Talking About It

When advocating simple living and healthy sustainable lifestyles, it’s easy to come across as unrealistic and naive.  I’m OK with that.  We will never have a better world unless we are first willing to imagine one.

It’s also easy to come across as judgmental and self-righteous.  I’m not OK with that. The world doesn’t need any more self-righteous judgmental know-it-alls.

A critique of the industrial food system is not necessarily an attack on those who participate in it.  Objecting to a system that has created an obesity epidemic need not be perceived as shaming people who are obese.  For those of us who feel called to challenge the industrial food system and the food choices our society makes, avoiding turning people off by the perception that they’re being attacked personally can be tricky.  That’s partly because we live in a culture where folks take offense easily.  But it’s also because the way we make our case comes across sometimes as personally insulting.

I struggle with this.  I passionately believe that it is imperative that our culture change the way it eats.  But I also know that folks get very defensive when you start talking about their food choices.  Once, in a conversation with a pastor, I analogized it to the the ways people get tense and nervous when the subject of money comes up in a sermon.  My pastor friend responded that while that is true, it’s even more true if the subject is food choices. The most controversial and divisive sermons he’s given, he said, was when he preached about eating well as a part of healthy living.  So how can we criticize the food culture (and thereby hopefully improve it) without turning people off (or worse, being jerks)?

I don’t know.

But something I read on D.L. Mayfield’s blog (HERE) has helped me.  In a post about downward mobility she wrote:

For the people who critique downward mobility, the practice:

This is probably not the series for you.

For the people who feel guilty, or shamed in regards to conversations about downward mobility:

I’m sorry. Nothing good ever comes from guilt. But everything beautiful comes from love.

I really appreciate the way she put it.  I guess I’d have to say that for those who critique or object to the lifestyle I advocate, then you probably won’t enjoy this blog. And if anyone feels guilty or shamed by anything I post, then (borrowing her words), I’m sorry.  Nothing good ever comes from guilt.  But everything beautiful comes from love.

Everything beautiful comes from love.

14 comments on “Talking About It

  1. life of the hand - life of the mind says:

    Nothing good ever comes of guilt? I agree. However it is more then curious that the woman who suggests this is a “fundi.” The entire construct of fundamentalist belief and doctrine hinges on (like it or not) guilt. Every bible-thumping, soul-saving preacher milks guilt for all its worth every time he shouts from the pulpit. I know. I was a man whose veins nearly exploded as he saved me. And so, too, the seminary-trained. They simply have a more mature vocabulary.

    The presence and influence of guilt in Christianity is its greatest liability.


    • Bill says:

      I don’t know her personally, but I do have friends who (like her) have chosen a life of voluntary simplicity living among the poor, and who draw their inspiration from the same folks she does. These people are the polar opposites of screaming Bible-thumping soul-saving fundamentalists. No one is ever shamed or made to feel guilty.

      But of course the stereotypical angry fundamentalists do exist. They’re angry at people like my friends and D.L. Mayfield too.


      • shoreacres says:

        And the stereotypical angry fundamentalists exist outside of traditional religions, too. See: Global warming (where the use of guilt and shame has been proposed as a valid tactic).


      • Bill says:

        Yep. It is a tactic advocated by the militant atheists too. I’ve experienced it with global warming as well. A fundamentalist friend of mine told me that anyone who believes global warming is occuring doesn’t have a proper understanding of God. Another friend insists that it’s a hoax and that those who believe it are naive pawns in the conspiracy. Neither directly insulted me, but their meaning was clear. For them only the ignorant, naive or impious would entertain the idea. And then there is the nonsense about drowning polar bears.

        The way I look at it, shame and guilt will only be effective if the hearer feels that he or she has some reason to be ashamed or guilty. Most of the time, it seems to me, it will have no effect. If someone tried to use shame or guilt to convince me not to eat pork, for example, and they did it by citing their religious texts that prohibit doing so, that would have zero effect on me. It just wouldn’t make me feel ashamed or guilty. If they showed me photos of a hog CAFO I might change my pork-eating habits, but I wouldn’t attribute that to shame or guilt, but rather to being informed (even if the intent had been to make me feel guilty). Plenty of people would see those same photos and see modern scientific efficiency that has enabled us to have food more cheaply and abundantly than ever before in history. Feeling no reason to be guilty or ashamed, the tactic would have no effect on them.

        There are probably times when use of shame or guilt to condition behavior is appropriate (perhaps with raising children for example), but most of the time it seems to me that it creates nothing but anger, resentment and distrust.


