Saturday, September 24, 2011

Openly speaking about norms and values

One of the most important things to come out of any experiment or project or different way of being is the conversation that is provoked because of actions that go in the face of social norms and values. Any project like living trash-free is provocative for several reasons. First, the tangibility of trash and waste and their embeddedness in our every day lives allow everyone to relate to the messages I am intending to elaborate on. Second, living trash-free just isn't the norm. If it was the norm, then it would say something differently about the society and culture we lived in, that social interactions are not dependent on trash and waste. This is definitely not the case. Third, it serves as a judgement of the norms. As Ethan, a sociologist, mentioned to me, what is most fascinating about such projects is the way they provoke people and at times make them uncomfortable.

Norms and values aren't talked about unless someone breaks them. Breaking them exposes underlying assumptions. But norms and values can be broken in our individual lives, secretly (like celibacy, maybe?), or they can be broken in public and criticise social construction more broadly (like trash and culture). To me, living trash-free has been a journey on many levels, spiritual and social. Again, the goal is to unearth and unpack individual and social values and norms, and to have a conversation.

But today, we see very little explicit talk about norms and values. Erik Reece writes in his essay, The Schools We Need, that
I suspect the hesitancy by many high school teachers to hold active class discussions about real moral and ethical dilemmas may be a byproduct of how contested and politicized the word values has become. No one wants to talk about them because someone might become offended, or someone might say the wrong thing, or the messiness of open debate might get exposed.
Although debates about ethics and behaviour are prevalent, they are more and more detached from our every day experiences, as Aidan Davison has written in Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability. More generally, however, as has been seen on this blog, as well as on other websites and media, resistance to the breaking of norms, and explicit voicing of values (having been provoked by doing something like living trash-free and writing about it openly) don't necessarily have to have a face to them. We can pass judgement against those that are indeed willing to be activist or change convention by saying whatever we want to anonymously.

This is also applicable to those who want to speak out and against social norms and values, going to show that many of us are scared to speak out, fearing that we will lose social standing and acceptance. Derrick Jensen writes about this self-censorship in a recent essay, This Culture is #/?*#-+, in Orion:
When I give talks, I routinely ask audiences: Do you fear the U.S. government? Do you censor yourself for fear of government reprisals? If you spoke honestly about the near corporate control of the United States government, and how so-called elected representatives better represent corporations than they do living, breathing human beings, and about what you believe is necessary to halt environmental degradation, do you believe you would be arrested or otherwise harmed by the United States government? Nearly everyone--and I'm talk about thousands of people over the years--says yes.
We can all say what we want, and be cast as lunatics. That is what many environmentalists and activists have been branded as - "extreme," "unrealistic," "treehugger," "job-killer," "soft on terrorism." Individual attempts to get anything done then are quickly silenced and quashed. What I believe Jensen is trying to get at is that any meaningful attempt at dismantling the environmentally and socially-degrading industrial complex will be met with a strong resistance from those in power. Okay. And what does Jensen say about social standing?
The truth is, we no longer need the government to censor us; we now preempt any such censorship by censoring ourselves. This self-censorship has become utterly routine...But fear of state repression or loss of funding are trivial, I think, compared to our primary reason for self-censorship: fear that we'll lose credibility. We are, after all, social creatures, to whom credibility  can be more important than finances or even safety (when global warming is threatening...the planet..., the weakness of our responses makes clear that safety has long since been left in the dust).
Cartoon along with Derrick Jensen's essay
I encourage each one of you to take on challenges, projects, experiments, and movements that challenge, question, criticise, and overturn social norms. These are the norms that keep people silent when they should be speaking out, the norms that keep massive industrial systems in place that wreak havoc on our environments, the norms that condone and accept violence as a means to end conflict or dominate this Earth. Take on these challenges, and develop the conversations. As Mark Slouka recently wrote, we need "men and women capable of furthering what's best about us and forestalling what's worst."

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