Friday, March 18, 2016

Modern First World Privilege: On Veganism and Antivaxxers

I've been thinking a lot lately about specific movements that have arisen because the culture and technology of our modern first world has essentially allowed their creation. Now I'm no expert on any of these things, so contained within are my observances and opinions. Take that as you will.

The two movements I want to discuss are Veganism and Antivaxxers. One a perfectly valid life choice, one a terrible life choice.

Vegans, of course, avoid all products derived from animals as much as possible, usually for ethical reasons but sometimes also for health reasons. This generally stems from the way animals are treated in modern agricultural and manufacturing processes, especially by large businesses whose priority is often the bottom line over... well, anything else. Some vegans go so far as to say that exploiting any animal in any way is wrong, with broad definitions of 'exploiting'. Or made up definitions of 'exploiting' (I'm looking at you, PETA). Anyway, I'm not going to go into great detail, but there's certainly a range of what various vegans find morally reprehensible or not.

Look, there's definitely plenty of reason to scrutinise the practises of big businesses in regards to their treatment of animals, from animal testing to raising animals in terrible conditions and so on. I personally do care about where I get my animal products from and how those animals are treated. If at all possible, I'll make the most ethical choice available. But it isn't always possible, because as with a lot of things, making the better choice isn't always the affordable choice. Alternatives to mainstream products are both generally for smaller markets and more expensive to produce, and so nearly always cost quite a bit more. I'm happy to pay for that when I can, but I'm poor and disabled and my budget is very limited.

But I'm not even really concerned with the individual privilege of being able to afford it, because it's modern first world privilege that means this lifestyle is even available.

Veganism can only sustainably exist in our modern world because we have access to a wide variety of foods all year round and we don't absolutely need animal products anymore to survive. This also includes having alternatives to leather, hooves for glue and gelatine, fur for warmth, etc. But this wasn't true for the vast majority of human history. Without animals and the technology they inspired or allowed us to create, we would not have the modern world as it exists today. Farming and animals that were able to be domesticated for various uses were essential in creating the building blocks of modern civilisation. (CGP Grey, who runs a fun and informative YouTube channel, touches on this idea in his Americapox video about why Europeans brought horrible diseases to the Americas but not vice versa.)

We would not be here to discuss the morality of using animals for our own means without doing this exact thing for thousands of years.

And that's what I mean by privilege. It's a privilege to have advanced to the point where we can have this discussion. And I'm not implying it's one we shouldn't have. We probably should. But it's also why people, me among them, get annoyed by the most moralistic preachers of the vegan lifestyle. There's a common statement they make that it is 'morally wrong' to eat meat, full stop. Well, for one, I don't believe any food carries any sort of moral weight, nor should it (because moralising food leads to a lot of problems we see in our current culture and not to healthier populations). But also we are animals as well, and if it's not absolutely wrong for other animals to be carnivores or omnivores, it's not absolutely wrong for us either. And again, there's the simple fact that animals and the way we've used and consumed them has brought us to this point in history. It wasn't morally wrong for our ancestors to find ways to survive that have meant we are alive now.

There are legitimate arguments to be made about the ethics, health, and ecological concerns of overconsumption of meat and how much we should really be eating given that we do have the privilege to avoid it. And being vegan is, as I said, a perfectly reasonable lifestyle choice if that matches best with the role food plays in your life. There is no real right or wrong side here. But I think it's important to acknowledge it for the privilege that it is, whether or not you are vegan yourself.

And that long-winded explanation brings us to Antivaxxers, a touchy subject at the best of times. Well, in this case, there is a right and wrong side to be on, because the public health effects of not vaccinating your children can be devastating, as we are beginning to see with various outbreaks becoming more and more common. Not to mention the moral and ethical repercussions of forcing this choice on your child, who can't consent one way or another to something that could have lethal consequences.

This is where the privilege of the modern first world world is most evident, in that vaccines are SO effective that we have a whole movement of people who believe they aren't necessary or are even dangerous.

I mean, think about that for a second. Really consider what's happening here. Through science and modern medicine, we have controlled or essentially eliminated a whole host of debilitating, and sometimes lethal, diseases. People around my age have probably never known someone who had measles or polio or whooping cough growing up, turning them into these mythical things that happened to people Before Now. But they don't happen anymore, right? We're past all that. Then you add in a spurious study about how vaccines are linked to autism (which has been both disproved AND the original study condemned for falsifying data), but it's put this fear into people's minds, one that simply will not go away.

Out of context, yes, the idea of injecting a bunch of strange liquids into young children does sound pretty horrific. And only scientists could really explain to you what exactly is in vaccines and how they work. Most people could probably understand a general explanation, if they wanted to, but science alone seems to not be enough to change antivaxxer's minds.

Obviously, other things are at play here which also tie into first world privilege, like the idea that natural is always better than things made in a lab, no matter if they are chemically identical or not. Also a distrust of capitalism and large corporations and things like that, which isn't entirely unreasonable. There's this culture of 'back to basics' and being 'in touch with nature' and rejecting the modern world which all contribute to this ardent belief that something is wrong about vaccines. And this belief is religious-like in nature, which people cling to beyond all sense or reason. How we combat that is something that still needs to be figured out.

But essentially, it's a privilege to be able to think that vaccines are unnecessary or dangerous. It's a privilege created by having such a successful modern society. Ask the generation before mine, or especially the generation before that, and they can tell you firsthand how devastating some of these diseases can be and why it's so amazing that we've managed to suppress quite a lot of them.

There was a time in human history where children dying of illness was common and contributed (in some ways) to a larger family size because the more you had, the more likely at least some of them would survive into adulthood. Our way to deal with horrific disease was procreating a whole lot and hoping the numbers would pan out in the end. It's kind of amazing we found our way past that and into a time where even the idea of perpetuating the survival of the human race this way seems ridiculous. We're so good at surviving now that overpopulation is a real concern. It's a bit mind-blowing when you consider the full context of how we got to this point.

The takeaway from all this, I think, is that sometimes the unique problems that arise from our current point in history are good problems to have (lots of food choices and different ways to eat!), and others (resurgence of lethal diseases...) not so much. I'm sure someone somewhere is doing research on this effect of the modern world. And surely this has happened before as technology has advanced over time? I feel like it must have but I haven't looked into it myself. Anyway, that's a job for a sociologist, probably.