caring but not sharing

Human rights or dolphins' rights? You can't espouse all of the causes all of the time, says Aminatta Forna; TESTIMONY

it's Friday evening. A group of urban thirty- somethings is dining together. One woman asks whether the tuna in the pasta sauce was line- caught or not; she is extremely concerned and wants to be sure of the facts before she eats it. Dolphins get caught in tuna nets, she explains. Most of us know this and we consider the implications of eating tuna with appropriate gravity.

I've no intention of not eating my plate of food whatever the answer, but I'm shy of saying so. The man next to me isn't. He pipes up with some crack, broadly at the expense of dolphins and the dolphin-lover. Well! It was a rash action which, with hindsight, made a lager lout taking on the bulls of Pamplona appear over-cautious. The ensuing row went on almost until the end of the meal.

It's possible the woman knew he was a lawyer when she called him cynical and selfish. When she said it was people like her who made a difference to the world, I don't suppose she could have known that this unrepentant meat-eater dedicated his own time to fighting human-rights abuses in Turkey. That he was about to publish a book on the subject. That although he didn't appear to care about dolphins, he certainly cared about people.

Or perhaps she knew and just didn't care. This is the modern battle of ideas. A battle in which conversation has become a minefield. The multiplicity of causes, issues and campaigns today means that everyone feels strongly about something. From dolphins to domestic abuse, from elephant poaching to East Timor, there is something for everyone. The late 20th-century spawning of crusades is an effect of the documented shift of political activity and interest away from party politics towards individual issues. The trouble is that there are so many to choose from - and we don't all feel strongly about the same things.

"Compassion fatigue" was a phrase coined a few years back. Back then we'd done Band Aid and Live Aid; we'd Run the World; protested over treatment of the Kurds - twice; worn Red Noses every year, tackled another famine/oil- spill/ethnic-cleansing campaign; then ... enough!

Caring equally about all the causes with equal merits is worthy but impossible. But it wasn't compassion fatigue: people didn't stop caring, they just cared more selectively. In the Nineties most of us are likely to choose our charities and our causes, fighting only for those we feel most strongly about.

Today there are nearly 5,000 registered charities and new ones being registered at the rate of nearly two per working hour. A few years ago I made my choice and I've stuck to it. Third World causes are high on my list, as are human-rights abuses, torture victims and issues relating to gender- and race-equality. They are my priorities and I can get very het up over them indeed. Children and cancer research I know attract a lot of concern and so I reckon someone else is taking care of those. Veal calves and donkey sanctuaries? Well, I wish all animals could live a life of liberty and dignity but I'm afraid I'm not going to go out and demonstrate for it. Boarding-school survivors and Lloyds names - forget it.

Now, in theory it should be possible for every cause to have its followers, and that in itself would ensure that most of the world's concerns were being taken care of. Unfortunately it isn't so - because it is the nature of crusades to convert. And that's where vegetarians at loggerheads with human-rights activists come in. Like old-fashioned crusaders, the sword of self-righteousness in our hand, we battle for the souls of dinner-party guests and the moral higher ground.

People who care about animals think they are the rightful occupiers of the moral high ground. That's because they are the guardians of creatures who are small, often fluffy, and unable to safeguard their own rights. Human-rights activists believe people matter more than animals but that cuts no ice with animal-lovers. (Note: neither of them, it seems, care about tuna).

Political reformists consider themselves to be looking at the bigger picture and everyone else to be merely tinkering. Environmentalists give themselves pole position because they are saving the world and, without them, all is lost. And New Age spiritualists think it's all lost anyway and they're saving our souls for the great hunting ground in the sky. Put them together, add a few drinks too many and a long evening, and you have the ingredients for combustion.

In an American TV film He Said/She Said, screened recently, a woman explains why her sister didn't turn up to meet her fiance. "With your views on abortion," she explained, "she didn't think it would be right to sit at the same table as you."

Don't laugh. For me, it's Alan Clark. And if he knew me I believe he would agree we should never socialise together. He cares little for issues of gender- or racial- equality ... but is a committed vegetarian. I eat veal.

"Never discuss religion or politics," used to be the golden rule of civilised conversation. I propose a change to reflect the times. Never discuss religion, politics, vivisection, PC, cycling lanes, China, date rape, gender roles, positive discrimination, consumer power, nuclear power, black power, travellers' rights....

Suggested Topics
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us