Friday, January 21, 2005

Small Steps

A couple of nights ago, I went to see a lecture by Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who works as a consultant to the factory-farm industry. Through what appears to be a profound understanding of animal cognition, which she attributes to her autism, she works to eliminate processes and practices that frighten farm animals and make them unmanageable. Her work is popular with fast-food businesses; many of the major chains audit their meat suppliers using standards that Ms. Grandin developed.

Her work is somewhat controversial in the vegan/vegetarian community, where humane killing is correctly - but also somewhat irrelevantly - seen as a euphemism for killing, period.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, that during the lecture, a woman in the audience asked her about the larger issues of factory farms, such as their effect on the environment and public health. Ms. Grandin responded that having autism doesn't allow her the luxury of broad, abstract thinking; she's limited to a narrow focus on how she can address a certain problem, at a certain place and time.

I thought this was an interesting response. I spend a lot of time on this site arguing for a systematic approach to problems, and against ignoring connections and implications. At the same time, I do realize that a besetting sin of the Left is its tendency to want immediate, total change - to make perfection the enemy of improvement, and to discourage people by emphasizing the global scope of the problems they face. Too often, people on the Left claim that activists who focus on narrow issues are being naive, or addressing symptoms rather than causes, or what have you. Factory farms are a huge social evil, one version of the argument goes, and making them more morally acceptable, as Ms. Grandin tries to do, merely perpetuates a system that ought to be done away with entirely; to this worldview, anything short of total reform is compromise or appeasement.

I don't entirely agree. On the contrary, I think this issue is one of those "slippery slope" arguments that George Lakoff says the Left needs so desperately. On the Right, discussion of "partial-birth abortion" is intended as a step towards making all abortion cognitively unacceptable; get people to reject the morality of one type of abortion, and you're well on your way to making all forms of the procedure unacceptable.

Grandin's ideas are similar, in that they promote an initial emotional engagement with a specific problem of factory farming; this is a necessary before there can be any sort of commitment to changing a system that is catastrophic for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. There may be many, many steps between thinking "just because we eat animals doesn't mean we should torture them," and recognizing that factory farming is a public-health disaster for human beings themselves (or vice versa, for that matter), but that journey has to start somewhere, and it must be taken even if it ends in failure, as it well may. Even when they're not autistic, people seldom grasp complex systems at a glance; also, people need to feel that problems are manageable, and that small actions can make a big difference. Unfortunately, this is a view the Left doesn't always encourage.

It's a bit similar to being in debt; you can focus on the lump sum you owe, and say "Where am I going to get $10,000?", or you can focus on the fact that you can afford to pay $100 a month. People usually get into debt gradually, through the accumulation of small purchases and everyday expenses. They need to get out of debt the same way, through many small payments; they can't simply hold off on making payments until they win the lottery.

Through inattention and irresponsibility and inaction, we allowed our country to be taken over by radicals who worked slowly, but thoroughly, to achieve their ends; you can be quite sure that no victory ever seemed too small for them. Where they couldn't take a mile, they settled for an inch. But those inches have added up to a good many miles in my lifetime. Barring a Watergate-style meltdown, which is always a possibility, we're going to have to take America back just as slowly and thoroughly. Which means that the small victories are just as important as the big ones.

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