What’s It Going To Take?

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?

4 Responses to “What’s It Going To Take?”

  1. 1 Blacklist
    January 18, 2011 at 3:56 am

    Signing a petition is easy. You write your name on a piece of paper and you go back to what you’re doing before the dude with the clip-board showed up. Last year, the Amnesty International club at my school was circulating a petition in opposition to the Arizona Immigration Bill. I was helping get signatures and one of the last ones came from this guy. After he was done signing, he made a comment to me about “kicking out those Mexicans,” or something like that. I told him that the petition was actually against that sort of thing, but he didn’t care enough to argue or to ask me to white-out his name.

    Getting a signature is easy, but getting a change is much harder. Let’s say my roommate really likes NESQUIK. I talk to him about baby formula they sell to developing nations and all the horrible things that happened as a result and why he shouldn’t buy their stuff. The initial reaction is disbelief, which is understandable, but I don’t think it ever gets past that. These stories are awful, but I don’t think they ever really click as something that’s happening in the real world.

    And another issues is the lack of selection. For everything capitalism boasts about choice being able to choose who you buy from, it does a pretty poor job of actually giving us selection. If I need food, or some basic supplies, I’m pretty much forced to buy it from either Target or Wal-Mart. So I’m forced to pick between the gay-hating anti-unionists or the anti-unionists without a clear opinion on homosexuality, or no toothpaste.

    All in all, it’s pretty bad system.

  2. 2 Pat Noble
    January 18, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I’ve thought about this topic for a while now, trying to figure out why our society is seemingly incapable of rising to the occasion when it comes to standing up to what is right and wrong. My original thought was that we are a weak society, and to an extent that is unfortunately true. That being said, I have come to the conclusion that our society has risen to exactly what a capitalist system asks them to. We have to keep in mind that we aren’t bound by the capitalist train of thought, so our perception of what people can and should do is massively different from what is considered normal. This isn’t an excuse or a rationale, but at least it isn’t without a reason.

    It’s a sad fact that our society only reacts when it is directly affected by something. People in general don’t care about where their food, drinks, clothing, etc. come from, all they care about is that they can afford it. Since our capitalist system gives the average American enough money to afford the mainstream name brands like Coca Cola, that is what they purchase. The person who commented above me is right on the ball in saying that the capitalist system denies us actual choice. At least in my area, we are hooked on the one-stop shopping of places like Target and Wal-Mart. I think that one-stop, buying-in-bulk shopping is a blatantly western idea, so the elites took that and combined it with a lack of choice to create these superstores that we can’t get away from. Since these stores have made their prices so low, by that I mean what is considered cheap in our society, the average, working American can’t afford anything better. So even if a lot of people wanted to break away from the mainstream brands and the superstores, it isn’t financially possible.

    To sum this up, I think we face two problems in combating what can only be described as apathy to humanity. Firstly, people in their majority have been brainwashed by the capitalist system into not caring about what doesn’t affect them. Secondly, even if we are able to help break this apathy and make people more conscious to things like what they are purchasing, financial conditions will not allow the majority of them to do anything about it. When we cannot afford anything more then places like Wal-Mart and Target, we will only be grudgingly walking through the front door.

    How do we break this cycle? I really don’t know what the answer is here, half because it isn’t a simple answer and half because there isn’t supposed to be an answer. The capitalist system has become so entrenched into our society that we should not be able to find the answer to fix it. All we can do now is educate, educate, educate. If we can educate people on things like the companies they are purchasing products from and those people educate others, we can open the floodgates.

  3. 3 Ken hensley
    January 27, 2011 at 5:08 am

    What companies are you revering to, Gordon. I respect your passion. Would like to know

  4. 4 trotskyite
    January 27, 2011 at 5:11 am

    I’ve got a list a couple posts back, but to sum it up briefly, it would be Coca-Cola, Nestle, Monsanto, Nike, GAP, and a number of other companies.

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