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How I learned to stop worrying and love my isms

By Aragorn Eloff

When I visit a restaurant my opening line to the waiter is usually: “Hi, I’m vegan. What do you suggest?”

What I really mean when I say this is: “Hi, I was just wondering … I don’t eat meat and I don’t want anything with butter in it. Also, no milk or cream or cheese. No ghee either. You don’t use yoghurt in this, do you? Did I mention the honey?”,

Admittedly I’m occasionally still forced to deliver a lengthy explanation of a plant-based diet but as time goes by I find that simply stating my ism is the most efficient way of getting something suitable to eat. Of course, this is largely due to the fact that most vegans are proud of their ism, one which indicates a sustained ethical commitment to non-human animals and the environment and we can thus be relied upon to defend and define it whenever necessary.

Some of my other isms, however, do not enjoy as much support.

For instance, if more of us anarchists were explicit about our views “futurists” like Belinda Silbert would probably be less inclined to use the term in its derisive, adjectival form, as is evident in Silbert’s response to the “Anonymous”-affiliated “Taking Back South Africa 2011″ campaign: “Who is truly behind all of this mischief-making? Who has such a vested interest in unleashing anarchy? I do not think that this is the way forward in South Africa.” 

Then again, I can understand her uneasiness. “Winds Change” — the online persona responsible for spreading the campaign — seems difficult to pin down politically and the admittedly captivating campaign videos are a bit longer on rhetoric and spectacle than they are on actual position. Disregarding the unfortunate name — “taking back” South Africa does carry the implication that the campaign is addressing a group that previously “had” South Africa and would like it back again — it’s not quite clear what the group wants: Mild government reforms? More effective policing? Community justice? Violent insurrection? Libertarian socialism? Racial separatism?

While an ism could work wonders here, I’m not surprised by the campaign’s decision to occupy an ambiguous political terrain. After all, we are still — yes, still — living in the postmodern age of anything-goes relativism, an age where ideology is seen as some sort of naive affliction and positions on anything more serious than consumer taste are best kept secret lest we embarrass ourselves in intelligent company.

As the infamous manifesto of French leftist group “The Invisible Committee” — better known to the French police as the “Tarnac 9″ — puts it: “Today, Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the ‘it all depends on your point of view'; it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all.” The Coming Insurrection

The irony of this is that this aversion to isms amounts to a silent acceptance of the dominant isms. By not defining ourselves in opposition to the reigning economic order for example (that one where we’re pitted against each other in some kind of perversely imbalanced real-life rendition of Darwin’s Monopoly) we’re saying that we adhere to capitalism. By shrugging our shoulders in order to defer decision-making to a small bunch of elected officials, we’re silently agreeing with the premises of statism. If you eat a meat-centric diet, you’re practising carnism — the appellation fits regardless of whether or not you’ve chosen to wear it.

It seems odd then that we’re so averse to admitting to our isms.

Why such reticence?

On the one hand, history is replete with examples of the danger of falling behind an ism.

On the other hand, perhaps our kneejerk reactions to any and all isms are subtle symptoms of consumer capitalism. As consumers we have become conditioned to accept the dictates of advertisers and biased media corporations. We’re used to being told, unique snowflakes that we are, what each of our isms are, as well as the speed at which we’re to disabuse ourselves of them — how rapidly each and every taste, affinity or even political perspective should be subject to change based on the whims of, depending on how you see it, markets, neo-imperialists and/or other coercive forces.

Additionally, we have, probably fortunately, cultivated something of an incredulity towards grand narratives and totalising systems. We’re pretty certain that no set of simple isms can ever wholly capture our respective idiosyncrasies, our nuances of position, our slight deviations from altogether questionable “norms”.

In my mind, however, none of this necessitates a wholesale abandonment of isms. Instead, all that seems to be required is the adoption of a specific kind of sceptical, cautious attitude. Armed with this, there’s no reason why we cannot or should not continue to use isms strategically in order to be able to efficiently convey information and share our affinities and desires with each other. If this works at a restaurant, surely it can work just as well in more important aspects of our lives.

In other words, if you share some of the ambitions of “Winds Change” and other revolutionists or reformists of undefined political affiliation, perhaps it might help to explore, however timidly, one or two isms. This doesn’t have to mean toeing a party line, signing a pact in blood or resigning yourself to wild-eyed zealousness. More often than not, in fact, it’s just about having the tenacity to be consistently explicit about your views — to be the token anarchist at the birthday party or the token vegan at the braai. In return, you’ll have the benefits of clarity, the ability to more easily locate people you can work together with to effect meaningful change and the opportunity to grow and refine your ism. After all, the best isms, like anarchism, are those that evolve.

