I’ve been thinking about social responsibility a lot this week. This is partly because I’ve been reading Michael Pollard’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma which is about the consequences of food. Also, causes and activisms get discussed a lot in the LJ space, so whenever I read through my list I encounter the question: how shall I live in light of this information, this opinion, or this cause?

In the LJ environment, social responsibility and activism is focused on speech and symbol. What can you do with an online forum? You can join a campaign, display a banner, pass on some outrage or joy at events. But for most of the people who participate, these things stay in the world of a relatively small social network: Livejournal and similar internet phenomena. It’s important in that community but doesn’t loom too large elsewhere. A good example is the issue of the breastfeeding icons. It’s deadly important to people inside the LJ bubble, and hard even to explain to people dealing with issues in the broader community.

The daily world is different. In the last decade, quite a few friends of mine have gone to work for military, defense, security, and “homeland security.” The pay is good and the work is often interesting. People deal with this in different ways. My friend A., an avowed conservative and hawk, jokes about the things he builds, but there’s an ironic edge to the jokes. At some level he knows there’s a problem and he makes a great show of not caring, indicating that, well, he does, and he’s worried. Other people make a huge wall between their personal lives and the workplace. Some people I know have a huge dissonance between their source of income and their values, and I don’t know how they deal with it.

I myself work for a company whose values in some areas I find disgusting, and some of whose operations are to me actively dangerous. I tell myself that I’m not directly involved in the “bad guy” part of my job, but there I am with an email address at the same place, and an income.

My father the pacifist veteran wrote an essay once about connecting to evil. He served in the Pacific war on a tanker. He was therefore exposed to danger but not to fighting. One day, however, his ship was anchorerd in a harbor that contained a small island. Someone had reported an enemy sniper on the island. A boat was dispatched to deal with this, and my father was in charge of the boat. They circled the island for a couple of hours machinegunning into the brush. No one shot back. It’s not clear that anyone was on the island at all, or whether they hit anyone. That was the only time he experienced fighting in more than a spectator way, and it was still ambiguous.

It’s a more direct connection to violence than most of us have now, but the point of his essay was that it didn’t matter. Whether you’re the person shooting the gun, the one steering the boat, the one who fueled the boat, the person who built the boat, the person who delivered donuts to the factory that built the boat, someone who paid taxes that paid for the boat and the donuts, or just a functioning part of the economy in that nation, you have your hand on the trigger. You can’t opt out without totally dropping out and leaving, in which case it could be argued that you had just switched sides.

I mostly agree with this. I could of course quit my job at the somewhat evil company and work bagging at an organic grocery. But this would, I think, mostly just satisfy my personal desire to feel pure. The somewhat evil company would not suffer from my departure; my expertise is a commodity and they’re huge. I would then be bagging heirloom tomatoes for the local defense engineers.

And it’s hard for me, in this position, to be too critical of the people who are actually building the technology that kills and oppresses, or putting on the uniform and killing and oppressing. I’m a few degrees further out than they are, but there’s no clear line I can draw and say: on my side is good, on yours is bad.

My current approach is to trim down consumption and change my habits of consumption. If I use less gasoline and electricity, eat less meat and more vegetables, spend less in general, give more money to people who are doing good things, there are benefits. Not only is it personally satisfying to reduce my contribution to the ridiculous mess of our petroleum economy, but as I reduce my debt and my expenditures I’ll find it easier to make better decisions about employment. If I spend less and do more with less, maybe I won’t need the salary I get from working for QuestionableCo, and I can opt out further.

I’m not brave enough to say “I’ll right now give up my comfortable salary and my necessary benefits because the system is wrong and I’m too damned close to why it’s wrong.” So I’m going to chip away with it. Maybe I can get my hand off the machine gun, get out of the boat, go back home to the farm, get more self-sufficient over the next few years and be more of a contributor than a destroyer. Maybe.