  2. Using “downward mobility,” in this context, is an oxymoron. It would be helpful if we rethink these terms. Downward mobility is, in its truest sense, an upward mobility … you get the gist of this, Bill, so I won’t belabor it. 🙂

    I’m also considering not just the words we choose to express ourselves but what is the tone we convey. No one wants to read words tinged with anger and certainly not self-righteousness. What are we THINKING as we write … it WILL be felt by the reader. This is not to say we don’t feel strongly about things, but as you pointed out, love has to be present, maybe even omnipresent… 🙂


    • Bill says:

      That’s a great observation Teresa. What we’re thinking while we write will be felt by the reader. To avoid coming off as too preachy or pushy, I think it’s important to temper what we write with a healthy dose of humility and an appropriate absence of confidence. Ethics is a touchy subject though. How to advocate a particular ethic without appearing to condemn those who don’t share it? I like the notion of making sure the mind is in the right place when it’s been written and trusting that will be discerned by the reader.


    • thanks Bill, for linking to my post. Teresa, I will be thinking about your words for quite a while. I need to be more vigilant in actually loving people, even as I write.


  3. If I knew how to add a picture here, I would. On a billboard in Lousiana,” 1 out of 3 children in Lousiana are obese.” YIKES!!! You are venturing into tricky waters. People with terrible diets and no exercise regime aren’t dummies. They know. But no one wants to be told what to do. Lead by example. Offer opportunities for people to be active. Challenge another congregation to see who can be more fit because people are competitive. Good luck.


    • Bill says:

      I think you’re right about that. People aren’t generally sensitive to criticism if they can’t conceive of any merit in it. They’ll be most sensitive to criticism that hits close to home for them.

      Of course I don’t want to be told what to do either, nor do I want to tell others what to do. I prefer to think that we’re trying to help people make more informed decisions about their food. After all, the industrial food industry spends billions on advertising aimed at persuading people to eat processed junk food. I doubt anyone feels personally insulted or shamed by a McDonald’s ad. But make the case that folks ought not eat there and a lot of feathers will be raised.

      The statistics on childhood obesity are shocking. If it were any other disease we’d likely have an unprecedented nationwide campaign to fight it. But too few people want to give up their sodas and french fries (or stop and question what they’re doing to their children). The other day I saw a sign at a Burger King restaurant adversing that students get free fries and soft drinks when they buy a particular burger. I just shook my head.


  4. EllaDee says:

    Expressing beliefs can be tricky. Not everyone is on the same page, or even reading the book… I speak from ongoing experience of learning to temper my opinions with space to allow others theirs, a little bit like getting a horse to trust you.
    Space is important because within it there is the opportunity for exchange of information and even if we disagree or are misaligned with beliefs, there much to be learned.
    Expressing words can also be tricky. Inference can be a matter of perspective and/or projection. I’d never heard of ‘downward mobility’. What is offered by the phrase doesn’t sound attractive to me, but I’ll allow it space for me to understand it better.
    When I Googled the term to find out what it meant, the results conveyed had quite negative connotations. The connotation D.L. Mayfield aspires to has merit (of course not everyone agrees) but re-branding isn’t always a success.
    ‘Everything beautiful comes from love’. Unfortunately not everyone has the same experience of love, or words. If only words, and love, came with a ‘scatch and sniff’ type mechanism so we could access true intent. But even then not everyone likes strawberry.
    And as I learned practically on the weekend, not everyone is ready to care as much as I do in the moment… I was relating the horrors of CAFO pig tail docking…


    • Bill says:

      Very well said. It would be unreasonable of me to expect everyone to agree with everything I say or post, not matter how compelling or reasonable it seems to me. As you say, not even everyone likes strawberries. I don’t expect that. I’m more concerned with making sure I express myself in a way that in inoffensive even to those who disagree. I like the way you put it–leaving space for reasonable disagreement.


  5. shoreacres says:

    This just cracks me up. When I left my previous occupation to begin varnishing boats for a living, I became a scandal and an offense to my family and a mighty curiosity to my friends. It took me about a year to come up with the phrase “downwardly mobile” to describe the path I’d chosen. And now it’s au courant. My, my. (A decade later, I came up with the title for the book I’ll probably never write: “I Passed for Blue Collar”).

    As for not giving offense – sometimes the truth offends, and that’s just the way it is. I suppose all we can do is speak our truth as carefully and responsibly as we can, and then let it be. Some things are obvious – calling people names isn’t such a good idea. Putting ideology over the welfare of individuals doesn’t always play. But we only can control our own words and actions – not the response that others might have to them.


    • Bill says:

      I get that too. Plenty of folks around here think we’re crazy. One indiscrete man asked me point-blank if I’d been disbarred.

      The second paragraph is very well said. I read once that we can speak pastorally or prophetically (this was in the context of the church world of course). Pastorally would be with an intent to comfort and should not be controversial or divisive. Prophetic is meant to challenge injustice and confront evil and is intended to be controversial. I don’t like the sound of either one.

      I try not to put anything on the internet that I wouldn’t say in person to someone who disagrees (I’m not claiming I always accomplish that and I didn’t start out blogging that way). That helps I hope. Some things are just hard to discuss. Imagine trying to talk about food choices and the obesity problem in a room that includes obese people. Very difficult, unless you don’t mind coming off as a jerk.


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