In case you’re struggling to find an ism that feels just right to replace your default adherence to kakistocracy (government by the worst) here are a hundred or so to get you started.

Aragorn Eloff is an amateur filmmaker and one of the directors of the South African Vegan Society. He is currently traveling the world interviewing anarchists for a feature-length documentary on the subject, which he hopes to release sometime in the foreseeable future.

  • HD

    Nice first blog.

    I wish I could travel the globe interviewing anarchists!

    How about interviewing Roderick Long, Kevin Carson, Walter Block Peter Boettke and Bryan Caplan? 😉

  • Stephen Browne

    When I hear someone proclaim their veganism, I hear someone loudly proclaiming how much of a chump they are.

    Stop trying to point out how awesome you are, you aren’t. In addition, stop trying to tell me I’m unhappy in my capitalistic filth. In the words of a famous hooker, you don’t know me.

  • Gerry

    ‘gorn, you and I haven’t sat round the same ideological table many times, and I can never – ideologically or otherwise – agree with you on veganism.

    However, you were the one who introduced me to Arnarchism (as distinct from anarchy), and that I still embrace to this day.

    As for my personal isms: I am most closely defined as a anarcho-capitalist objectivist libertarian.

  • Thandinkosi Sibisi

    i eat meat almost everyday (if not everyday). ‘Meat’ refers to red meat, white meat or fish.having defined meat thus , I would say out of 365 days in a year I do not have more than 10 days on which I do not eat meat. Hence the ‘almost ‘ qualification. However I digress.

    Almost veryone has to explain in detail what they want at a restuarant, lest they bring you what yoy do not want (in your case meat and its by products such as butter , cheese, eggs, animal oils and so on)

    being a meat eater, I do not know what ‘ism’ I fall under. Cannibalism perhps? However you are a vegeterian pure and simple no ism about it unless you insist we find an ism in which case I would suggest ‘snobism’. O yes, you probably think meat eaters like me are ‘inferior creatures’ if not ‘cannibals’

    anyway all you have to do is tell the waiter that you are a ‘vegeterian’ and you do not want any animal products or by products.if the waiter has half a brain then you will have no problems.however you and the waiter are probably not from the same planet.s/he may make mistakes.(like when you get ‘well done’ instead of ‘medium’. Welcome to the real world you snob you!

  • jka

    of course, a whole article and what do the commentators cling to – the mention of veganism. and what do they say? they insult it without any logic or reason or fact.

    facts are that veganism makes sense from environmental, health, economic and ethical perspectives.

    what doesn’t make sense is the illogical clinging to carnism and in so doing needlessly destroying, killing, stealing and exploiting human, non-human, environment and self.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    @HD: I don’t regard any of the folks you mentioned as anarchists. Carson comes closest – he’s quick to point out that he disagrees with Mises and co. on most things and that he thinks it’s a mistake to analytically reduce everything to market exchange. He’s even on some of the same popular anarchist discussion lists as I am (which is rare for a pro-free market guy), but his claim that he is a part of the broad tradition is highly contested by most of his fellow subscribers, many of whom are noted anarchist scholars. At the most it could be argued that he is some or other kind of Proudhonian mutualist, which is more than can be said for Caplan, Long and co.

    @Stephen: I trust you’re consistent in your approach of visiting every single article expressing a viewpoint / preference that runs counter to yours and observing that, because of this very fact, it is a pointless waste of space? The music review sites that erroneously review cds you don’t enjoy must have a hard time keeping up with you!

    @Gerry: That’s quite a mouthful. An actual objectivist though? I didn’t realise anyone still took Ayn Rand *that* seriously.

    @Thandinkosi: Yup – as I said, isms, like ‘vegetarianism’, can sometimes be very useful.

  • HD

    @Aragorn

    It was tongue on the cheek comment (since I know where you stand on that); but clearly you really embrace your “isms” – even in terms of the documentary.

    I would think including some of these guys would make it a better documentary – since they regard themselves as anarchists (even if you criticise / disagree with them).

    Block – because his is one of Rothbard’s disciples and Rothbard is regarded as the “father” of anarcho-capitalism.

