Or, "You're killing your father, Larry!"
I caused a small scene at South Station tonight on my way home from work. I was accosted by The Whale Guy. A crowd gathered, seeming to enjoy the argument between the guy trying to Save the Whales and the clearly unshowered longhair. How could these two not get along? Shouldn't they be hugging, or in a threesome with a tree?
During this dispute, my convictions were mocked, I was called a hypocrite and a "bad person" --- this last one he yelled at my back from about twenty feet.
The Whale Guy sits at a table covered with pictures of whales. This is a particular kind of whale, which is endangered and lives off the coast of Massachusetts. It is being killed by things ranging from Navy sonar to poorly constructed fishing gear. Forgive me for not knowing the details of the situation; in his eagerness to yell at me, he neglected to include most of them.
He approached me as I was walking to the bathroom. I don't remember what he said to me at first, but I pretty much knew what he was up to already, since I pass him all the time on the way home, and I hear his spiel while waiting for my train. He was holding a picture of a mangled whale in front of me.
"They're going to be extinct. Can you help?"
"No, I can't help with any money. I might be able to write letters or do something else, but I don't have any money to give you."
"Sure you do. Everybody does. We're not talking about thousands of dollars here. Just one less cappuccino or whatever."
"I don't have any money to give you. I have a limited amount of money, and it is spent. I give to other organizations, I work for a nonprofit, I don't eat meat. I do what I can."
He got mad. He yelled at me about how this is my fault, about how I'm the problem, because I do these superficial things like "give to the Puppy Love Foundation" or "try to help people with AIDS", which aren't going to make any difference --- but here, we have something about to go extinct and we have to do something about that.
He extolled his own virtues, saying that whenever anyone approaches him with a cause, he just has a knee-jerk reaction to give them what they are asking for.
This went on for a bit. I took a break in the middle to use the bathroom. He yelled at me as I was walking away. I thought maybe the conversation was over, especially since the police had started to take an interest in it, but when I came out of the bathroom, he was there ready to call me a hypocrite some more, and the police were gone.
Apparently no other hypocrites had walked by during the time I was away, so he had to keep after me. I was still trying to convey my empathy for what he was doing. I told him about how I went door-to-door for a long time doing fundraising, and about how I understood how people often reacted without listening. He asked who I did fundraising for and then scoffed. He told me that I got paid for doing that fundraising, and scoffed again.
At this point, finally, I got irritated. I changed approaches, deciding to find out exactly why I was at fault in this whale situation.
"How is this my fault? How am I responsible for Navy sonar?"
"Because you pay taxes!"
"Yes, that's right, I do pay taxes. But if I stop paying taxes, they will just put me in jail, and they will still use sonar. When politicians have less tax revenue, they don't stop spending on the military. They stop spending on social programs that I support."
"Nobody ever goes to jail for not paying their taxes. When people object to paying taxes out of conscience, the government is afraid to touch them."
"That's not true. But anyway, it won't make a difference."
"Sure it will, if everybody does it! Besides, you're responsible every time you drive a car..."
"I don't drive a car." (This is not strictly true. I do occasionally operate a car, but it has been several months since I have purchased any gasoline. Also, what the hell is the connection between fossil fuel consumption and whales entangled in nets? This man is confused.)
"It doesn't matter, every time you take a BUS..."
"Why are you doing this? Do you not see that this is a bad strategy, to attack people who mostly agree with you, and to try and make them feel bad about what they are doing, just because they are not doing everything?"
"Oh, it's a GOOD strategy. We're going to stop this from happening!"
A similar back-and-forth went on for a while. My conclusion was that I was in no way more responsible for whales dying from fishing and navy sonar than I am for the existence of state-sponsored capitalism in general. I did not say some things I was thinking, like pointing out his standing in an oil-heated building to deliver his message, or his machine-manufactured clothing, or the plastic wrapping his whale pictures.
Eventually he said, "I'm just wasting my time with you."
"I agree." I walked away. The small crowd dispersed.
He was clearly talking to some stereotype of me --- the latte-drinking Volvo-driving vegetarian longhair --- rather than to me. I probably should have just walked away from the beginning, once that became clear. I guess I thought I might be able to help him realize something. I also wanted to communicate my point to the onlookers. I didn't want them or him to think I was a bad person. And, regrettably, I wanted to win the argument.
This conversation made a lot of issues I have with the environmental movement come to the surface again. I hope to write about them later. Mainly, I am no longer a subscriber to this idea of responsibility for environmental destruction caused by capitalism and its externalities being placed on the shoulders of each individual. This idea leads to the Whale Guy's "It's your fault!" approach --- the "You're killing your father, Larry!" approach. This strategy creates the illusion that everyone is equally responsible, which is untrue on a gross scale, and overstates the degree to which we are able to communicate consumer preferences to the people who produce goods in the world economy.
There is some small amount of truth in it. I am a hypocrite. I could have given him money, and bought a few less beers. I do squander both money and time. But if his strategy is to try and take money away from other causes, blanketly denigrating the work that all of them do, and to discourage people who are making some positive efforts, then contributing to his organization is going to end up hurting more than helping. I would only give him money if he promised to shut up and go home.
The other thoughts have to do with Buddhist ethics, the idea of Right Speech, and how they relate to movement-building and communications. Speaking so that others will listen.
To the Whale Guy: Enjoy your movement of one, sir. It seems to be what you want.
To the Whales: With friends like these...
My apologies to anyone else in the organization, of which he never even told me the name.