Is Lifestyle Activism an expression of privilege? Is Buddhism becoming a Lifestyle Accessory for the privileged Lifestyle Activist? These are the two questions that concern me in this post.
It is not often that those with identified political opinions, either left or right, take the time to examine some of the assumptions that underpin those positions.
I came across these very interesting article on the site Open Left, a while back. Self-Delusion and the Lie of Lifestyle Activism and Part II: The Distortions of Lifestyle Politics Both articles and their comments are worth reading for anyone who’s ever participated in any kind of cause-oriented behavior. I personally do agree with the gist of the statements as well as some, but not all, of the points presented.
What is Lifestyle Activism? The author of the articles defines it thusly:
Eating organic food for your own health is not lifestyle activism. Buying a Prius because it gets better gas mileage or because you think it’s cool is not lifestyle activism.
Lifestyle activism occurs only when people eat organic food because they believe they are participating in a larger ecological movement, or drive Priuses to reduce their carbon footprint and to encourage others to do the same through their example. When people seek to contribute to social change on a broader scale through their lifestyles, that’s lifestyle activism.
The author distinguishes between Lifestyle Activism and Lifestyle Politics and outlines the dangers inherent in both in the above articles.
“lifestyle activism:” individual lifestyle changes designed to contribute to the betterment of the world, and
“lifestyle politics:” collective action that emerges out of lifestyle activism.
Recycling a can is lifestyle activism. Fighting to pass a law to make other people recycle is lifestyle politics.
The principle point which is not strongly stated is that these types of activism and politics do not involve any examination of the lifestyle itself. And that lifestyle involves maximizing physical, psychological and social comfort and material acquisition. They are very shallow activities which do not address any sort of social structural changes.
For example purchasing a 5$ cup of coffee is rationalized by the “fair trade” label rather than examined as a privileged act of consumption. They serve to maintain, fortify and even encourage positions of differential power relations rather than address them. Questions such as: Who is serving the coffee? Who is transporting the coffee? Who is packaging the coffee? Who is growing the coffee? relative to Who is purchasing the coffee? illustrate this difference.
Further examples include such concepts as eco-tourism, sustainable development and ethical investing. They are oxymorons and allow a continuation of an excessive lifestyle without addressing their own big-picture internal contradictions.
The articles raise further intriguing and possibly contentious points. Among many other strong statements the author finds:
There is not a lot of evidence that, in the absence of new laws or incentives, lifestyle activists can make that much of a difference.
In actual fact, many of us recycle and buy priuses and go to marches that have no coherent strategic aims behind them (but that allow us to hang out with other people like ourselves) because they are part of our social life .
If we told ourselves the truth about what we are doing, if we actually acknowledged that most of our “activism” is about us, and not really about trying to make a significant difference in the world or for people who really suffer, then it wouldn’t serve its identity purpose anymore…
Lifestyle activism only works if we maintain the lie that it is “activism” instead of a form of individual investment on the same level of buying a nice pair of shoes or getting a hip haircut.
Most lifestyle activism seems to take the form it does because it allows (mostly middle-class professionals) to feel like they can make a difference in the world while at the same time purifying their lives
Lifestyle activism assumes that you have the resources to make lifestyle choices.
Lifestyle activism is an expression of privilege. It represents the capacity to spend time and resources doing things that don’t actually matter in any direct way for you or your family in service of your own identity construction.
The lie of lifestyle activism also allows people to believe they have control in an uncontrollable world .
In fact, lifestyle activism allows people to feel individually more powerful. They matter. All by themselves
Lifestyle Activism in the North American context comes with a whole host of buzz words and phrases which include:
- fair trade
- sweatshop free
- carbon offsets
- clean technology
- environmentally friendly
- rainforest grown
- recyclable and recycled
- conscientious consumer
Notice how all of them have quite a positive spin, a sense of redemption or salvation, a oneness with or return to nature and cleanness. They provide us with the sense we may buy into the opportunity to elevate ourselves from the implied opposites. There are synonyms that could be used, and were used in the past, but now we don’t often hear words like “non-exploitative”, “anti-discrimination”, “pollution-reduction”, “anti-poverty” or even “sewage treatment”, which is now called “wastewater” or “effluent” treatment, as these involve “ugly” though more realistic words. Even with the word sweatshop, which does not adequately describe the conditions and could possibly be the name of a local gym, the happy sounding “free” releases the negativity.
