At my college, I’ve been trying to get a number of products (made by immoral companies or through unethical means) boycotted, both by the campus and by the students. It hasn’t been going so great.
My fellow students are more than willing, when I come knocking at their doors, to sign my petitions, but overwhelmingly that’s as far as they’ll go. More often than not they sign without even asking what I’m trying to do or tell me that they need time to think it over (which has been just a euphemism for “go annoy someone else”). It’s not that I’m ungrateful for having as many signatures as I do, but the real issue here is getting my peers to make a conscious change to the way they live their lives- to make an ethical statement. In all honesty I’d rather have them not sign at all than sign without actually joining the boycotts.
But that’s a bit off topic- here’s the real problem.
I don’t think the moral lines could be more clearly drawn in such a situation. We have companies that have killed for profit, selling their products here on campus, and in the stores and markets across the world. These two companies make junk food, their products are easy to substitute or give up entirely. I and my fellow activists merely ask that our peers stop spending their money to these unethical corporations.
And yet we’ve had almost no response.
It’s not an issue of necessity, where our peers are forced to buy certain products. It’s not an issue of availability- there are plenty of perfectly good (or at least, less harmful) substitutes to the boycott products. It’s not an issue of trust- we don’t want donations. The issue is that my peers just don’t care!
And here seems to be the problem- people don’t care much either way if the beverage they’re drinking came from a sweatshop in Colombia, or if the chocolate they’re eating was harvested by ten year-old slave-laborers in Central America. Perhaps it was best said in the film Hotel Rwanda, when one of the characters comments “…When people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”. Other than a shallow, fleeting expression of shock or sadness or horror, no one seems to be moved to action.
Perhaps it’s that my peers (and Westerners in general) simply don’t expect anything from the third world other than disease, poverty, starvation, war, and genocide. Just a couple days ago, I saw this advertisement for the New York Food Bank (linked here)- in it, one of the spokespersons states “hunger happens in the third world- not in New York City”. Granted, the statement was made to make a point about the very real presence of hunger in New York, but it bugged me nonetheless. I appreciate them dealing with the issue of hunger in New York, but are they saying it’s acceptable elsewhere? I want to think it was just a poor choice of words on their part, but this kind of mentality does indeed exist. It’s a kind of unconscious racism- the idea that these places always have been miserable and always will be. The idea that there’s no hope. Again, Hotel Rwanda hits the nail on the head when a UN colonel says to the protagonist “You’re black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”. Perhaps the reason we can’t get people to care is because they just don’t believe the oppressed peoples of the world are capable of ever living in better conditions.
Or maybe that’s not the case. Maybe it’s that people are just distracted by other things. We’re bombarded every waking moment with messages telling us to lose weight or to gain weight or to lighten our skin or to darken our skin or to get a better clothes or a house or a better car and better insurance to protect those things. Perhaps it’s easy to lose track or get our priorities confused, and we start valuing a specific brand of soda over the lives of farmers in India.
Or maybe it’s that people just won’t care unless they themselves are the ones being oppressed and exploited. Maybe we’re so selfish and self-centered that the only motivation we’ll ever have to make the world a better place is when we’re the ones bruised, bloody, and starving. Maybe that’s the only wake-up call I and peers will ever really respond to- a lashing from the sweatshop overseer for falling asleep at our station, or the jab of a soldier’s bayonet for having been born the wrong race. Is this how things are going to be? The people who can help don’t care, and the people need help aren’t able?
At this point in the post, I’d usually throw out some kind of appeal or call to action, but I just don’t know what to say. What is it going to take to wake the world up? What’s it going to take to spur people into action? The movies, the poetry, the charity, the music- it helps for a while and briefly seizes our attention, but we soon get bored and forget. The powerful stay powerful, the powerless stay powerless. The rich get richer and the poor get left further behind. Again, what do we- what do I need to do?