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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Client Account Executive

    £23000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Account Executive is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Full Time position available now at a growing...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive + incentives + uncapped comms: SThree:...

    Ashdown Group: Reporting & Analytics Supervisor - Buckinghamshire - £36,000

    £34000 - £36000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Analytics & Reporting Tea...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future