On a blog post entitled Lifestyle Activism:The Realistic Way, by a group calling themselves The Younger Women’s Task Force, the agenda is well spelled out. Most of this article relates to a particular style of consumerism with a particular sort of rationalization for that consumerism. The author even goes on to link to lists of “preferred” retailers. Here is an example of that consumerist style and rationalization :
One way I do my part is by purchasing clothes and bath products from companies with healthy-looking models, who rely on quality products to motivate my patronage. This way, I’m advocating positive body image for all girls and women by refusing to give my money to corporations who make me feel like there’s something wrong with me that needs to be fixed (by their product, with my money, of course!)
There are several internal contradictions and assumptions in this paragraph. There is not any established linkage between the images portrayed and a social advocacy position within a given company. That is generally assumed. They are companies who answer to their shareholders and their primary motivation is to maximize profit. Often companies that use this strategy make beauty products, such as Dove, which the author mentions by name. The products in this category tend to be prescriptive for such things as smooth moisturized skin and lustrous hair. Beauty product companies themselves manufacture the criteria by which beauty and health are defined. This is a contradiction in relation to this writer’s concern with “positive body image” and her implication that there is not something wrong that needs to be fixed. The author uses the advertising to direct her purchases towards the “healthy” images equating that with quality products which is another assumption. The rejection of the overt advertising in favor of the more subtle persuasion using health, the vulnerability of those (women in this case) who have experienced social injustice or a sense of being “unhealthy” since their skin is not smooth nor their hair lustrous and an assumption of quality simply means that the advertisers are successful in their campaign to persuade a consumer in this instance.
This type of advertising is incredibly subtle and seductive. We want to believe we are making good choices for ourselves and that those choices will not have negative impacts on people or our environment but all too often those choices are based on shallow unexamined prefaces.
The focus in this example and other instances of much Lifestyle Activism relies primarily on the purchaser feeling good about themselves and their own activism. It is exactly the same strategy corporations accused of “greenwashing” use. The consumer is made to feel heroic in their purchasing choices. And it gives the consumer the added socio-cultural leverage of being able to flaunt their choices to others. It is an indicator of self-aggrandizement and the power of First World high status privilege.
The blog post author sums up her take on Lifestyle Activism:
It’s something that anyone, anywhere, can do at any time, and it’s based on tapping into your own personal power as an agent of improvement.
What’s important is that we recognize the value of our money and actions, and realize that we can enact significant and sustainable change, all by ourselves
The significant changes mentioned are only in the methodology to sustain comfortable lifestyles. It makes little or no difference to most of the world which beauty moisturizer or t-shirt one chooses.
Oprah is not one who immediately comes to mind when the term Lifestyle Activist is used but she is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of Lifestyle Activism as an expression of privilege. She is but one member of the “Celebrity Activist” set that regularly publicize their activism and expressions of compassion to the detriment of much actual substance to those claims. This group includes people such as Bono, Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow, Pamela Anderson and many others. Contrast this with the low-key activism of such people as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon or Martin Sheen and Al Franken. The latter actually entering politics to attempt to effect structural change.
Here is an example of this unfocused self-before-issue approach.
