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.