15 thoughts on “shipbuilding

    1. Not much better or worse than my other jobs. I’ve never worked for anyone “positive.” My newspaper sold phone sex, I worked for a doctor who did questionable animal research, and my dot-com jobs were either whorehouses or failed whorehouses of some kind. The hospital was indeed a big building full of people helping each other, but the people-grinder american medical-industrial establishment was a particularly disgusting sausage factory. This job? The guys down one hall are Nazis, and the guys down the other hall are subversive satirists, and my group is neither.


  1. Wow. Awesome essay. I’ve been grinding my gears on some of this stuff myself, and it’s great to have it suddenly expressed in such a lucid fashion.


  2. The idea of getting pure just for purity’s sake is a problem I tend to run into when I’m eating vegetarian. At a certain point I know some food or other is going to attract my nose, and I’ll want to eat it, but I won’t, and boy will I feel like a self-righteous (jealous) asshole. Sigh.


    1. Vegetarianism strikes me as a place where doing your best does so much good that not always doing it perfectly shouldn’t cause huge shame.


  3. This is a great post.
    I have a friend whose company promotes concerts of Middle Eastern music. This is usually a thankless venture that nets very little – unless you get corporate sponsors. In recent years, my friend has made a lot of money getting defense contractors like Titan and CACI to sponsor. How it works is they give him a lot of money, and he lets them come to the concert and set up a table to recruit concert-goers as civilian linguists for the U.S. military abroad. How my friend justifies it is that he’s “taking money away from bad people.” I think that’s bullshit, but I would rather Titan’s money go to him than someone less morally conflicted.
    I work for a company that sells unnecessary “health” products to overweight women. My job is to edit the articles and recipes that go out in our free email newsletter, and I write news briefs off the Reuters Health wires. I feel good or neutral about my day-to-day work. People can read our newsletter or go to the site and gain helpful information to improve their lives, without necessarily buying any overpriced vitamins or chalky-tasting soy protein shakes. I don’t write salesy or manipulative copy, and my bosses are too naive to know that they should be making me do so. If they ever did ask me to, would I? I don’t know.


  4. This must be a good week to talk about social responsibility. I am the moderater for a discussion group in one of my classes, and the topic this week is social responsibility. Now I have to go to the bathroom.


  5. I was listening to Terry Gross interview a couple soldiers last Friday. The soldiers had been involved in a documentary while in Iraq. They carried camcorders everywhere they went. The part that relates to your post is that both of them seemed to disagree with the current war, yet both had re-enlisted after their tours were completed. They repeatedly stressed that it’s just a job — they work for a company-the military-they use their job training to complete tasks, this is exactly the kind of work at which they excel, and which they enjoy, etc. And while they might not like the politics behind the current situation, they disagree with the idea that soldiers should be able to pick their wars (doing so would turn the military “into militias”). However, every desciption of what they actually did while in Iraq indicates that it was an extremely boring job (aside from the IEDs). They just schlepped supplies back and forth in their convoys. They did this for years. They complained about how boring it was. Their devotion to the job, therefore, stems from the significance of the job-at-large.
    Still, they re-enlist and they pretend they’re merely employees. I think they’ve taken the Army of One mantra to a convenient extreme. They’ve stopped seeing themselves as planks on the boat. They are commodities, of course, but they’ve released themselves, through excessive miniaturization, from some of the obstructions they might encounter if pressed to fully acknowledge their participation. Just like a UAW-represented worker on the assembly line can imagine they’re not contributing to the company’s figures in any meaningful way (as in, low profits, so blame the designers, etc.) the soldier can erect an area of separation between what they accomplish on a day-to-day basis, and the sctructure of the entire operation.
    The “I’m just a commodity not a luxury, the org will persist with or without me” argument you bring up is bad logic. I’m sure it’s somewhere on the fallacy list.
    I don’t mean to equate your work to that of a soldier in war, but, uh, you brought up the analogy first. Your post just reminded me of the those soldiers on the radio. It bugged me how Gross didn’t even go into the whole, bah umm, I’m too tired… blanking on the phrase… DAMN IT.
    Nice post. It’s always good to occasionally assess one’s role as a contributor.