Mia Farrow: dieting for the cause
A narcissistic ‘hunger strike’ for Darfur is getting far more attention than protests without celebrity endorsement….Farrow and her fasting buddies are presenting their efforts as selfless sacrifices, all done for the sake of suffering Darfurians, to ‘raise awareness’ of their plight and put pressure on the ‘international community’ to intervene. But rather than shedding light on the conflict in Darfur, aloof celebrity activists are primarily drawing attention to themselves while at the same time obscuring the facts on the ground, which are, in reality, complex…From celebs demanding, in neo-colonialist fashion, that the West intervene to save Africans from themselves, to greens claiming to represent ‘The Planet’ against mankind, many protests today are staged ‘on behalf of others’ – even if those others have not asked for it… from Spiked Online
This type of approach is typical of many of the Celebrity Lifestyle Activism crowd. The emphasis is on the self and demonstrations of social “goodness” rather than any sort of effective strategy. Once awareness has been “raised” and “pressure” has been brought to bear on the “international community” what happens? Whose awareness has been raised? And what has been raised other than the profile of the celebrity? Who exactly comprises the “international community” and what power do they have to change things? This celebrity publicity exercise is merely the entire trend, and it is a trend not any sort of meaningful effective action, of Lifestyle Activism writ large.
This self-congratulatory type of “altruistic” activity is ramping up to new levels. One such example is the recent Charter for Compassion which I’ve gone on about at length. The entire purpose of such self-involved spectacles is not activism or real social change but a very expensive feel-good exercise for the participants. Of that case in point over 100,000 dollars is spent to produce 5 vague paragraphs that observers can latch onto and applaud and then the party’s over. But the sponsors, big money tech firms most prominently certainly get their money’s worth by underwriting such endeavors in terms of “socially-responsible” corporate profile.
A Viewpoint of the Meaning of Lifestyle Activism from India
There is at present quite another view of lifestyle activism in India. According to the on-line magazine Tossed Salad it is defined as:
life-style ac-tivi-sm: (noun) intentional action in order to bring change in percieved definition of lifestyle in india
What this amounts to is living the “good life” Reading the right books, eating the right food at the right restaurants, seeing the latest movies, dressing in the latest fashion. It is about changing the world but not from a typical “cause” perspective. It is about buying into the narcissism of global culture and enjoying the consumer lifestyle. From their website:
We bring to you, henceforth, weekly issues of TheTossedSalad.com. Every Monday, you’ll find a fresh array of books to read from, a series of movies — old and new, to settle down with, recipes to test those culinary skills, writings to pump up the grey cells and tips to appeal to the narcissist in all of us.
This is partly a reflection of addressing the discomfort of some Indians’ self-perception with the label “developing”. Conspicuous consumption is very popular in India. Social status is expressed by the wearing of gold jewelry, driving the latest car, the size and opulence of a wedding, going to the “right schools” and buying the latest hot brands. Just like in America.
The authors of this magazine have adopted the phrase “Lifestyle Activism” and whole-heartedly equated it with privilege. The leisure time and extra money to be able to indulge in this kind of discretionary spending has not been very widely available in the past for most people in India. But with the rising middle class and increasing regulation of some industries, in part due to globalization and out-sourcing, this is increasingly becoming a reality for many city dwellers.
And it is also increasing the divide between urban and rural populations, and the middle and working classes, as it does in America. Access to more goods of more varieties and origins, increased affordability due to higher wages and exposure to high-pressure social messages about what constitutes “a happy life” contribute to the consumerist lifestyle. Many in America have now incorporated the gloss of social-responsibility to both assuage guilt for the over consumptiveness of an affluent lifestyle or to disguise the actual reality of the increasing divides. This has not reached India to any significant degree but it is on the periphery. Tree planting schemes in Pune and “Save the Yamuna” river campaign in Delhi and Agra are starting to take off. Events surrounding these campaigns are often attended by politicians or their families, along with the media.
I bring the Indian example up partly because someone recently asked me if I wanted to invest in their “eco-tourism” scheme. I said no, not only because I’m not some kind of wealthy venture capitalist, but also because the term “eco-tourism” is used as an advertising slogan in my region without reference to much ecology. The state government has started to use words like “sustainable” and “environmental protection”. What this often works out to mean are cases of “greenwashing” to appease foreign investors, the IMF and the World Bank who make significant financial contributions to the area. It is the rhetoric of “Lifestyle Politics” on a massive scale.
It is becoming a far reaching phenomenon.
The Meaning of Meaningful
Often these kinds of lifestyle-bound social actions invoke the word meaningful. Increasingly this meaningfulness is self-referential. It may be personally meaningful to “raise awareness” of an issue but what is the meaning beyond that? Meaningful. For who?