    Caplan – since he wrote the other “anarchist faq” it would be good to interrogate him…

    Long/Carson – because they try to reach out to the left and describe themselves as left-libertarians.

    But, I guess if you are intend on making another “pat ourselves on the back” uncritical documentary you are free to do that…

    Good luck it would be interesting to see what you come up with…

  • HD

    @Aragorn

    …and perhaps ask those guys if everything can be reduced to “market exchange”.

    I don’t think that is a very good characterisation of Austrian influenced anarchist at all. You have some of them even embracing hermeneutics and the work of Gadamar, Husserl etc. in order to explain subjectivity in terms of economics and then you don’t even touch on their philosophical approaches to ethics and politics…

  • Enough Said

    Aragorn, I have long wondered why you don’t blog on ThoughtLeader. Well done. Have fun with the regular conservative commentators. They don’t absorb much so use simple terms and short sentences. Also they will raise the same objections next time. You have the patience of Job to take these guys on.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @HD: People use all sorts of obscurantism to defend the market; look at Elie Ayache’s contrived drivel for instance.

    And our approach is massively broad: over 100 interviews with everyone from anarcho-primitivists to hardline syndicalists to post-leftists…the point is that it’s a documentary about *anarchism* and the use of the term by people like Long, Caplan, etc., is fundamentally problematic. If we let them in, we’d have to interview people like Keith Preston too, which would be fine if we were intent on controversy (and showcasing idiots) but not otherwise.

  • HD

    @Aragorn

    LOL, k fair enough…

    Good luck. It would be interesting if you blog about some of the interviews and personalities you meet…

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @HD: I plan to write a critique of Austrian Economics (making special reference to some of the more tenuous distinctions it draws between itself and, for instance, the Chicago School in order to avoid applying critiques of this group to itself) in due course.

    If you’d like to read about our travels, you can visit our blog at: http://www.anarchismdocumentary.net.

    @Enough Said: Thanks! I might need some liquor too, if I manage to publish something on more touchy issues, like animal rights 😀

  • Benzol

    “ism’s” are the result of the human need to categorise “things”. This requires accuracy in the description (or definition) of the “ism”.
    I did miss proper definitions in this this article.
    Then an “ism” becomes like beauty and is in the mind of the beholder. I do hope you have a proper and universal definition of anarchism before you travel the world unless you are looking for it?

  • http://roryshort.blogspot.com/ Rory Short

    To me ‘isms’ are the products of ‘word games’. This does not mean that I think that they have no role to play in human discourse they do. Provided that the participants in a discourse are open minded they help to sharpen ideas and understandings of things and that is surely a good thing. We need to recognise however that all ideas, and the words that we use to express them, are but representations, they are not whatever it is that is being thought about or talked about. A representation can never be the thing itself and as a consequence it will always fail in its representation in some or other way and that is why living ‘isms’ should be open to continuous change.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Poor people everywhere are consuming more animal products as their incomes rise above absolute poverty level…..it is one of the initial choices almost all humans will make as soon as resources to do so become available to them.

    Another dominant striving is for personal motorised transport and the freedom of movement it affords.
    Acquiring a small capacity motorcycle enjoys a high position in the priorities of poorer people in South East Asia.

    ‘Veganism’ as a lifestyle advocacy for the planet is unlikely to gain much traction, as it is diametrically opposed to the natural, unfettered human choice for more energy dense foods in favour of less.

    The problem with ‘isms’ is that they are inseparable from the ‘collective’
    An individual subscribing to an ‘ism’ is collectivised by others, and prejudices held by others in relation to the particular ‘ism’ group is applied indiscriminately to all in that group (even if such prejudices are irrational)
    Thus, the individual looses identity to the perceived characteristics of the ‘group’

    I refuse to subscribe, for example, to ‘libertarianism’, because whilst agreeing in general, some ‘Libertarians’ are idiots, some espousing libertarianism don’t have a clue, the Libertarian Party is as flawed and pretentious as any other polity, and I do not want to be associated and ‘lumped in’ with any of it.

    Worse are unelected groupings, such as being ‘white’…all manner of baseless assumptions are made and characteristics ascribed based upon such ‘membership’ , disregarding the individual…..the stock in trade of prejudice.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @Rory: Well said :-)

    It sounds similar to what one of my all-time favourite authors used to say about things and their representations: http://dedroidify.blogspot.com/2008/08/robert-anton-wilsons-prometheus-rising.html