I’ve been sitting about lately watching the world be slightly more on fire and trying to figure out how I should feel about it all. It’s not that I’m wondering whether to feel bad, it’s more some questions about what kind of bad I should feel and what, if anything, I should do about it. I don’t have any real illusions about my individual influence over the world, but at the same time simply accepting something bad as inevitable is a tool the alt-right likes to use to avoid thinking about making change (or to avoid having to).
I’m mostly thinking about guilt, and whether I should feel any. I understand the importance of recognizing complicity, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of collective guilt, especially when it comes to an entire country. I’ve never supported a politician responsible for invading Afghanistan, for example, and I have significant doubts about the extent to which U.S. politicians actually represent any part of the popular will. Why we keep believing political campaigns is equally mysterious to me.
I think we’re frightened to call ourselves powerless, since it does sound like an attempt to evade responsibility. But we may have overcorrected on this point. It’s a part of the broader conversation about things like privilege that isn’t really happening. Nonetheless, there’s a frequent battle in my mind about how what specifically I can do to make the world a better place, to what extent I’m selfish by doing things that I enjoy but that don’t necessarily contribute to others, and how much money one can have before it becomes “too much.” Other than this blog I’m usually pretty disconnected from the world. I try to remind myself that not everyone is called to be some great spiritual or political leader, but this isn’t an all-or-nothing question.
Rather than rending my garments in some paroxysm of white guilt, I’m just feeling vaguely sad for other people and…that’s about it. I realize my feelings aren’t especially helpful, yet they’re all I have. I’ve donated to charities for Haiti and Afghan refugees, which is not nothing. But I always wonder: should I give more? Is there some amount after which I can feel like I’ve done “enough”? To what extent is even this debate self-indulgent?
There is an undertone to all this, which is an assumption that I’m actually capable of doing enough. As someone with a decent amount of control over his own life, relatively speaking, it’s easy to over-state that. The idea that I, or even thousands of us, could magic away some major catastrophe is steeped in arrogance. And it’s a type of arrogance that can itself be dangerous; I’ve seen it argued that it was America’s belief that we can do anything that we put our minds to that helped propel the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to begin with. I’m inclined to agree.
I think, then, that the real lesson we need to take from all this is humility. We in the developed world can’t totally recreate the planet as a whole. We can do more than we do (which includes stopping doing the harmful things that we do), but I think that having a better sense of our own limitations will actually improve our ability to change the world. By the same token, I need to do a better job of recognizing my own limitations; it’s not defeatism to say that I can’t single-handedly stop the fighting currently going on in Ethiopia, for example.
I wonder too if there’s isn’t something to this as a distraction. It’s like how the fossil fuel industry are the ones who came up with the idea of a “carbon footprint” as a way to put the burden on individuals (broader discussion here). To what extent do we expect less of our leaders if we assume that we can just make up for it on our own? Yet few of us have enough, even if you get a lot of us together, to donate enough to make any kind of systemic change. It’s certainly unrealistic to think that even a couple million dollars to a charity can have the same effects as a decent foreign policy from large, influential nations (such as the U.S.). Charities can often help, meanwhile, but they represent a place where the system has failed, and too much focus on the charities themselves is a distraction from asking why they’re necessary to begin with.
Another potential pitfall, in my view, is how easy it is to blame the people who need our help. We’ve seen this plenty in the case of Afghanistan, where some have tried to characterize the Afghan military’s rapid disintegration as them just not wanting it enough. Which is of course ridiculous, but it’s an easy narrative to buy into. Especially since it takes longer to explain why it’s wrong than it does to say it. Similarly, we shouldn’t think of Haiti as simply unlucky (something I’ve been guilty of myself these past weeks), because this ignores the reasons why that country has had such a hard time coping with the various natural disasters that it’s faced. Attributing those problems to simple bad luck means the mistake that led to them are that much more likely to be repeated.
I don’t want to suggest that people in the Periphery (I think that’s the term we’re now supposed to use) don’t have any agency, but there’s a difference between that and responsibility. I’ve often thought it’d be interesting to write a sci-fi book about America being colonized by a more-powerful alien race, but I don’t think I could do so without being super preachy, and I’m not sure how many people it’d actually convince anyway. But recognizing that agency doesn’t absolve e.g. colonial powers from their own role in creating various circumstances that those people now have to deal with. Plus, at a more practical level, I’m hardly going to blame someone for not being willing to risk their life and that of their family for some vague hope of political change. It makes those who are that much more laudable, but is hardly something I’m in a position to criticize.
Thinking about all this in the context of my own life, it’s a good way to get rid of the “if onlys.” I find myself often thinking that “if only I could do x,” things would be different. But for a variety of reasons, x may be completely unworkable. Returning to a comment I made above, we’re not all led to be some great leader, and it’s easy too to stop listening for what I am supposed to be doing because I’m too busy fantasizing about things that I simply can’t. I’d love to find my dream career, but as I’ve said before, I don’t even know what that looks like much less how I’d get there. Trying to figure out the first part can be useful in figuring out what I want more generally, but it doesn’t magically make something possible or even worth it. For example, to what extent can I ask my Spawn to give up the opportunities my current salary affords so that I can have a job I like marginally more?
It’s easy to be frustrated at just how much is outside my control, while just reminding myself that it’s so isn’t enough. It’s easy to rage against the unfairness of it all, and here too perspective doesn’t always help. Recognizing that it’s equally unfair that I have what I do while others don’t can be helpful, but only gets so far. As I’ve said before, the human animal is often a selfish creature. What I’ve found most helpful is asking myself whether I really want what I think I do, or if it’s just a signal of some unmet wish that could just as easily be met in some other way.
This is also what helps me avoid any(?) delusions of grandeur; I don’t harbor any illusions that giving me dictatorial power or massive influence would be a good idea. I recognize what I’m good at, and political leadership ain’t it. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like more decision-making as a part of my job, but that can take many forms, and the answer is certainly not to get into politics. I think it’s better to embrace the degree to which our universe is beyond us.
Returning to my original topic, it’s just the same even when it comes to helping people. I can only do what I can do. And part of recognizing that is also trusting that I’m honest enough with myself about what that actually means. I may wish I could do more, but that’s not the same thing as being selfish for not doing so. It doesn’t erase the sadness I feel for what’s happening to others, and I’m not sure anything should get rid of that. At the same time, I shouldn’t let those feelings spur me to either act beyond my means or to self-flagellation. Recognizing privilege is one thing, but feeling shame about it is something else, and it’s something I see far too much of (especially among the Terminally Online).
I’ve often wondered to what extent knowledge of things I can do nothing about is useful. I spent some time avoiding the news as much as possible (which admittedly wasn’t actually that much), thinking that my feelings on something didn’t magically make a difference. I’m beginning to rethink my stance on whether what I know in terms of current events matters. I doubt it’d be determinative in terms of voting, for example. At the same time, there’s something to be said for understanding just how the world and people work generally, and certainly for trying to understand other cultures and viewpoints. I don’t pretend that my being aware of, say, Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq or Algeria’s current spat with Morocco will have a meaningful impact on either event, or any other on the world stage. Yet one never knows where knowledge of events or a better understanding of the world in general may lead, provided it doesn’t damage my own mental health, which I think I have an okay handle on for the time being. Maybe just witnessing is enough.