One recent Saturday afternoon, as I headed for the local Recycling Center en route to the annual used book sale for the town library, a bright cherry-red car sped toward me, sunlight glinting off its gleaming grill and polished hood. My jaw dropped —actually dropped— as the passenger deliberately tossed some trash out the window and onto the leafy roadside. I was still gaping —staring right at them as our vehicles drew level— as the litterer took some trash from the driver and tossed that too.
They drove on, and I did too, but I suspect they felt nothing whilst I was sputtering with indignation on behalf of the despoiled roadside. I couldn’t quit thinking about it. They probably didn’t give it a thought.
Let me confess something. There are times when the behavior of other people is so alien to me that I sincerely wonder whether we are different kinds of animals. I know it’s not true! I also know that, if anything, it’s those alien others who are the statistical norm, at least in this culture that is putatively my own. The ones who can walk past “meat” counters without flinching. The ones who —as in this picture recently shared on Twitter by Maddox— laugh as a man attaches a machine to the distended udder of a suffering mother.
It used to be that I wondered about litter every day. Back at the sanctuary’s first location, as I wrote at the time, “Each week more litter materializes on the roadside. Fast food bags and wrappers appear and disappear, disintegrating with every rain. Waxy cups linger longer among the wild weeds. Soda bottles and beer cans move in to stay, permanently defacing the landscape.”
Eventually, I was moved to write an essay about it, which you can read here, and I hope you will.
Back then, I tried to imagine myself into the mind of a litterer. “Does it feel deliciously wicked to defile Mother Nature?” I wondered, “or does it feel clean, like shedding something sinful, to get that garbage out of your car? Or does it feel like nothing at all?”
In assigning that essay to students in subsequent years, I’ve learned that the latter is closest to correct, at least for some litterers. Again and again, students have reported with chagrin that they had littered frequently and that, prior to reading the essay, they hadn’t thought or felt anything about that at all.
So, there is that disconnection that I tried to both articulate and dispel when I first wrote about this topic. But seeing it happen, sensing the self-satisfied obliviousness with which the riders in the flashy red car sped away from the scene of their crime against nature… that started me thinking about callousness and narcissism, both of which can be drivers of disconnection.
It’s callousness that lets slaughterhouse workers kill, egg farmers “cull,” and dairy farmers separate calves from their mothers. Callousness helps to explain how those students at Green Mountain College –some of whom had taken tours of slaughterhouses– voted to kill and eat Bill and Lou. Callousness explains why it’s not true that “if slaughterhouses had windows, everyone would be vegetarian.” Slaughterhouse workers are not, by and large, vegetarians. However horrified they may initially have been by the blood and gore or the terror and killing, they get used to it. They develop callouses—not on their hands, but on their hearts.
Those kinds of callouses are the most obvious, but we’re all benumbed. How else to account for mothers who buy candy bars made from cocoa beans picked by child slaves? We travel across landscapes smothered by tar and concrete, not thinking about the harms implicit in so many of our daily activities. Even if we tried, we’ve not got enough working memory to keep them all in mind at all times. And then there are the injuries—to humans and other animals—perpetrated by others, in some of which we are also to some degree complicit. As Food Empowerment Project founder lauren Ornelas recently wrote about the sorrows in some of the scenes in Blackfish, “These are the types of things that I can’t think of for too long for fear of going crazy.”
So, there’s that. We have to block some things out, just to function in this world, and that process of blocking also creates callouses.
And then here we are in the USA, which leads the world in waste production, producing 1/4 of the world’s trash despite being home to less than 5% of the world’s people. We’re #1! We’re #1!
“We’re #1!” That is what folks in the USA seem to love to believe, individually and collectively. Narcissism runs almost a deeply as paranoia through the national psyche.
Besides liking to look at themselves in reflective surfaces like the gleam of that glossy car, narcissists believe themselves to be inherently special and don’t much care who they trample on the way to reaping what they see as their just rewards. While I’m wary of easy comparisons between cultural narcissism and clinical narcissism—a serious condition that creates real problems in living for people with that constellation of characteristics and even more problems for their partners and children—it may be useful to consider whether the known causes of one might illuminate the other. It’s often said that narcissists really do believe themselves to be “all that,” and that’s true to a certain degree. Consciously, many narcissists really do believe themselves to be superior, persume themselves to be deserving of special treatment, and perceive any critics to be jealous “haters.” But beneath that extremely annoying surface, well outside of conscious awareness because it is so very painful, is an anguished emptiness so vast and deep that it is awful to contemplate.
Many US citizens do believe “this great nation” to be the inherently special leader behind which other nations naturally ought to fall into line and to be so unquestionably superior that its critics must be terrorists or traitors. Our actual leadership in areas like waste, greenhouse gases, and per-capita imprisonment troubles most US citizens not at all. Is it possible that the same kind of internal emptiness that drives the bad behavior of clinical narcissism is also foundational here? If so, the remedy would be to fill that void with truly sustaining (and not coincidentally sustainable) sources of pride and joy.
I concluded my 2006 essay inspired by litter (did you go and read it yet?), by suggesting that we both reorient ourselves to the ecosystems that envelope us and “go dumpster diving within ourselves,” reclaiming the cast-off parts of ourselves that might be motivating us to act badly. I don’t disagree with those prescriptions, but I’m now thinking with more specificity about how to do that, particularly in regard to personal callousness and cultural narcissism.
At last year’s conference honoring the legacy of ecofeminist scholar and activism Marti Kheel, philosopher and activist Lori Gruen gave a closing talk in which she spoke of the possible power of grief. If, instead of blocking out those ten thousand varieties of death in which we (often inadvertently and almost always unmindfully) participate, we were to recognize and actively grieve them, then we wouldn’t have to choose between going numb or going crazy—because grieving, unlike ignoring, allows for movement. Mother Jones famously said, “don’t mourn—organize.” This is more like mourning as part of the process of mobilization, which the AIDS activist group ACTUP proved can be a powerful engine of social change.
At that same conference, I gave a talk about the power of eros, some of the ideas behind which I’ll be blogging here soon while others will appear in the anthology coming out of that conference to be published next year. In brief, eros is the life force that prompts us to try to make meaningful and mutually pleasurable connections with others. It may be our most powerful renewable resource, but capitalism diverts it into plastic pleasures while patriarchy perverts it into sharply circumscribed channels.
So, I guess that’s my amendment to the prescription: mindful mourning as a remedy for accidental callousness and true eros as an antidote to empty hubris. What do you think?