The American Convert-Buddhist Context
There is an article I’ve come across (thanks to Scott at The Buddha is my DJ) about the accessories that so many adopting Buddhism deem necessary for their practice. “Americans Need Something to Sit On,”or Zen Meditation Materials and Buddhist Diversity in North America discusses the issue of fancy meditation cushions and the socio-economic status of purchasers of those cushions among other related issues. The author of that paper outlines his discussion with the following:
This focus on consumption and a single commodity assumes, among other considerations, that specific things and our social and economic relationships with things actually matter in the study of religion.
My paper… is an only slightly ironic look at how materialism—or, more accurately, consumption—conditions and is conditioned by spiritual communities. To paraphrase Leigh E. Schmidt in his work on American holidays, I am attempting to focus on the “interplay” of commerce, Buddhism, and consumption.(7) Thus, I intend to argue that consumption is an integral aspect of Buddhism in American and that Buddhist Americans’ consumption practices are, in conjunction with other factors, having a profound influence on the various ways that Buddhism in America is developing, how it is being perceived, imagined, and, finally, contested.
While I am not going to take up the issue of cushions, the” “interplay” of commerce, Buddhism and consumption” is very much on my mind in writing this post.
The author of the above article states that “consumption is an integral aspect of Buddhism”. I would like to posit that Buddhism is increasingly becoming an integral aspect of “Lifestyle Activist” consumption.
There are Buddhist inspired activist projects and Buddhist inspired protests. Buddhist household ornaments and labeled clothing. OK cushions too.
Purchasers for such products as cushions are “Elite Buddhists” and closely related groups, as the research by the article author, Douglas M. Padgett has discovered. In the detailed section (which I’ve slightly condensed) on the customers for cushions he writes:
Elite Buddhism is not wholly defined by actual meditation practice, but rather by a particular consumer orientation…In consumption anthropology, they might be known as “highbrow Buddhists.” .. they have certainly adopted consumption habits indicating a minimal level of understanding and commitment to a Buddhist practice…For my purposes, perhaps, most importantly, these are also the people who are buying things that, in some way are symbolically or culturally associated with Buddhism. Thus, this community of discourse might just as appropriately be referred to collectively as a “community of consumption.”
The producers of cushions themselves of course implicitly identify Elite Buddhists as a coherent community of consumption as well as a community of meditators. They use the same media to sell to the same people, advertising in Buddhist journals (Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, and a few others) with identical forays outside the Buddhist print community into the more commercial and larger circulation Yoga Journal…In point of fact of course, Tricycle, like its advertisers and readers, is predominantly concerned with those readers possessing contemporary, mass-market oriented consumption habits—and who are also practicing or interested in meditation-oriented Buddhism. Tricycle‘s advertising department claims… an estimated readership (factoring in multiple readers per copy) of 150,000. Over half of this number are considered to be non-Buddhist. The average household income for Tricycle readers is $50,000 or more and $72, 000 for Shambhala Sun readers…Shambhala Sun furthermore notes that 35 percent of their readership are professionals in the “medical/alternative health care, legal, financial, or counseling fields.” As evidence of the assertion that we are, in some significant way, talking about people who might actually meditate, Shambhala Sun finds that 90 percent have “visited a contemplative center or retreat center in the past year.”(18)
But most sales are made to private individuals. The customers are educated, wealthy, thirty-five to fifty years old, and evenly divided between male and female… The fact that many of their products are locally made or American made is actually a large selling point. In advertising and selling, their principle is to tell as much as possible about the product, so materials and make are part of that information. (emphasis mine)
The consumption habits of these customers are well established before they begin to buy Buddhist-oriented merchandise. If we take note of the statements that products are “locally made” “American made” . Tricycle Summer 2009 editorial lauds the magazines decision to “go green” and that issue includes many articles and references to “Lifestyle Activist” friendly activities and ideology. As well in the pages of the Shambhala Sun January 2010 products are associated with “Earth-friendly” (p88), “Diversity, Sustainability” (back cover),”organic” (p6), “sustainable plantations” (p92) the language is very similar and in many cases exactly like that of the “Lifestyle Activist”. As well there are numerous ads for “investing mindfully”wealth management companies (p97 and back cover) and “authentic leadership” (p22) so both the elements of political consciousness and economic prosperity are present. And these elements are principle characteristics of those who embrace “Lifestyle Activism”.
