Prioritizing the Trivial

Priority. keyboardSome people say you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. I know that’s not true because I make my omelets with tofu. But I might say that you can’t break systems of oppression without stepping on a few toes, and you can’t always eliminate cruelty in a way that the people who rely on cruelty will like.

There are a few different stories that I’m thinking of. The first is the story of Laquan McDonald and the protests/riots that happened once the video of his death was released. Then there is a story about forcefully weaning dairy cows, and another story about corporate reaction to an anti-dairy ad. The stories are all different but share one thing in common: they tell me that our priorities are all messed up.

When institutional violence by police against citizens – and by citizens I mean minorities – is brought up, one of the first things that people rush to tell me is that it’s not all cops. That’s certainly true, but I have to wonder why that’s the first thing some people say. Is it out of fairness, a desire not to over-reach and paint police with a too-broad brush? Maybe sometimes, but I suspect that’s often a rationalization. When people talk about institutional police violence, I’m sure they know that it’s not every single cop, but our first priority can’t be protecting the reputation of some good members of a corrupt institution. We can worry about that once the corruption has been solved.

Some of the Chicago protests for Laquan McDonald turned ino chaotic scenes, with images in the news of people tearing lights off of Christmas trees and staring down police officers. It’s unfortunate, and I don’t think rioting necessarily helps anything, but what’s more unfortunate is that people let riots blind them to what causes the riots. When people say, “They’ve lost my sympathy by acting like thugs,” I wonder if they can hear the deeper implications – that because a few people got rowdy, other people with the same skin color deserved to be targeted and murdered; that because a community reacted with anger and passion, they don’t deserve to be heard. Is your priority some Christmas lights being torn down or some kids getting murdered? Both are bad but if you are more worried about the lights than the lives, I’m not sure what to say about that.

#NotAllCops, #AllLivesMatter, #NotAllMen, and so on are true in an abstract, superficial way but they’re used as rebuttals against equal rights. When you say these things, who are you speaking to? The mythical boogey man out to kill all cops? A large section of liberals who think that black lives matter more than white lives? Who are men’s rights activists responding to? One would think there’s a large demographic of women who believe all men are rapists and are ready to punish them accordingly. But there aren’t, so people are directing their rebuttals against straw men. What sounds reasonable at first glance is in reality more like a campaign to enfranchize the already-powerful. Thanks for that, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong. Police outreach is important, but it should happen in addition to ending corruption and murder, not instead of it. When I say our priorities are messed up, it’s not because we want to preserve the good name of good cops, non-racist white people, and non-rapist men. That’s a good thing. The problem is when it’s our first reaction. If the first item on your agenda is “feel like a good person,” or “make sure everyone knows I’m a good person,” that’s a recipe for disaster. It means you’re prioritizing your own comfort over others’ freedom. If your reaction to rioting is to say it invalidates a community’s claims of injustice, you’re prioritizing the comfort of the overculture over the lives of the oppressed.

I need to keep reminding myself that humanity is far less violent than it’s been in thousands of years. Recognizing universal human rights instead of just one’s own family, tribe, ethnic group, or country is really very new. The fact that anyone cares about it is reason to have hope.


A New Zealand animal rights group posted an ad about cruelty in New Zealand dairy production in the British Guardian.

Prime Minister John Key called the ad “economic sabotage” and said, “If you were to take an ad in New Zealand at least you could make the case you’re trying to influence other law makers and the New Zealand public. To take an ad in an international paper – what end is that other than to try and stop consumers buying our products?”

The cruelty being talked about is the separation of calves from their mothers. Male calves are useless to the dairy industry because they can’t produce milk. More than that, they want to drink their mothers’ milk. The problem with that is that we want to drink it instead, and so the male calf has to be taken away, usually to become veal. It’s a common belief that
cows only need to get pregnant once and then produce milk all their lives, but that’s not the case. They need to be repeatedly inseminated, which means their calves are repeatedly taken away from them. It’s a terrible experience for both mother and calf. It’s not much better for female calves, who are lucky if they get to nurse either, before becoming dairy cows like their mother. They might get a short period to nurse and then are formula-fed.

It’s a necessary part of dairy farming, whether in a factory farm or on an idealized happy pasture. A farmer in the above-cited article says, “[The creators of the ad] are all about problems but there’s no solutions. Their solution is stop farming animals. That’s all well and good but it’s not what the market wants.”


Whose priority has to come first? The one who wants to live, or the one who wants to profit from their death? Should it matter what the market wants, if what the market wants belongs to someone else? The Prime Minister is saying that trying to inform the public or influence policy is justifiable, but trying to end an industry isn’t. What if there’s no way to run that industry without victimizing innocent individuals? Business can’t be the number one priority.

The spiked nose ring and nose plate are new to me. It’s another way to forcibly separate a mother cow from her children. The article is worth reading because the author eloquently explains the cruelty inherent in dairy farming. We invent strange contraptions to prevent a healthy, natural interaction between mother and child and then invent strange myths (like we need to milk cows for their own comfort, no need for them to be impregnated first) to feel better about ourselves. Our first priority is to feel good about ourselves.

When a calf is separated from his mother and turned into veal, that’s it for him. He doesn’t get another shot at life. If the industry that does this to him goes under, the workers have a chance to find new jobs, perhaps in the many new fields that will open up to fill that niche. The priority seems clear. Do we prioritize simple pleasures that only last 5 minutes? Or do we prioritize the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The choice isn’t between cheese and misery. You and your family could pick a different pizza and still have a great night out. To prefer cheese over pesto, and be willing to separate families and kill calves to get it, is the very height of privilege.

This article might seem like a bait and switch because I started talking about Laquan McDonald and ended up talking about dairy calves. But really I’ve just been ruminating about priorities and the ways that we can all turn the trivial into the most important parts of our decision making. Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

The concerns of our own lives, from the most profound to the things that mildly entertain us, can seem to be more important than others’ entire lives if we’re not willing to step back and look at it. That which is closest to our hearts seems like the most important thing in the world, but we have to consider that their are other hearts out there too. Tranquility and status quo, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed it out, can feel more important and immediate to us than justice for all members of our world. I’ll close with his words, which seem very important with the protests that have been happening lately:

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Other America

1 thought on “Prioritizing the Trivial

  1. Sandy Foo

    Thank you, Jason, for your deep thoughts that allow for connections that may not be apparent to the rest of us…at first. There is an umbrella under which all of us who work for issues of justice and peaceful living struggle: patriarchy. Any time we fall for the notion of separation, of the Other, we feed patriarchy and fail to be just.

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