Offsetting Hypocrisy

March 19th, 2011

Scenario 1: You own a small courier service. You feel compelled to keep your business socially conscientious, and you hear about the ill effects that various company operations may have on the environment. There's the modest fleet of vans and the gas with which they're powered, the headquarter office where lights, computers, fax machines, and other power-hungry possessions demand a steady stream of electricity from the local coal plant, and there's plenty of waste, not all of which fits neatly into the color-coded recycling bins out back.

So you decide you're going to take the initiative and do something. Except, you don't actually know what to do --a courier needs its fleet, after all. Then you remember hearing about some big company --or was it an actual country?-- that used offsetting to "nullify" the ill effects of its inefficiency and waste. A swift bank transaction and a cute marketing campaign later, you're satisfied with your trendsetting responsibility and the positive new image you've instilled in your customers' minds.

Scenario 2: Let's face it, Ted's an asshole. You've known him since grade school, back when he wouldn't let you play with his toys and got better breakfast cereal than you did, and he hasn't changed much. Blunt, loud, selfish, and somehow always just sort of "around," Ted makes your life more or less miserable. Unfortunately, this isn't the experience of your boss at the insurance firm, who has recently hired Ted and is hinting that he's on the fast track to usurping your coveted corner office.

The time has come to take action. You've entertained the fantasy of hacking Ted to bits with some kind of fancy martial arts weapon, which he would look at with crushing envy before his drawn out made for TV movie death, but surely you couldn't really do that. Then you remember that time your parents made you go to the dentist for a painful procedure that, as far as you were concerned, had no real purpose other than to make you feel bad. When it was over, your parents took you out for ice cream, patted your head, and talked about how brave you were. Everyone seemed to feel that in the end, it was okay.

You don't really know what to do with a katana or nunchucks though, so one day you simply poison Ted's afternoon coffee, and serve it to him personally under the guise of clearing the air and making a new start. After Ted's death, you start showering your friend John with as much kindness as you can manage. You take him to dinner and go to his house unannounced to deliver presents or help with household chores. John gets creeped out and tells you not to call him anymore. So you have a baby --hey, creating a new life oughta offset ending an old one--, and direct your affections to it, satisfied with your Ted-free existence.

***

There are some laws that govern potential environmental damage and related activities, just as there are laws that relate to killing people. Certain things, we've decided, are wrong, and how reprehensible or threatening they may be is a matter typically dealt with in terms of sentences. Somehow, though, we've recently talked ourselves into believing that some bad things are okay if we "offset" them by doing good things in the meantime, mostly because we just don't know how to stop doing the bad stuff.

The offsetting hypocrisy sets a fairly dangerous precedent for moral action, and for interaction with the law. And while I don't know what to do about -that-, I'm going to publish this instead of not writing anything today and then playing with magnetic poetry on the fridge later to make up for it.

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