The Convenient Distraction of Personal Responsibility
Conscious consumerism and diet choices to save the planet.
Adapted from an Instagram story.*
As this pandemic wears on and the summer uprising for racial justice continues, the left is climbing all over one another to show who is doing right by humanity best.
And I am not above the same thing. I also want to chastise those not wearing masks or choosing to post about mundane things when there are literally people dying in the streets to protect Black lives.
But the more I go down that track, the more it becomes clear: this is not the most effective strategy to solve the problem I want to solve. In fact, it’s a calculated distraction in many cases. The idea that individuals and individual choices will change our world.
Particularly as relates to conscious consumerism or diet choices to disrupt climate change, personal choice and health outcomes, personal choice in stopping the spread of Covid and personal choice in dismantling systemic racism, whore phobia, fat phobia, homophobia, classism, sexism and ableism.
I’ll start by saying: please don’t get me wrong. These problems absolutely do guide my personal choices to an extent. I think it’s good to be as thoughtful as possible in your day to day life on all these fronts.
However, the obsession with personal choices being the answer to these problems strikes me as extremely counter productive. It also results in the distraction and ultimately dividing practice of policing one another for progressive purity and I’m not here for that.
I saw a quote somewhere that I haven’t been able to relocate (please send to me if you know!) saying: abolishing the police means not acting the police to each other. I think about this constantly as I have a lot of feelings, a lot of opinions and a very loud internet presence and that can actually result in me policing my peers and allies, my comrades and co-conspirators.
It’s gatekeeping. And while gatekeeping may feel good for a moment because it strokes your ego, it’s one of the least effective ways to truly build a massive coalition and assert change. So, let’s get into it, the convenient distraction of personal responsibility.
Conscious consumerism and diet choices to save the planet.
It’s true that eating less meat and buying certain products over others and buying fewer items generally makes an impact and I support anyone trying to do that.
But in the quest for these things, I see well meaning liberals and leftists actually throwing disabled people (see: plastic straws, etc.) and poor people (see: virtually everything else) under the bus.
What’s the point in striving for this purity if you’re ultimately screwing marginalized populations by doing it? And yes, I do know that it’s possible to “live green” or whatever when you’re poor but recall that doing so also requires time.
Time to research, time to prep, time to care about making those shifts when your main problem may be how to afford to see a doctor this month.
In reality, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions. And the US Military produces more greenhouse gas emissions than up to 140 countries and our government allows and even subsidizes our meat and dairy industry when we know that industry has to shrink and those subsidies could be supporting food production that doesn’t heat up our planet.
Additionally, when you fixate on your friends and neighbors’ individual environmentally friendly or not behaviors, you are literally pushing the agenda of major polluters.
For example, did you know that BP made up the term carbon footprint to deflect responsibility for climate change? I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be a foot soldier in their fight to continue screwing us.
So, definitely use a reusable water bottle, eat less meat and stop buying fast fashion or whatever, but don’t get distracted by policing people around you when the actual problem is not their fault.
We need to push for things like the Green New Deal, entering back into the Paris Climate Agreement, defunding the military and demanding change from corporations — which could be done with enough bad press if combined with a massive boycott or legislative controls.
Personal choice and health outcomes.
I’ve spilled a lot of ink over this one. So I’ll start with a fact: your personal health behaviors (lifestyle choices about eating, sleeping, exercising and substances, etc.) only account for somewhere between 20–40% of health determinants, depending on how you’re defining everything and which researchers you ask.
But we are obsessed with controlling every aspect of that because we’ve been fed a lie about what control we do and don’t have. We also aren’t well equipped to discuss or deal with death in this country and fixating on health or wellness can also be a form of death denial.
The other health determinants are: genes and biology, social and economic factors, clinical care and physical environment. They are the majority.
Which means if health and wellness gurus are really interested in promoting “holistic” health, they’d be pushing to end racism, sexism, fat phobia, homophobia, and classism.
They’d also be pushing for health care for everyone, poverty relief and ending environmental racism, to name a few. And yet, the word holistic more often than not means some unregulated supplements (scary!) and a diet.
So, not every health coach can push for all those systemic changes and that’s fine. But, if you’re seeing a health, nutrition or fitness person who seems to believe that if we just make certain personal choices, we can attain health and maintain health, you should be very skeptical because that’s factually inaccurate.
Also: anyone selling you a program for how to eat is not equipped to analyze scientific studies and therefore is not equipped to advise you in this area. Because it turns out that studying eating is quite complicated and many of the studies we rely on to advise “healthy” eating do not control for confounding factors like disordered eating.
Dieting at all (and yes, any wellness plan that dictates what or how much to eat is a diet, even when they directly purport not to be) is actually stress inducing, and we have a lot of scientific evidence that chronic stress is bad for our health.
It’s also dangerous because of how often it leads to other problems like disordered eating, full blown eating disorders (which are the most deadly of all mental illnesses) and damage to relationships and hobbies and other life wellness things. In fact, one of the biggest problems many of us face when it comes to food is not getting enough.
I’m not saying there is no science on nutrition. I’m especially not commenting on the intersection of chronic illness and eating, though the science there is interesting and complicated too.
What I am saying is that if anyone is telling you that everyone should eat a certain way and that doing so will make you or keep you healthy, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
In reality, personal health outcomes are a combination of health behaviors and these other determinants and we’d do well to take some focus off our diets and exercising and onto better healthcare, less discrimination and less poverty.
