Friday, May 2, 2014

Consumerism...

is defined as: "a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts."

I spent my last few years working as a numbers/database wonk and the data I sliced and diced mainly had to to with people who accessed mental health services. There was, during that time, a concerted effort to change the term used to refer to people who used M.H. services from client to consumer. The first time I heard that sort of goofy sounding word "consumer"...I thought it was a joke. It wasn't.

There's a bit of history here. I'll do a very brief summary (necessarily incomplete and inadequate). The word patient has some connotations that Carl Rogers (an influential...and quite interesting and insightful) American psychologist objected to and he pushed fairly successfully for referring to the people seen by psychotherapists and psychiatrists as clients instead of patients. Patient carries the connotation of a supplicant seeking assistance from an expert as well as medicalizing the notion of psychotherapy. Dr. Rogers felt that an individual was the expert about their own life and the term patient disregarded that fact and hence he advocated a more neutral term like client...he eventually called his therapeutic approach "client-centered" and later still just called that approach "person-centered".

I lived through the transition of terminology from "patient" to "client" (not complete, by any means) and here I was seeing a push for a terminology change from one which was designed to empower and recognize the individuals expertise about themselves to a term designed to fit the person into some sort of business/marketing model of the world.

Although curiously, when pressed, those advocating for this change really didn't know why they wanted it, just that "client" sounded old-fashioned and consumer sounded, well, business-like or something. One argument for the change was that it "empowered" individuals by making them into "customers".

As far as I can see the change is one from a structure or equality to a hierarchical one...i.e. whomever has the most purchasing power wins. Fifty thousand customers spending ten dollars each is trumped by one customer spending one million dollars. In other words, the idea that all "consumers" are equal is erroneous...but...this notion that the "market" is "empowering" is one of the persistent (and misleading) myths of our times.

That's no kind of "empowerment" I want anything to do with. At the core it encourages...no....demands...greed, i.e. those with the most money exert the most influence. Unless...there is a system in place that ensures that all purchasing power is equal for all "customers". But...it never includes that provision.

What in hell does this have to do with veganism? Well actually, I think maybe a whole whole lot. When the Donald Watson group defined vegan they referred to the exploitation of animals. A vegan human society/culture is going to necessitate much more of a change than is often thought.

The whole idea of "using" must be drastically re-examined...and maybe even done away with. Consumerism/exploitation/business/marketing/advertizing/profit...all those things/concepts/approaches are going to face major revision or maybe virtual elimination in order to achieve a standard of human behavior that doesn't include harming/using others and/or harming/destroying the place where we live. A standard where justice and/or fairness and/or harmlessness is the measure of value...not money or "markets".

I've been struggling with writing this post for several weeks and interestingly I recently ran across some other writing that included some lines that resonated for me:
 "...we cannot get even close to what we want as vegans within the present social and economic structure. A wider, more systemic vision of social change is necessary if we are really serious about bringing about the liberation of all animals, and determined to protect the environment."
This is from a blog called On Human-Nonhuman relations written by Roger Yates who is a sociologist and a long time (really long time) vegan.

This vegan thing just might mean much much more than it appears if we want to achieve a "life-centered" or "Earthling-centered" human society.

6 comments:

Bea Elliott said...

First I can't believe the clients are now to be called consumers/customers. That has so many layers to it and you're right that it does lead to where you took it. And if there was resistance before with a consumption-based vegan ideal I can't imagine what suppression we'd meet if we threatened the consumer model too.

After all don't many of us attempt to insure farmers/ranchers/meat-growers that they will still have vegetable eating customers to sell to? Don't we raise the bar on the variety of "vegan food" with new products, restaurants, and cook-books? Aren't fashion-oriented folks put to ease that they can still enjoy "the look" of leather, furs and all the "cruelty-free" beauty concoctions? It's a hum-dinger of a monster to tackle... And in the end if we don't, maybe an "ethical" consumer model will be as good as it gets. If that's possible. (?)

I'm sure you too have watched the video that Roger Yates recorded with his group. The speaker is vegan anarchist tina cubberley. Her talk implores us as advocates to see the larger picture that as we sell out to "vegan" consumerism we betray the values this movement is supposed to represent. Pretty much what Roger Yates wrote and what you say as well.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHQEvZchL0c

I agree with all. But Ms. cubberley also has the likes of me pegged... I'm fearful that if we push to hard for even more "extreme" change that we'll turn away that many more and the suffering/exploitation/injustice will only continue. So I'm stuck. :/

My quick pitch has always been to direct people towards some "transition" option... I'd just as soon make rice and beans from scratch or eat a sweet potato but I just don't see 99% of the world I know going for that. And so in 3 to 5 minutes can I also throw in that everything they consume ought to be re-evaluated. What's left? I'm still stuck.