It would not be possible to determine with any exactitude the numbers of “Lifestyle Activists” who would also identify as Buddhist or who could be deemed sympathetic to Buddhist teachings. But by the advertising and increasingly the content there is a great degree of overlap.
Of those who actually enter Buddhism as a practice rather than as a lifestyle accoutrement, it is also difficult to determine how many do so for reasons of social and status pressure rather than an actual interest in the Dharma. The upward trending of Buddhist, and other Asian ideological cultural productions is becoming increasingly evident. Is this an indication of acceptance or mere co-opting into the dominant culture of the consumer?
If the number and type of products in popular culture that invoke Buddhist messages, images, language or symbols (check The Worst Horse for examples) is any indication, “looking Buddhist” in any and every aspect of life and business is becoming more important than being Buddhist.
Beyond the “Buddhist look” we can also rent ourselves a meaningful “Buddhist Lifestyle Activist Experience”. Things like “street retreats” in impoverished areas are available so you can check out if you want to make a lifestyle decision to be homeless. What luxury!
Buddhist “spiritual tourism” is another big seller. In the recent issue of Shambhala Sun there is a small interview with Elizabeth Gilbert author of the “Eat, Pray, Love” book. In a past post entitled Poverty Porn, Dilettante Charity and a Holiday in Cambodia I’ve examined her approach and her exploitation of other cultures for her own gratification, and profit.
The Buddhist label for some of those who embrace “Lifestyle Activism” is an accessory just like the Prius or a 100% sweat-shop free, organic cotton, vegan-endorsed t-shirt. It is becoming a designer religion in America.
Conclusion on Right Lifestyle
As much as I’ve dialogued with some folks who write for the One City blog there is a small point I’d like to take issue with there too. In their post tags often the words Right Lifestyle often appear. As it is a Buddhist blog this bastardization of the Noble 8 Fold Path, which doesn’t include “Lifestyle”, indicates the co-opting of Buddhism as an accessory of the “Lifestyle Activist” brand to me. Perhaps that is not the intention but it is uncomfortable to watch and that is why it is mentioned here.
That one can afford to “style” one’s life is indicative of a degree of privilege.
Activism in the past has involved revolutionary-minded political action. It was aimed at addressing and bringing about the deep social structural changes necessary to address inequality. When we invoke the memories and actions of people like Gandhi who said “Be the change you want to see in the world” to find some apparently clever t-shirt logo to make us look politically correct and feel better about a wasteful lifestyle it trivializes the entire endeavor of addressing social change on a meaningful and effective level. Meaningful here being the inclusive variety not the exclusive variety.
There are some who believe that the creation of activist thinking begins by people using their wallet to implement social change. The flaw with this kind of thinking is manifold. It reinforces the habitual capitalist illusion and habit that money changes situations, buys happiness (of one’s self or others) or contains “power”. It also maintains the status quo by there being someone to pay and someone to be paid-the unequal divide. And it reinforces the ego of the owner of the money. And this “vote by wallet” mentality has already been exploited by many corporations to massage consumers into favorably receiving more subtle advertising messages.
This is not to say that such personal endeavors are worthless, as the article which prompted this post states bluntly. It is a delusion though to think that major change in the world will come about by sipping a particular coffee or that chanting mantras in front of the UN building will get a treaty passed. This is magic thinking. Just like dreaming of winning a lottery. In the first instance either drink a coffee because you like it not because it contains some advertiser’s vision of great social revolutionary symbology or stop drinking coffee altogether and then maybe join the Peace Corps. In the second instance chant for the sake of the chanting and then contact your political representative, or better yet become a political representative yourself to get that treaty passed.
It is only by definitive, lifestyle examination, change and significant action that effective social change comes about. One cannot purchase real social change.
Some Further Discussions of the Topic