A note on fat phobia. You have been taught to fear being fat, that being fat is unhealthy and that you can control whether or not you are fat. None of this is true.
While we do see some correlation between fat bodies and certain diseases, we have no evidence of causation. We do, however, have some evidence that weight cycling (dieting), weight discrimination (the shitty way society treats fat people), and chronic stress cause those diseases.
So once again, people who actually know their stuff will be pushing for the world to treat fat people better and helping fat folks heal their relationship with food and their body,
they will not be pushing for smaller bodies. Everything I’ve just said is cited thoroughly here if you want to go down this rabbit hole, you can also look into Health At Every Size or Intuitive Eating for more.
One last thing: the fixation on attaining health as a moral goal we all should be striving for is extremely detrimental to everyone’s stress levels, but it’s especially shitty to the chronically ill and disabled population, of which I am a part. And, depending how you count that population, that could be anywhere from 10–40% of people.
AND I’ve got news for you: you could become one of us (disabled or chronically ill) at any time. So please don’t be a dick. Fight for ours and your right to solid health care, respect and accessibility, do not try to sell us a wellness plan. I promise, we’ve heard of whatever “wellness plan” you’re selling and we’re not interested.
The point is: the obsession with personal health, exercise, weight, diet, etc. as both a moral imperative and a thing that’s possible to control is a similar distraction.
We spend an absolutely absurd amount of time thinking about this and trying to control it, when we could be pushing for population level changes that would benefit everyone like ending environmental racism, ending food deserts, free school breakfast and lunch for all, access to safe outdoor green space for all, better and more accessible health care and more!
So sure, eat a wide variety of foods and sleep well and exercise, great! But don’t get fixated on forcing one another or even yourself into submission.
That’s not how it works. Keep your eye on the ball.
This one just sucks all around because like the others, we do have some measure of control. We could all wear masks, limit interactions and travel, and physically distance whenever we have to see other people.
However, the reasons COVID-19 has run unchecked in this country are entirely failings on the part of leadership. So I also feel extremely dismayed when I know people who aren’t taking it as seriously as me, especially when the risks they’re taking seem silly to me.
However, our government is allowing for those choices to happen, all while dropping the ball on testing, tracking and isolating.
Our government has also put out confusing information and now I’m personally aware of pretty big public health failings in terms of even attempting to contact trace in a few states.
While I wish individuals understood and cared enough to do better, it’s ultimately a systemic issue that they don’t and it would require a top down, systemic fix.
Dismantling systems that perpetuate racism, homophobia, fat phobia, whore phobia, sexism, classism and ableism.
I am a big fan of each of us doing our part in unlearning the deeply entrenched ideas that allow us to treat people in any of these categories poorly. In fact, I think we have a moral duty to do that on an interpersonal and intra community level. However, in each of those isms and phobias, there are codified, legalized items that allow for them to continue.
If we don’t dismantle the systems of which we are a part, treating our neighbor and coworker with respect will only go so far.
For example, I’m with it to keep Breonna Taylor’s name in the forefront, what happened to her was heinous. But what happened to her was legal, shouldn’t we fix that (we partially did)? Wouldn’t defunding the police department that did that or holding the developer who was ultimately responsible for that police clear out effort to account prevent that from happening again better? We know that even if those cops are jailed, that won’t be a deterrent for future police violence.
Now I want to be clear: when someone has been the victim of a crime, I will support the type of justice they or their families want to see. So I’m not saying those cops shouldn’t be charged — I think they should.
What I’m saying is that incarceration in this country has never been about justice, rehabilitation or community safety. Taking those cops out of that community will not solve this problem.
To actually engage with ideas about justice, rehabilitation and community safety would require a whole new system. I mean, the whole world is watching us right now and the cops literally can’t stop killing Black people, even though they are sometimes jailed. Cops have killed 751 people in 2020 alone. It’s August.
But even more than police brutality there is also redlining, voter suppression, mass incarceration, adultification, school to prison pipeline, environmental racism, subpar medical care, hair discrimination, intergenerational trauma and poverty, predatory lending and so many more things that are keeping society the way it is for BIPOC.
So yes, unlearn your own shit. You have to. But the fixation on personal responsibility isn’t the one and only answer. It just isn’t.
The same goes for sex workers, fat folks, disabled people, poor people, immigrants and LGBTQ folks. Yes, we have to treat all of these people with more respect as a society.
But more than that, we have to do things like decriminalize sex work and repeal FOSTA/SESTA, end legal discrimination of LGBTQ folks, get better legal protections and assistance for disabled people, have an actual plan for migration, make sure no one lives in poverty and end codified medical weight discrimination, to name a tiny fraction of desperately needed changes.
It’s a lot. So while we absolutely have to be kind to one another and I will call someone in for misgendering or using a slur, we can’t let the fixation on using the politically correct words become a full time gatekeeping job that keeps people out of movements for massive systemic change.
I clearly do not have all the answers to all of these massive and horrifying problems. But I’d love to see more people, especially on the left, less obsessed with policing each other and looking a certain way and more focused on collective action, movements and solutions that attack the root problems.
It’s OK and good to share information about personal responsibility in these various efforts, I’m not saying to stop helping your personal network do better personally.
But being radical means going at the root of problems and in all these examples, systemic change will go farther than you getting mad at your friend for buying a shirt at forever 21.
Drop the social justice gatekeeping, progressive purity tests and judgment and bring people in, turn them on and redirect them towards these massive goals that will take large scale collective action.