Everything about forming alliances, about being conscientious buyers, about limiting absolutely everything we purchase to a critical-necessity- only basis is true. I just don't know how it would come to be. But I'm convinced too - We won't reach the ethical ideal, a truly vegan world by continuing to "mainstream" veganism. All we're doing is commodifying it. I remain: Stuck. :/

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Bea. Uh...I'll have to do a little bit of elaborating here I think. Firstly, no, I had not watched the video you referenced and after about 5 or 6 minutes of it I stopped and jumped to the end of it. I found myself mentally traipsing off to Mars or somewhere as she spoke. I gotta tell ya the truth, I get nervous whenever someone that young is that certain. I apologize for that aspect of me, but...well...there it is. It reminded me of a civil rights meeting I attended way back when I was an undergraduate...the earnestness and certainty and righteousness overwhelmed me even though I agreed with the content and the intent. Maybe that's a byproduct of my having been forcibly indoctrinated by southern baptists (via my family) for many years before I could escape it. There's lots of earnestness and certainty and righteousness from those folks too...and when I encounter it in others (or me) I sort of go into vapor lock once I recognize it. :-)

Now you went much much further in your comment than I was trying to go in my post. I like your word "stuck". I do think that fits well. I wasn't trying to offer any solutions or even any directions even...rather I was exposing some of my thinking and doing so with the hopes of hearing from others about their thinking. You did a masterful job of expressing yours and I thank you for that.

You write: "I just don't know how it would come to be." That's precisely what I believe lots and lots and lots of more slow and serious thinking needs to be applied toward. Ms. Cubberly sort of sounds like she has it all figured out...if so she's way beyond where I am.

For example, wouldn't it be interesting if we had some database or something that contained lots of information about every way of doing human society that has ever been tried...and how it impacted the participants, and the other Earthlings and the planet herself? It seems to me that it is probable that we've tried out all kinds of ways of living over the many years of human existence and maybe we've tried out some that were pretty good...if so what were they...how well did they work...why don't all of us do them now (in other words why did they fail)...and so on. To me, looking to the past to learn about the now and to plan for the future seems prudent.

I do think lots more consideration and thinking and realizing and comprehending is called for, at least for me. I think many who are sympathetic to veganism have yet to grasp that maybe a human society living vegan is a much more profound and revolutionizing phenomenon than it first appears. Donald Watson was actually a fairly radical figure when you consider that his commitment to non-violence led him to refuse to participate in WWII even when his homeland (England) was under attack by the Nazis. That's pretty profound...and cool.

In the meantime..."mainstreaming" veganism is...at least for the harmed animals...much better than mainstreamed animal killing. :-) Every Earthling we can avoid harming, or even help, means less suffering and misery and death...and decreasing those things is not being "stuck"...at least certainly not for those we help or save. :-)

Bea Elliott said...

Thanks VE - It is a comfort to know I'm not missing "the right" (and only right) answer. I certainly don't have it as I swing from thinking that consumerism in general is the enemy, to honing it down exclusively to those things that negatively impact others. All I know in the end is that economics can never justify the ills we do. Money never forgives harm.

Yeah... It would be great to have a database to get us unstuck and on a better course. We've never had an economic system that put a cap on what an individual could earn. That would level the playing field considerably...

Always, thanks for your thoughts that challenge me to think a little deeper as well.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Fascinating post and discussion, and something I've been trying to think about and sort through in my head a bit more as well. Like Bea, I've been wondering if unbridled vegan consumerism that doesn't question purely profit-driven capitalism is any better. I mean, it is in the sense that animal beings aren't hurt (as much), but as long as we don't push back against the profit-matters-above-all mentality, societal structures aren't going to change drastically or quickly enough to make change happen that has any real impact.

But yeah, as if trying to implement veganism isn't enough of a challenge. Putting consumerism on top of that is even trickier, especially since we're all consumers to one degree or another. Or, as you indicated, we may need to redefine or expand our current thinking of veganism to truly combat exploitation on all levels.

Much work, much thinking, much questioning. Luckily, we three are probably past the age where we believe we can ever come up with the one right answer. That is likely a privilege of youth.

One author who I believe explores this subject is David A. Nibert: Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict -- an interesting read I would think.

Thanks for continuing your thoughts on this topic, veganelder! :)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. David Nibert's first book Animal Rights/Human Rights was one of the first AR books I purchased...it remains one of my favorites.

You're much more optimistic than I am about youth and the ability of youth to come up with a right answer. At this point I would settle for them doing better than us. :-)

Have Gone Vegan said...

Oh, not optimistic at all. I meant the fantasy of thinking we can come up with the one right answer is a privilege (although delusion is probably a better word, snort) of youth. I actually think things will get much worse before the human species as a whole is forced to try to make things better. There, now if that didn't brighten your morning... ;)