Social Justice and our Hypocrisy: A Long-Term Project


Among those I know who care about social justice, there is a remarkable tendency to ignore altogether the aspects of their lives that contradict their values. For example, I care about the environment but when I travel, I do so by plane, despite the sharply increasing contribution of air traffic to carbon emissions. I care about labor rights, but the clothes I buy are made in sweatshops.


To my surprise, many justice-loving people, when they do choose to acknowledge these inconsistencies, voice the conclusion that if they didn’t exist then, somehow, the world would be better off. I wouldn’t be complicit in exploiting workers by wearing sweatshop clothing. I wouldn’t be complicit in global warming by using electricity. I wouldn’t be complicit in citizen casualties of illegitimate wars paid for in part by my tax dollars.

Well, I, for one, am glad you exist. People who exist can act to try to make the world decent, while those who don’t exist have a difficult time of it.

But what about all of my contradictions?!

Own them. Thinking that you’re pure is a good way to be smug, but it’s not a very good way to be a complete person.

Like a child who closes his eyes during hide-and-seek and thinks that if he can’t see others, then others can’t see him, we can’t make our political contradictions go away by not thinking about them.  In fact, by pretending that the uglier effects we have on the world don’t exist, we again close off the possibility of ameliorating them. By ignoring them, we actually open up the possibility of our ugliness getting worse.

Not that it’s easy to look honestly at one’s whole political self. Activists spend a considerable part of their lives trying to rid the world of unimaginable suffering, yet, when one sees how one also contributes to this suffering in daily life, it can feel entirely self-defeating. But the solution (and this is always the solution) is to reflect critically on these contradictions and see how one can take active steps to address them.

But don’t try to leap up the entire staircase in one bound. When one learns about the extremely negative effects that factory-farming has on the environment, animal well-being, and human health, a common impulse might be to try to become vegetarian overnight. But just as one can’t cure global poverty in one swoop, one can’t possibly cure the cancers of our own minds and behavior in one day. Learning what one’s values are and how to realize them is a life-long project.

For example, if one finds factory farming detestable, maybe try adding, one by one, vegetarian foods or meals into your weekly diet.

Lifestyle changes are, considering the whole realm of political activity available to us, a small effort, but easy and worthwhile. I focus on them here mostly because they allow me to more easily illustrate my points, but the same mental blocks exist in our active relations to institutions and the same corrective, critical approach should be applied to one’s larger engagement with the world.

When someone is criticized for their personal faults or their political blind spots and doesn’t wince, but instead says to oneself, “I don’t always live up to my values, but I’m working on it,” one has become oneself, or rather, oneself is a becoming.

“The price of fruitfulness is to be rich in internal opposition; one remains young only as long as the soul does not stretch itself and desire peace.”   – Frederick Nietzsche


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