Thursday, July 17, 2014

ethics & appetite

A few years ago I read the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, who is a one of my all-time favorite novelists, and I can't highly enough recommend his fiction, but I must confess that I did not find Eating Animals to be anywhere near the quality of thinking I'd found in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Everything is Illuminated. However. There was this one paragraph that in Eating Animals that was not only memorable, it has actually guided me ethically through a whole lot of my life since I read the book.

The book is about both the industrialized meat industry, and about the ethics of eating any animals, ethically-raised or no. In the paragraph in question, Foer, who is a vegetarian, is responding to his meat-eating friends who say to him, "Yeah, but don't you think bacon just tastes so good?" or "Don't you ever just crave a hamburger?" And in this paragraph he responds by saying, "Yes, sometimes I am standing in line at a restaurant and I crave a hamburger. And I also happen to know that there are more important things in life than what I crave in any given moment." (That's not a direct quote; I don't have the book here with me.)

That thought--that yes, sometimes I do crave X or Y or Z, but there are more important things to take into consideration than what I crave in any given moment--that thought, that idea, is one of my most important guides in my life. It's a part of virtue ethics, which is the ethical system most closely aligned with my own ethical system. Virtue ethics is concerned with the kind of person you're becoming, rather than being concerned with whether you're following the right rules, or even being concerned with whether you're acting in a way to bring about the right consequences. It's possible to follow the right rules and still become a bitter, mean-spirited person. It's also possible to, say, be an activist and try to bring about social justice....while also being disconnected from others on a personal level. So a virtue ethicist is concerned with people being and becoming good people, first and foremost. (I myself also have a lot of concern for creating the cultural/familial/political environment in which people are able to become the kind of people they want to be...)


My students are doing the Ultimate Media Challenge, where for the duration of the class they can't use any social media at all, can't do any gaming of any kind, can't watch any TV or any movies or any youtube, and can't view pornography. About 85% of my class right now is doing the challenge, which may be the highest percentage of any class I've had so far. They only have one week to go, and I think everyone who's started it is going to finish. I've been reading their journals, and I wish I could share particular entries with you because the entries move me very deeply. It's extraordinary, what happens when folks stop using screens. It's so extraordinary I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't witnessed it over and over again.

In case you're thinking that they're bullshitting me, in order to get the 200 extra credit points, let me just say that I can see the difference in the way they act in class. In the five weeks we've had together, they maintain eye contact much better, they're more confident, they much more receptive, much more engaged and aware. They write about that in their journals, too. They write about how they're learning to "know other people through my eyes, instead of through a screen." They write about how weird it is to realize how uncomfortable it was for them in the past to maintain eye contact with people. They write about being with a group of friends and realizing that their friends to actually talk to each other--they get together to hang out, and then spend most of the time scrolling through their individual phones.

And because the Ultimate Media Challenge is pretty extreme--no TV at all, no movies whatsoever, no gaming--they get extremely bored and frustrated and angry, and have to really search around for something to do in life besides screens. This leads almost always to them connecting to other people more, and being more physically active. Several of them have started walking their roommates' dogs, just to have something to do. Some of them have started working out. A lot of them want to connect more to their family and friends and feel really frustrated that they can't convince other people to stop looking at screens too. Reading what they write in their journals is moving and heart-breaking and deeply compelling.

One of the things I notice, again and again, is how these students are demonstrating the truth that it is possible to want something a lot--to have a very strong desire--and to choose to resist that thing because doing that thing won't lead to you becoming the person you want to become. Believe you me, some of these students want to go on Facebook, or game, or watch TV with their girlfriends, with the intensity of sexual craving, or hunger. They feel desperation, despair, clawing loneliness. But they don't give in. They stay the course. At first it's because they want the extra credit points, and then I think it becomes a personal challenge to see if they can do it, and then--at least for some of them--it's because they feel like the challenge is making them into someone different, someone they'd rather be.

It's really moving to me. Understatement. And now, every time I hear people (not my students, but other people in life) say that they can't do something because it's hard, or they just have to do something because they want it so badly, I think--whatever, fool. You can desire something intensely, and you can still resist or refuse it, if it's not in line with who you want to be. And if my students, with all their zillions of challenges in life, can do something as hard as cold-turkey giving up all media, then I am pretty damn sure that the fact that something is hard is not a good enough reason not to do it.

Speaking of things being difficult, today in class we were talking about cliched narratives that have held us hostage. And yesterday we were talking about cliched phrases, and cliched ideas, and how a person goes about questioning cliched ideas, or resisting cliched phrases and coming up instead with fresh language. I had the students work in small groups, which they are huge fans of (and more about that in another blog post soon), and work together to talk about cliched narratives/phrases/ideas. At various points yesterday and today different students kept saying to me, "This is hard." And I laughed and said, "So?"

But then I said, "I know it's hard! It's super hard. It's really, really hard. To resist the narrative that black men are irresponsible, or black women are slutty, or that women who don't have children by the time they're 40 are pathetic, or that people who live alone are pathetic, or that people who don't graduate from high school are losers, or that homeless people are disgusting, or that crackheads don't deserve love....and all those things are just pieces of these huge cultural narratives that are so entrenched, so unquestioned....yep, it's hard. I just keep telling them, and I just keep reminding myself over and over and over, some of the most worthwhile things in life are hard.


  1. This reminds me of a quote that hit me upside the head awhile back: "Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most."

    1. I wrote a comment and it didn't post. I don't understand why. And this is my own blog!