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opinion

Robin Roger is a writer, publishing consultant and psychotherapist living in Toronto.

A vegetarian restaurant I often walk by states on its window that its food is “consciously sourced.” It always makes me wonder if they think other restaurants source their food unconsciously. Even though I favour a plant-based diet myself, nothing would induce me to patronize an establishment that insults my intelligence and devalues literacy. So I continue on to a restaurant down the street that promises good food and great service in a relaxed atmosphere.

I used to be able to get a cuppa Joe that was described with words such as dark, light, decaf or double. This week, as I waited to order my caffeine hit, I read that the java on offer was “sourced ethically with a focus on people and planet.” Humbled to learn that my self-centred goals of “hot, tasty and freshly brewed” were insufficient, the pleasure I usually get from my coffee break was converted to contrition. Instead of the “customer is always right,” this joint’s attitude seemed to be “the barista is always righteous.” The only path to enlightenment I could find was to make my coin ring more audibly in the tip jar.

When I place my mismatched collection of tote bags on the conveyor belt at the grocery store, the cashier asks me if I’d like to donate the credit I’ve earned for not using paper bags to the chain’s charitable foundation. I decline, but far from feeling stingy, I experience a brief sense of purpose for resisting their attempt to coerce me by canvassing me in front of other customers. However worthy their cause, I resent being put on the spot at the same time as I’m increasing their profit, and feel sorry for the cashier, who is expected to probe the giving practices of every customer while scanning items, weighing produce and packing bags.

These sanctimonious intrusions into my personal moral system are proliferating in the public domain. At a once-in-a-lifetime recital by three world-renowned opera stars, the performance was delayed so that a prominent cultural pooh-bah could tell me that I should appreciate how lucky I am to be a Canadian citizen and not a Syrian refugee. A concert stage does not a pulpit make and a degree in arts management is not ordination. What makes retailers, restaurateurs and cultural bureaucrats think they can subject me to teachable moral moments without my prior consent? Do they study ethics or moral philosophy as part of their training?

It’s troubling. For one thing, complex moral dilemmas that are condensed to commercial slogans are bound to be oversimplified. The restaurant that wants me to be aware that I’m eating locally sourced food, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the concerns held by many about the possible negative effects of the hundred-mile diet. It’s not their policy I object to, but the sense that I’m implicitly sharing their conviction by ordering their food.

Basing our moral identity on everyday activities such as buying groceries encourages us to be seduced by the self-righteous egotism of moral superiority. The satisfaction of feeling that you’re a better person because you carry a tote bag and eschew meat frequently contains a smug indignation toward those who make other choices. Do we really want relatively mundane tasks to be the occasion of constant judgment of others? I understand that incremental, small gestures matter – but moralistic overkill can divert our attention from other significant matters of personal conduct.

And all this inflated ethical posturing about concepts such as “the planet” and “people” often comes at the cost of more grounded personal civilities that are actually harder than grandiose ideology. Recently, a young man rushed to grab a seat I was heading for on the streetcar, so that he could deposit his dog on it – not beside the seat and on the ground, mind, but on the seat itself. When I pointed out that the canine was sitting while I, a visibly bespectacled and grey-haired senior lady, was forced to stand, he replied that to him, his dog was human, and I should seek a spot in the handicapped section. I can’t prove that this guy cares about “the planet,” but he sure didn’t care about the dignity of the person standing in front of him.

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