Recently, I have been reading about the “radical homemaking” movement, which like the simplicity movement and similar shifts, values domestic work more and tries to reduce consumption and consumerism. What I see this movement as being about at its heart is challenging the pre-set cultural values of consumerism and traditional work in the corporate world. It is a search for another, possibly more satisfying way of life that hasn’t already been road-mapped as the American dream.
I’m not a big fan of the term “radical homemaking,” which I think is merely a way to rationalize these life choices and make them seem legitimate, especially for well-educated feminists (I have written about this before, when I first saw an article using the term in The New York Times). But my dislike of the term applied to it doesn’t negate the effort, in my opinion.
The backlash against this movement and similar ones that challenge cultural norms — local or slow food movements and voluntary simplicity are two other good examples — is that one has to be privileged to practice them. In other words, if you don’t already have money or property or an upper-middle-class background, then you couldn’t possibly pursue these movements comfortably. The net effect of this argument seems to be that if you are privileged, then just get on with living your privileged, consumerist, typical American middle-class life and stop trying to get back to simpler values or the land or whatever.
Maybe it is easier to question what we have all been taught since birth and experiment with different ways of living if you come from a background of privilege. Or maybe the privileged practitioner is more likely to write about the experience, and so those are the voices we hear. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done or that we should silence those who are doing it by accusing them of privilege. As someone who has never felt comfortable with the expected American life path, I can appreciate and learn from the experiences of others who are trying to live their lives differently.
We can all take many different paths to the same end, an attempt to find satisfaction and contentment outside the unsustainable cultural values of consumerism and corporate work. One person may give up a prestigious job to go back to the family farm. Another may start a community or rooftop garden in the city where she lives. Some may stop buying new things or only eat food grown locally. In their own small ways, these life choices do qualify for the term “radical” because they go against the norm, and I want to hear about them.
Only by constantly questioning our cultural norms can we evolve, something we desperately need to do. Our species faces enormous problems, which have recently been crystallized by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re not going to find the solutions by doing things the same old way.