Travel and Principles

I’m not vegan when I travel. It would be easy for me to say this is for practical reasons, “it simply isn’t reasonable, the food isn’t available, it’s too hard”. But that isn’t actually my reason – rather, I think that principles, like not consuming animal products, can only be comprehended and stood for in specific cultural-historical contexts. Or rather, while because they are principles and are completely abstractable from any context, if we are serious about instituting them we need to pay attention to the relative amenability of different contexts to those principles. And maybe the principle that I stand for in one place doesn’t translate to another, isn’t the priority. But that isn’t the only reason- it’s also because I think the point of travelling is to experience the place that you are in, and the food is part of that. Eating a “vintage cheddar ploughmans” from a 24 hr cafe at heathrow is part of the experience of transferring through a modern London airport, a part that would be missed if I carried my own vegan rations with me. It’s part of modern britain – an intense emphasis on packaged yet relatively fresh food with mostly whole ingredients, and which hearkens back to traditional styles. This sandwich actually says a lot about what Britain is today, how it thinks of itself, and how it is negotiating the current social activisty critiques of capitalism. (And thereby, how capitalism can sustain itself in the face of the local food movement, showing why those movements are not revolutionary but however can have positive effects).

This kind of reflection should move from a particular towards a general truth, so I’ll have at it with this one: taking for granted that the purpose of politics is to apply a prescription which holds universally onto particular reals, we are irresponsible and not in fact faithful to our own principles if we do not carefully take heed of the way principles are in fact interlacing with the social fabric at different places and different times. Chomsky to some extent rejects this, and says we pay too close attention to the prevailing mood and ignore that the same radical acts are possible regardless of this feeling of a zeitgeist. But while that might be true for exceptional actions, he also says that education is a pre-requisite for direct action, and that means we can’t avoid being sensitive to prevailing conditions, to general social attitudes insofar as these are what you intervene into when you do education work. Education, unlike direct action, is fostered by engagement and non-confrontation (whereas genuine political moments are confrontations, and occur when the time for negotiating is over). So, for these reasons, I think there is a serious argument for suspending one’s own principles, and even one’s own practices, if it is for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of the way principles are twined into societies, because these forms of research can notice the place where the hypocricy is weakest, the right place of intervention where education and action have the best chance of success.

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One thought on “Travel and Principles

  1. I agree that it can be reasonable to suspend our ordinary personal moral rules in special circumstances.

    The trick is only doing it for good reasons. We are all exceptionally good at convincing ourselves that what we want to do just happens to be morally correct.

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