    1. The soldiers are wrong to think they’re “merely employees,” but so is anyone else who participates in my country’s economy. The soldiers need an extra level of euphemism and hypocrisy because they can literally smell what’s going wrong as they go about their innocuous duties. The chain is very short there. So do I, because while I toil away in my friendly little bit of HugeCo, I am reminded every day that people not far from me are doing things that make me mad as hell. My chain’s a little longer. Anyone who works at a job, buys things, pays taxes, and uses energy in this country is a link in that chain. I’m not currently able to leave the U.S. or live in a cave in the woods.
      The reason I settled on the task of reducing my debt, expenditures, consumption, and energy use is that I sincerely believe that those actions will both have more immediate impact and make it possible for me to go further. If I quit my job tomorrow, I’d have to get another one making similar amounts of money, and my choices would be limited. Without money and benefits I would literally get sick and die. That is a suboptimal result. The big zing of “I walked out! I’m not part of EVIL any more!” would, I think, be both mistaken and self-aggrandizing.
      But if I simplify and reduce and shrink my footprint, I get to be helpful now and more helpful later. That was my point.


      1. I think the phrase I was looking for last night was cognitive dissonance. Yeah, I understand the situation you’re in, and why you can’t just up and live in the woods. And anyway, a sense of really positive self-worth is mostly contingent on the individual’s sense of him/herself. There aren’t rules that can always decide if you’re good. There’s a huge amount of relativism involved. I can prosthelytise my way to bliss (literally) but it wouldn’t necessary mean that I’m actually helping anyone else. It would just mean that I’ve figured out how convince myself that I’m making positive contributions to society — in this example, through making sure other people are going to heaven, which will guarantee my spot. Altruism secedes to personal gains — as in, no matter how veiled, we’re ultimately looking out for outselves. Sure, there are some obvious ways to reduce your position as a (relative) destroyer, as you’ve pointed out, so of course it’s not all within the individual. But I mean, I can feel good about myself because I’m a mental health worker. But I think some of those feelings come directly from a “I’m a mental health worker, therefore I’m good” logic. At least, though, I feel that I’m a route to being more helpful later.
        I don’t think I made any sort of point here.


  6. Thinking of yourself as a commodity — I don’t know, that seems like what they want. I’m not arguing for a trite “everyone is a unique snowflake” position, but I can think of four or five ways in which you have very rare talents and experiences. And even if you didn’t? So what, why do you have to have a marketably-unusual life history before you’re worthy of a life that’s more satisfying?
    For what it’s worth, Google has some openings in Santa Monica, and lots more in Mountain View. I can’t say that the place is free of ethical dilemmas. But it’s the sort of place where Jimmy Carter asks the founders to eliminate a disease or two, and they seriously look into it.


    1. Thanks. In my own personal case I have a few loose ends that need tying before I change anything big. I really appreciate the tips, though.
      In a more general sense I don’t think people are commodities at all, no. I do think that companies treat people as commodities and are pretty successful with that approach, although they could be more successful if they didn’t.


  7. Interesting and thoughtful as always. One of the primary reasons that I want the job I had (as a full time lawyer this time) is because I can actually see concrete changes I’m making. Even if they only affect one person’s life for a very short period of time, that kind of work has a long term impact.
    Whether or not one thinks that long-term impact is a matter, somewhat, of one’s politics. Maybe I just have blinders on because I love what I did and hope to do again someday.
    As always, food for thought. Keep up the excellent brain food, C.


  8. I’ve been thinking about this post for days, not knowing how to reply.
    It’s a silly, insipid truism that good deeds breed other good deeds. It’s also undeniably true in communities of a certain size. Don’t underestimate your ability to communicate and to persuade.
    Just be ready to lend a hand whenever you can.


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