Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eyeroller: a short comedy in three acts

I haven't been blogging much lately: I've been Tweeting. But given the recent back-and-forth over the NY Magazine climate change article and the instant suggestions about individual volunteerism e.g. that people should have fewer kids if they want to do something, I think it's time to repost this short play. (Originally from Crooked Timber comments.)


EYEROLLER: A short comedy in three acts

Act I:

FIRST PERSON: “I put solar panels on my roof. That cost a lot! Why are people always scolding people for not doing more? They should encourage them instead.”

EYEROLLER: “Micro-decisions about personal consumption or production will have no real effect, even en masse. The only purpose in talking about them is to give people something useless to do so that they can feel like they’re doing something.”

SECOND PERSON: “Of course you should tell people to put solar panels on roofs. That pressures the “market signals” to expand production and to further innovation, encourages politicians to get on board, etc., among other complex responses.”

EYEROLLER: “OK.. If we’re going to talk about complex responses and signals, let’s talk about what other signals the act of putting solar panels on your roof sends. It says that you’re interested in volunteerism, not collective action: it tells the market that you want middle-class equipment, not large-scale equipment.”

THIRD PERSON: “What? That’s unworthy. How could you say that putting up solar panels makes things worse?”

EYEROLLER: “Well, it might, and anyways if people invest in personal middle class solutions, they’re not going to want to also invest in community solutions.”

FORUTH PERSON: “Wait. Did you just say that I should have spent my money on the poor rather than putting solar panels up?”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)

Act II

EYEROLLER: “We’re stuck inside a neoliberal system within which all messages get turned into messages about personal consumption and personal virtue based on consumption, even if they weren’t intended that way. It becomes impossible to say anything about incentive structures without this being interpreted as whether personal decisions are good or bad, or anything about whether putting solar panels up or not is really a good idea overall without this being interpreted as a personal attack on people who put up solar panels.”

FIFTH PERSON: “You described reducing overall energy use as a kind of Puritanism, but we need to reduce overall energy use so what’s wrong with using Puritanism to do that? It mobilizes certain limbic system anchors for collective social behaviors you need, like the appeal of common sacrifice as a form of civic action and the kind of righteousness you need for altruistic punishment of deviants.”

(EYEROLLER looks disconcerted.)

EYEROLLER: “Puritanism and its focus on individual virtue is part of this, yes. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Once you start mobilizing limbic system anchors for righteousness to punish deviants, it’s pretty difficult to control –“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you saying I’m a goody-goody? I want you to apologize.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)

Act III

EYEROLLER: “One more time. You can reach a kind of limiting case in which certain messages become literally unintelligible. Even if someone starts out thinking that they are doing public health work, how is the public going to interpret that? The public is going to see it as another opportunity for personal status competition–“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you trying to trash my reputation?”

EYEROLLER: “– everything comes back to a discussion of personal virtue and who has it, personal decisions and whether those are moral decisions –“

SECOND PERSON: “So you’re saying that people who put up solar panels are just motivated by feelings of moral superiority?”

EYEROLLER: “– and any kind of system critique can only be heard as personal critique — “

THIRD PERSON: “I have an orientation to public health in my work, and certainly that would never turn into just sanctioning people who didn’t agree with the program! Now talk about this how I want you to or I’ll tell the moderators on you.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes, but has a muscle spasm part way through, eyes pointing in different directions.)

EYEROLLER (in Captain Kirk tones): “FACE… FROZEN! Can’t stop … rolling eyes! CAN’T! STOP! ROLLING! EYES!”