We can't wait for everyone to be equally educated before we seek worldly change. But past examples of messy activism, like the quinoa craze discussed in this latest episode of Global Humanist Shoptalk, show us that we don't have to.
The Humanist Light Source – Global Humanist Shoptalk
There’s the world we want to live in, and there’s the world we have. In many conversations here on OnlySky, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest mental blocks in activist discourse is our frustration that people won’t think or do differently right now. Why should we cater to their ignorance, or their obstinacy? There’s the principle of the thing to think about! We can’t simply accommodate people’s irrationality! Or make alliance with people who aren’t ideal allies! We need to make them change themselves before we change the world!
Ironically, this desire for us to be better first is quite an irrational position to hold. If we want to do better collectively, we have to meet people where they are, and make sure we account for human behavior as we set policy. We’re not all going to have the same academic backgrounds on key issues, and we’re never going to share the same experiences of the world. Our activism is always going to involve messy coalition-building. But that’s no reason not to pursue it anyway.
As I reflect on my episodes of Global Humanist Shoptalk, which I wrote and recorded last year in anticipation of OnlySky’s launch, I have to chuckle at my optimism. At the time, I didn’t know what kind of forum we’d have, and what kinds of conversations would bear fruit. I did know that I wanted to be able to reflect on issues from a bit of a removal. I detest click-bait and hot-take articles around key humanist issues, so I’m always trying to figure out what position I can hold today, based on the best current knowledge, that would still feel correct to have held in retrospect.
But that’s not an easy feat, because another common self-deception of the “rationalist” mindset is forgetting that we belong to contexts. We always belong to contexts. And so, for instance, as we hear reports out of Russia of an indoctrinated citizenry, it’s important not to treat the phenomenon as isolated. What a state sanctions will always inform what its citizenry views as normal and acceptable. When we see news of indoctrination elsewhere, we need to ask ourselves what our states and media cultures present as normal, too. What are we expected to take for granted? Whose struggles matter most? Which peoples are we being asked to vilify?
The quinoa craze, and good-ish intentions
That’s why this latest episode on Global Humanist Shoptalk, which reflects on the quinoa craze of the early 2000s, feels relevant to me even now. I had no idea what kind of groupthink was going to rear its head in 2022 when I wrote it, but we’re still dealing with groupthink either way.
That quinoa craze marks a fascinating period in our advocacy, too, because there were so many intersecting concerns and motivating factors in play. Quinoa was treated as a super-food, but also spun as a way to make a meaningful difference in the global economy. In other words, our interest in the best for us was also conveniently marketed as the best for everyone. Improve yourself to improve the planet! And we went for it! I mean, who wouldn’t want cultural license to focus on themselves and call the action socially conscious, too?
That’s the key here. Not the fact that most people who followed the trend didn’t fully understand the geopolitics or food science. Not the fact that most people were simply bandwagoning around a lifestyle choice and status symbol. It’s what this food trend illustrates about predictable human behavior in group dynamics. When we pay attention to how human beings react en masse to different social incentives, we gain key insights into how to mobilize interest for different causes.
But, the principle of the thing!
And yes, I’m sure it can be a little disheartening to realize that rallying human interest for change often comes down to good marketing. In an ideal world, everyone would come to every new social issue as fully informed as possible. Ideally, people would also always want to make the best choices for the world, even if those choices, far from adding to personal comfort, actually required some level of personal sacrifice.
But it’s important to prioritize outcomes here. Does a refugee of war, or a child afflicted by disease amid drought, really care if their shelter or medicine came from someone who had considered all the variables and come to a thoroughly informed choice before donating to the region? Would this person in need balk at something provided by an unthinking donation to a major campaign: an act done by someone who simply wanted to post on social media about what a good person they’ve been?
I do not dismiss the importance of striving for consistency, sustainability, and education in our advocacy. We should strive to make more thoughtful choices with our time, energy, and resources. And it is absolutely our responsibility to do better once we know better. But also, our ability to anguish over all the different roads that bring us to common-cause advocacy is a very comfortable problem to have. So while we’re busying wrangling over the ethics of mass campaigning for change, let’s also do what we can, with human behavior as it stands, to bring as many people as possible out of poverty, precarity, and distress, to one day feast at our table of discourse, too.