaza’ award hands down in which the author asks, “Is there a contest going on in Ottawa about who can write the most despicable statement on Israel’s current assault on Gaza? If so, the Green Party just put this one to bed.” The question answers itself; if we didn’t already see this as a game in which opponents try to defeat or best each other, we do now. To frame the discussion of the atrocities taking place as a contest is disrespectful. There are no winners or losers in this debate. I would hazard a guess that the people hiding and running for their lives couldn’t care less who’s getting the most retweets or applause for their witty rebuttals.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t call people out. Where a group stands on this issue tells us a lot about their values and priorities and this should inform our electoral choices. We should stand in unwavering solidarity against Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. But just as it’s critical to talk about these issues, it’s also important to talk about how we talk about them and why. Using the Israel-Palestine conflict as an opportunity to prove why your group or ideology is better than another is a shameful form of schadenfreude. We cross a dangerous line when we go beyond explaining why an opponent’s argument is wrong to pointing to someone and saying, “See, I told you those guys are assholes – look at the hatred they’re spewing!” More than exposing the mentality underpinning apartheid, this serves to validate one’s own ego and shifts the focus to the faults of one’s opponent. Suddenly, the debate transforms from being one about human rights to one about who is right. As passionate advocates of social justice, we must always remember to centre our discourse on the oppressed. This is not about us, nor is it about our enemies. It’s about finding a solution. And unless we plan to annihilate our enemies, we’re going to have to find that solution together, like it or not.

Another problem with the Rabble article is that the analysis itself is baseless and as such doubly exploits the issue as an opportunity to smear a particular group. As a fairly new organization, Canada’s Green Party is known for being less partisan as it’s not easily categorized as either left-wing or right-wing. I’ve heard one prominent left-wing activist describe it as quasi-progressive. The article was a response to an incredibly inflammatory post that Green Party president Paul Estrin published on his blog on the party’s website. Returning to the title of Stewart’s article (The Green Party wins ‘Worst Statement on Gaza’ award hands down), it’s clear that Estrin’s personal views are being conflated with those of the party as a whole. On twitter the hashtag #OneReasonImNotAMember surfaced and some people expressed shame for their association with the party as a result of the controversy. All members of political parties carry their party’s badge and brand, especially if they’re a high-ranking member such as Estrin. So while it’s reasonable to condemn his views and question whether they represent those of his party, anyone who assumes that this is the case and for whatever reason fails to acknowledge the distinction between one member and their party is being disingenuous, and their conclusions lack legitimacy.

When the leader of a party makes statements, they carry even more currency. Here’s what’s especially troublesome about the brouhaha: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has condemned the occupation of Gaza as illegal and a key barrier in the conflict. The party recently passed a motion in a very popular vote at their convention that reflects this position. May has also unequivocally expressed her disagreement with Estrin and it has been confirmed that Estrin’s views are hugely underrepresented among the party’s members.

A number of progressives swiftly interrogated May about Estrin’s post and attacked her for not firing him and removing his comments. Members have the ability to autonomously post on the website and May has explained that she never interferes with members’ self-expression, even when their opinions are questionable or diverge from official policy. The fact that the post remains online doesn’t amount to an endorsement, which the impossible-to-miss disclaimer embedded at the top of Estrin’s commentary qualifies. The Green Party, unlike the major parties, discourages censorship. This is a party that doesn’t try to muzzle its members or cover its tracks. That’s a good thing. And what of May’s ability to get rid of Estrin even if she wanted to?

 

One member harbours alarming views on any given controversial topic – this could happen in any party. Are we not smart enough to tell the difference between the sort of blatant pro-Israel policy of some parties and an anomaly within the Greens, whose stance is fully transparent and differs almost homogenously from this one errant individual? Even if Canada had a perfect leftist party, does anyone actually believe there couldn’t be a handful of members whose views are problematic or extreme?

The situation in Gaza is horrifying enough as it is. Why are we wasting time arguing with people who already agree with us when important work needs to be done? There’s a point at which rants about certain Canadian politicians and parties no longer serve us. Instead, it would be a lot more useful for us to investigate and explore the issues. The last thing we should be doing is increasing acrimony, sensationalizing the issue, and using it as an excuse to skewer people unjustifiably. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the war of words and identifying so much with our side or our position that we start to lose focus on what really matters. But that’s precisely what we have to do. Now more than ever we need honest, thoughtful discourse, and if we want others to respond in a measured and fair manner, we must start by setting that example ourselves.

My intention isn’t to pick on one writer, publication, or group. I believe that we should never hold back on critiques that are rooted in a spirit of sincerity and integrity. We should expect no less of our comrades. The illusion of moral and intellectual superiority prevents us from developing sustainable relationships. I’m not afraid to admit this as a socialist: I don’t believe the world would be a better place if everyone shared my ideology. The only things that will bring us peace and justice are a clear mind and an open heart. Let’s start there.

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When conscious consumerism is bullshit

Blake Lively is pulling a Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m not talking about the so-called conscious uncoupling (although let’s hope that if Blake and Ryan do break up, they’ll call it what it is and spare us all the unbearable pretension). No, I’m talking about a “lifestyle” website newly launched by Lively; one she no doubt hopes will do better than the slumping goop.

