The logic of “complicity” or tacet approval is popular with activists today. As someone who associates with (but does not strictly subscribe to, as if it were a publication) Veganism, I often am subject to the argument: “but isn’t it always wrong to be complicit in the exploitation of animals?”.
Yes. It is always wrong to be complicit in the exploitation of animals. However, it is always wrong to be complicit in the carrying out of any evil, be it individual or structural, and the society we live in is one of pervasive evils of both kinds. Simply by “not acting”, by ignoring political, social, animal violence, one is tacitly approving of a system which constantly violates the ideals by which it justifies itself. And by “acting”, there are countless other instances and forms of violence which by not concentrating on, one ignores, and tacitly approves by de-valueing that injustice with respect to another.
I would therefore, assert another kind of complicity – complicity in the idea that you are not guilty. The idea that one can be “consistent” in one’s actions, that one can avoid being a “hypocrite” today, is the greatest hypocrisy. Everyone holds ideals which they have the duty to demand the world to uphold, but they do not have the capacity to even speak in the most empty theoretical manner all these demands. The proper form of ethics in a world of infinite demand is not self-consistency, or taking up every single struggle available. Rather – it is coming to be aware of the hypocrisy which everyone is guilty of but few can be blamed for. The actions of those who do unspeakable violence are never justifiable, but they are comprehensible, understandable – we can see the humanity in their violence. Refusing to see humanity in the violent actors and structures of the world is to fall prey to radical ressentiment, a nihilism which says “No!” to all the world because that world does not live up to an ideal, which, thought generated out of the world, finds itself structured over-against it as a target which cannot be reached.
The answer is not to “not be complicit”, therefore, but to be complicit in the right way. To be complicit in such a way that attention is drawn to your complicity, to bring to light the hypocrisies which we all live with, ignore, “rise above”, etc… It is great ideology to confuse, for instance, eating a hamburger at MacDonalds with a genuine relation of human to animal on a genuine farm. However, it is greater ideology to assume that there was nothing, could never have been nothing, about the genuine relationship to animals on farms which the MacDonalds experience functions by referencing towards. There is something true in that relation, and there is therefore something true in the MacDonalds experience as well – although this is not a truth of “correctness” but a revealing which is buried over by all simplistic analysis which reduces the relation to food to the logic of resource, exploitation, and sentience.
The relationship between humans and their ideals is not simple – it can not be captured under the simple logic which states “we know our ideals, the task is to make ourselves equal to them” because it is never clear in advance what the real force of an ideal will be – these are empirical questions, to be worked out after history, and therefore the speculative projected answers in advance can never be given in the form of a certainty.
I therefore advocate the posture of struggle, of admitted guilt, of confusion – over the self righteous religious zealotry which claims not only to understand all the violences in the world today (which certainly does in the form of a recognition), but to at the same time understand the underlying causes and solutions to those violences. In other words, what we should stop naively asserting with positive certainty that the solution is always inherent in the problem as a potency which shows up in actuality as the motive for that problem’s condemnation.