How to use your daily activities to create a more just and ethical world
Author Jason Del Gandio
Author Anthony Nocella
This excerpt from Educating for Action, from Larry Albert Butz, compiled and edited by Jason Del Gandio and Anthony J Nocella II, stresses the benefits of using your everyday life as a means to your politics.
Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University. Jason has appeared on television and radio, and regularly speaks on college campuses and at public venues. He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists.
Anthony J. Nocella II is a scholar-activist, Senior Fellow of the Dispute Resolution Institute at the Hamline Law School and Executive Director of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. He has published more than fifty scholarly articles or book chapters and sixteen books including, Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex.
Excerpt from the Book
What Is Personal Lifestyle?
The word “lifestyle” is sometimes used pejoratively when talking about systemic social change. Someone might say, for instance, that boycotting Walmart due to its business practices is ineffective for challenging corporate greed and malpractice. Such a criticism has a point — one person’s boycott will not make or break Walmart’s multi-billion-dollar operation. But one person can help mobilize others to do the same. People influence people, and if you can get enough people to boycott, then Walmart will be forced to change. Personal boycotts also reflect the famous quote attributed to Gandhi, which states that you must “be the change you wish to see.”
In other words, we should withdraw our participation from systems that we seek to change and, conversely, enact the changes that we believe in. Cultural critics and historians argue that, since 1915, when consumerism began reaching new heights in the United States, Americans have tied their sense of freedom to product consumption. As people increasingly connected their identities to commodities (i.e., products and goods that are bought and sold), the word “lifestyle,” which originally referred to the choices people made that made them uniquely themselves, began to be used as a way to refer to the changing notion of identity as it merged with commodity relations.
Lifestyle now refers to our daily practices of eating particular foods, wearing particular clothes, driving particular cars, living in particular homes, surrounding ourselves with particular brands, and in general consuming a plethora of particular commodities. Commonly, the phrase “personal lifestyle” conjures up notions of your own habits and practices, as if your personal life does not affect others. But that’s a misnomer, since our lives are interconnected in a multitude of ways. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said so eloquently,
All men [and women] are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed. Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee that is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half the world. In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Dr. King’s quote summarizes the point of lifestyle politics: our lives are interconnected, and one’s own privilege and power is often enabled by the oppression and disempowerment of others. If this is true, then I must find a way to live my life that does more good than harm. Think of your own daily activities. There are very few that do not affect people, nonhuman animals, the environment, the climate. Your mode of transportation has some impact on the environment, the clothes you purchase affect factory workers’ lives across the world, and the food you eat is of huge ethical importance since agriculture, especially meat production, is a leading contributor to climate change. The point is to recognize that our behaviors are expressions of our values, beliefs, ethics, and worldviews. If you believe in climate justice, then you need to think about what you can do to lessen climate change. If you believe that all creatures are free, sentient beings, then you need to think about the food you eat. If you believe that all workers— regardless of national borders — deserve fair pay and treatment, then you need to think about the products that you buy. These issues boil down to behaviors — what you do and the impact of that doing.
This way of acting is usually called lifestyle activism. As I said above, this term is sometimes used as an insult, as if using one’s personal life as a form of activism is insufficient and thus a less worthy form of activism. I believe a better term is everyday activism — the practice of embodying one’s activism in everyday activities.
Individual behaviors are part of larger social systems — e.g., familial, economic, educational, political, religious, and cultural systems. Due to the nature of our present society, everyday activism can have the biggest impact on the economic rather than the political system.
It is hard to affect the government through everyday activism, for instance. Boycotting Congress, refusing to vote, or ignoring presidential discourse will probably hurt your political cause. As the great philosopher and social critic Karl Marx noted in the 1800s, most human relations are actually economic relations. While we have come a long way since Marx, his insight is truer now than ever before — the economy permeates our lives. Everyday activists can use this insight to impact the world.
What changes can you make in your everyday life to have a positive impact on the world? The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the transportation you use, the words you choose are all important for social change.
Combining Lifestyle with Other Movements
Everyday activism can be effective, but it is most powerful when coupled with larger social movements. For instance, the Black Power movement (BPM) of the 1960s–’70s was an extension of the Civil Rights movement (CRM). The CRM was primarily concerned with legal rights — getting certain laws passed that would enable African Americans to be treated equally to whites. The BPM obviously supported such efforts, but it was also concerned with developing a positive and affirmative black identity — understanding beauty from a black perspective, understanding black history, becoming comfortable with expressing one’s “blackness,” promoting black art and poetry, creating black businesses in black communities. These issues of everyday activism would not have been nearly as powerful if they had not been connected to the CRM. In many ways, these two movements were the expression of an interconnected struggle — to obtain freedom and equality for African Americans and the acceptance and appreciation of black culture.
The act of veganism mentioned earlier definitely has connections to wider social movements — e.g., animal rights, animal welfare, and animal advocacy. Not every vegan is a self-described activist. But many vegans do develop some form of activist orientation and therefore contribute to social change beyond their own personal lives. As one example, legislatures across the country have been passing bills to basically outlaw the actions of animal liberation activists. In brief, these activists seek to expose the commonplace cruelty of animal-exploiting industries (e.g., food and agriculture, entertainment, fur and leather). Animal liberationists can be, and have been, imprisoned with members of al-Qaeda simply for boycotting animal agriculture, an act which is now illegal under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, passed in 2006. How was such an Orwellian law passed? The pocketbooks of major corporations were being hurt by animal liberationists, and these corporations were able to cajole Congress into passing the bill.8 While this law is unjust, it does demonstrate the power of combining everyday activism with larger social movements: roughly one percent of the US population is vegan and an even smaller percentage is involved with animal rights and liberation, but these activists were capable of scaring a multi-billion-dollar industry.
From Economic to Interpersonal Concerns
Many of our everyday activities do not involve our economic system, or even our political system. But these activities are still extremely important for social change. Just the way we treat each other in our personal interactions contributes to our shared social world — interpersonal relations, emotional support, compassion, willingness to listen and empathize, and signs of mutual aid and care are part of being an ethical human being. There are far too many interpersonal issues to address here. But language is one place to start. What kind of language do we use in our everyday lives, and how does that language either oppress or liberate ourselves and others? Feminists have been at the forefront of addressing the relationship between language and everyday activism.
They have pointed out that there is a close relationship between our everyday language (e.g., hu-man, chick, or the female doctor) and the ways in which women are generally perceived and treated in society. Similar issues apply to race (the “N word”), gender (sissy), sexuality (That’s so gay), mental and physical abilities (retarded and lame), and so on. It would be impossible to cover all the ways in which we can cultivate a more ethical and politically conscientious language.
So how do you become an everyday activist? You begin with self-reflection. What do you believe in? What kind of world would you like to create? What do you oppose, what are you for, and why? Now, consider how you can translate this reflection into practice. We all live with some kind of contradiction or gap between what we truly believe and how we actually live. And you can’t end war simply by being peaceful to your neighbors. But if you are serious about social change, you must enact that change in your personal life. That is the whole point of everyday activism. Be the change you want to see.