“You’re making a real difference.”
So I was informed by the keynote speaker at a fair trade chocolate meal I was at. The action of buying a ticket to a three course gourmet chocolate-based meal was, apparently, making that bit of difference that this world needs.
Before I go on I’d like to state that I thoroughly enjoyed the event and am only supportive of fair trade initiatives. But, I hated being told, multiple times, that buying a ticket to a nice meal was making a difference and that I could make even more of a difference – you know, really make that difference – by buying more fair trade products.
On an immediate level my objection stemmed from being reduced to a consumer. I suspect that our speaker did not intend this, but her constant reassurance that we were making a difference (and could do more!) made me feel like my primary mode of agency – especially insofar as we’re talking about doing good – was in commodity consumption, and petty commodity consumption at that. In a related vein, I did not like someone naming my effortless evening out (an expense I undertook for fun) as something akin to the difficult and complex work of peace and justice. Buying fair trade coffee and chocolate is probably a good thing, at least in many situations; but we ought not to misname it.
At this point it seems that the problem is simply that some people use the phrase “make a difference” too easily and inappropriately. The point, then, would be to be more careful with how we use such a phrase. And maybe that is all that I should take away from this event. But I want to push a bit further and suggest that there is something more going on with this rhetoric. That is, I started to wonder whether and how the rhetoric of “making a difference might tend towards this sort of reduction of our agency, such that we become, at bottom, capitalist consumers who can choose between different forms of consumption.
I took on the “making a difference” rhetoric a while ago. I wrote:
I think that the urgency within a rhetoric of “making a difference” has the potential to degrade our ongoing relational dynamics as sites of redemption. Furthermore, I think that this rhetoric holds a certain potential to take away from the (often tension filled) relational work that is at the heart of building peace and justice. It is not that paying attention to broader social structures and attempting to change systematic (sic) injustice is unimportant – indeed, it is terribly important. But we must also be careful in how we go about these tasks if we are to ensure that they do not become separated from dwelling within just and peaceful relationships. Urgency would have us limit diversity, as we decide who can be helped and who cannot, who is in and who is out. Urgency would have us take up coercive means, violating our relationships with some. Urgency cannot sustain peaceful relationships and a rhetoric of urgency has no place in our desire to do good work.
In marked contrast to this quote, what’s notable, in the context of buying fair trade, is the lack of urgency. We are told that we must make a difference in our world, which is on fire, and that we can make this difference little by little, one $20 purchase at a time. There is, decidedly, no urgency or hastiness here, and thus my earlier claim needs some revision.
I still think there’s a certain truth to naming the connection between “making a difference” and an ethic of urgency. However, I now view this connection as one possible symptom of a deeper error. This error is to assert a change in outcome (making a difference) as the highest possible good, to relegate the role of good work itself. It is to equate meaningful agency as fundamentally about making a difference. Once this happens, those among us who want to act meaningfully need to ensure that our actions change some outcomes, which is all that truly matters. Thus, we need to come to situations that need a change with control (possession) over the situation; we need to make sure that a difference is made, which allows no space for contingency, risk, complexity, or uncertainty. There are at least two ways to control (to own). One is to take forcibly, to grab control of a situation. This method is what I tried to identify in my previous post. But, there is another, simpler way to be in complete control. It is, quite simply to buy – we get to choose what we buy and when we do so we literally own it.
My suspicion is that the call to “make a difference” tends to one of these two forms of control (ownership). Consider, for a moment, where one hears the rhetoric of making a difference. I see two places: from political leaders and other persons of power, and from advertisers asking you to buy their product.
In their emphasis on making (forcing) change, both of these fail to account for the importance of good work, which has little to do with being in complete control. I don’t want to be a god and I don’t want my shopping to be the essence of who I am. I’ll buy fair trade, but I have little desire to make a difference.