Preserve is the newest digital playground designed for those who can afford to ooh and aah over things that are vintage, gourmet, rustic, artisan, repurposed, handcrafted (because ‘handmade’ isn’t authentic enough anymore), or whatever other adjective presumably justifies an exorbitant price tag. The geniuses of Portlandia do a fantastic job of parodying modern fads. Their Put a Bird on It skit reminds me of how it’s not uncommon for people to exploit trends in order to charge more for something than it’s worth.

 

 

Preserve is basically a mercantile Pinterest for affluent hipsters. Now, materialism is nothing new. We live in a capitalist system, after all. Marketing and advertizing are everywhere. They’ve colonized our culture and our minds. They follow us around in our daily lives, beaming their subliminal messages from every surface and medium possible; in captchas, on sewers, on people’s foreheads. We can’t even urinate in peace. And that snappy Michael Kors bag perched conspicuously on the lap of the woman opposite you on the subway – how many women do you figure have yearned for the privilege of being a real life mannequin so they too can feel important?

Instead of acknowledging how invasive and insidious all of this is, people frequently applaud its ingenuity. Forget about what we might be able to accomplish if such resourcefulness and creativity weren’t squandered by private interests. Money and cleverness win over ethics, hands down. The cult of consumerism brands those of us who refuse to kneel in the temple of materialism as heretics. No, this is nothing new.

What enrages me more than anything else, though, is the use of philanthropy to justify greed, which Preserve embarrassingly tries to pussyfoot around:

“Doing good” is often looked at with a cynical eye. For good reason. Much of it is a selfish act— it feels good, it sounds good, it can be quite self-congratulatory. While it is personally rewarding, there is an impact to be made when we can step back and acknowledge the truths in the motivation— not only the selfish ones, but the ones bred of a genuine desire to be there for others, others who don’t regularly have the fortunate opportunities that we do each day.

Let us be clear. We are a for-profit business.

We celebrate and indulge in the treasures both high and low that we feature on Preserve. We are aware that a lot of what we are selling is outlandish in a world where people are starving and have nowhere to sleep. This is a real problem. One that even on our high horse we can’t ignore. This is our community. Each of ours.

We have set our first goal of giving 5,000 children a meal, 2,000 children a blanket, and 2,700 children a warm hoodie, all within the U.S.

We’re a small, but growing company. Our giving reflects our age. As we mature so will our contribution both fiscally and physically.

We acknowledge that we are human and are flawed. But please accept, our intention is to do something pure. So we ask you, let this be a conversation. Help us grow. Help us give. Please critique us, teach us and be patient with us in the process, as ultimately we are all in this, this spinning sphere, together.

How douchey and patronizing is this?

Many of us are onto the ways in which businesses exploit our desire to purchase good quality, socially and environmentally sound products, only to justify doing so because they’re not 100% greedy. I’d say I’m reasonably suspicious that they’re tricking us into spending more money while they reap a fatter profit margin. Because really, how much of our money is going toward overhead, especially when it comes to web-based businesses, many of which are featured on Preserve? Consider the $70 High Tide Classic Bow Tie. Or for $132, perhaps you prefer a “hand painted” t-shirt that has been “distressed” and “destroyed” so you can walk around looking like you just fixed your Harley Davidson – without having to smell like it.

Twombly Crew

This accoutrement is the brainchild of The Squad, who design clothing that’s “comfortable for one’s own wandering” and “colored by hues from their travels and washed specifically for comfort and ease; it’s essential knitwear built for the long road ahead.” Is this what people are doing with their English degrees?

In the event that you’re into Native appropriation, they also offer a holey t-shirt with a dreamcatcher on it for $80. Is the cotton even organic? Seriously, in a recession, who has the money for this shit?

Corporations like Starbucks really love to pat themselves on the back. Take the Ethos Water Fund, for example:

So far more than $7.38 million has been granted to help support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.

I have a better idea. How about they pay their fair share of taxes? And how about instead of charging us $2 for water, from which a measly 10¢ is devoted to these unfortunate people, they give a little more and charge us a little less for something we can get out of a tap? If these campaigns are truly a form of social responsibility in action, I’d like to see them do these good deeds without attaching their logo to them. Otherwise, the line that separates philanthropy from self-promotion becomes awfully blurry.

I do what I can. I’m the sort of shopper who keeps health food stores in business; I don’t even use normal toilet bowl cleaner, for Christ’s sake. But I saw a jar of what I’m sure are delicious pickles at my local butcher the other day that cost a cool $14.99. If anyone has any doubt that Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village has been gentrified, wonder no more. That’s the official stamp right there (yup, Portlandia did a parody of the pickling fad too!). My family had a huge garden when I was growing up and we canned pretty much everything that can be canned. Beets, mushrooms, pickles, borscht, tomatoes, sauerkraut – you name it. I can tell you it’s not that expensive to do. Look, I’ll gladly pay more for locally, naturally raised meat any day. I’ve even cut my meat consumption so I can afford it. I get why it costs so much more than the standard grocery store fare. But fucking pickles?

It’s getting hard to find businesses that don’t take advantage of their throwback appeal and ethical bent to squeeze more money out of customers. Why should I have to declare war on myself for wanting to swing by that shop that introduced me to terrine because I feel like I’ve been seduced by Satan himself? I hate who I’ve become!

So I ask you: where do we draw the line? It seems that the cheapest and most authentic way to do things ethically and naturally is to do it your damn self.

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