A poetic quote has been making the rounds (not sure where it originated), relating to the pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”
I think that’s as big as the rest of life, too, in every corner of the world.
These words are not going to be enough. But I hope they help a little:
I want to tell you something about the world I grew up in.
We tried desperately to look the other way when bad things were happening that we didn’t want to be bothered with.
Racist, sexist, and homophobic statements and acts were all somehow justified, excused, or explained away. For some reason it was the victim’s fault. The victim “should have known better” or “was asking for it” or “should have made different choices” or “shouldn’t dress that way.”
Jokes and mockery at the expense of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and oppressed people were normal. Tacking on the phrase “We’ve got to lighten up a little” absolved us. We threw around hurtful words like “retarded,” called avoidable suffering “God’s judgment,” used the hell out of the phrase “Well maybe he should get a job.” And goodness knows my old world is on the front lines of making and sharing “Kung Flu” videos. “Okay, folks, lighten up!”
The only way we could stomach these selfish behaviors was by carefully turning a blind eye to the sad and violent realities behind the things we were making light of. “Kung flu” only stays “funny” if you ignore the real and sudden and very sad rise in harassment and assault of Asians who are being generically and vaguely blamed for the coronavirus.
If we admitted that in life and in its storms, some found themselves in tougher, scarier, less fair boats . . . then we might have to do something about it. And we couldn’t be bothered.
For example, I learned that racism was largely a thing of the past. That remaining inequities or disproportionate suffering in and harassment toward America’s Black population, by this point was sort of their own fault–holding onto the past, up to no good, “their culture.” We certainly never looked closely enough to see that Black (and Hispanic for that matter) Americans are stopped by the police at a much higher rate. If we had looked–had acknowledged that so, so many people in our society are still genuinely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin–from unequal pay and work opportunities to heavier prison sentences for the same crimes–if we had opened our eyes, we would have had to stand up for them. We would have had to acknowledge that maybe, yes, we should be helping. That accountability is an absolute necessity in the face of racism. That devoting economic resources to undoing the cycle of oppression is only fair. But then we would have had to stop making the jokes and loosened our grip on our disproportionate access to wealth, comfort, and ease.
Another example is how we judged victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, manipulation–pick anything. In almost every case where a female was used sexually, the responsibility and blame was placed on her. Or, if the blame couldn’t be placed on her, she at least had to share a good chunk of it. She probably wouldn’t have been assaulted if she had “dressed modestly.” She wouldn’t have been coerced and abused by her husband if she had “fulfilled her wifely duty” with enough frequency. It was on females to know that males were uncontrollably attracted to them, and to shield themselves. If we hadn’t so consciously looked the other way, we would have seen that 1 in 6 females in America are sexually assaulted. That 1 in 7 females are sexually abused before they even turn 18. And that 20% of sexual assaults on minors happen by age 8. Meaning that we live in a world where real, inexcusable, hateful sexual abuse happens, and it’s NOT because girls ask for it. We would have had to stand up and say, “Males, STOP. Stop assaulting, harassing, and abusing females. This is on the abuser, not the abused.” But then males would lose some of their excuses to use and manipulate females, lose their control, and their free passes. Be opened up to scrutiny. No . . . easier to just shake our heads and say “She asked for it.” (I know that this is not an issue that exactly follows these gender-lines, but in the world I grew up in, excusing male’s abuse of females was what was focused on.)
One last example was how we viewed and talked about and confronted poverty. Poverty was the responsibility of the poor. Their fault. Not our problem. We always began with the assumption that some character flaw led them into the poverty they were experiencing. I remember a hundred conversations about all the ways we couldn’t or shouldn’t help the poor. How giving money or food to “beggars” (as if that were the word that summed up their identity) would just enable and make worse their “laziness.” How we couldn’t make them diligent. How “sinful” attitudes and behavior, like a poor work ethic, led them into poverty. How state-run social programs were theft and would make poverty worse. A hundred conversations about how we can’t help and how it’s not our fault. I don’t remember conversations about how we could help. We didn’t have those . . . we couldn’t have those, or we’d have to do something. There was one way, I guess. Support for the poor was exclusively the responsibility of “the church,” and “the church” solved everything by teaching people to find their hope in an after-life where it wouldn’t matter that they lived a life of suffering and poverty (at least the churches I grew up in; I know there are other churches that do genuine work on behalf of economic support for those living in poverty). Every conversation about poverty was about how it’s “not our fault,” and “we can’t help,” and “they’ll have to fix it themselves.” We didn’t talk about systemic, cyclical patterns in society that unnecessarily push people into poverty and hold them there. If we explored those ideas, we’d have to do something uncomfortable. We’d have to acknowledge we had it easy and look for the inconvenient, messy ways to help. Easier to just live in blissful, intentional ignorance.
In sum–the world we grew up in was one of desperately trying to look the other way when bad things were happening that we couldn’t be bothered with. So we always, always, always started by looking for the reasons why the “problem” wasn’t real, the “oppression” wasn’t real.
I’m not the only one who grew up in a world like this. I would venture to say that we are all plenty familiar with a big chunk of America that sees “not-my-problem,” status-quo-justifying Non-Action as a value–a goal to aim for–an ideal to live by. There are social and political philosophies built on this. “They” are not our responsibility, not our problem. It’s on them to take responsibility and fix their own problems.
If this is the philosophical world you grew up in, I invite you to try 2 new things:
First, when you see hurt and suffering–don’t look away. Look really, really closely. Watch the sickeningly awful stuff.
As someone who grew up in a world that tries desperately to look away from bad things happening (as long as they don’t hurt us), I DO think there’s a solution–a way to effectively transition ourselves and each other out of this habit.
If you’re trying to bring awareness to somebody who grew up with the philosophy I did, honestly I don’t think arguments, statistics, or ridicule are the way to go. When looking-away was my go to, I still, in general, was a very loving and compassionate person. I had just had it trained into me to assume the “problem” wasn’t valid and that it wasn’t my place to help. So calling names won’t help. Every argument and statistic can and will be countered by someone who needs to believe there’s not a real problem to deal with.
I think that arguments and statistics and history and et cetera are all helpful, but only after someone is actually ready to listen. And emotion is generally what gets people ready to listen–as it should be. Because suffering, oppression, murder–those are emotional things. They are deeply sad and painful and angering things. We have emotions for a reason.
So if you’re raising awareness among people who have learned to look away, start by asking them to just look closely at the yuckiest stuff. To just look. To just watch. To see the videos and the pictures, to hear the really awful stories, to go look at the horror face-to-face wherever they can.
When I don’t ever have to see a homeless person–don’t ever have to talk to them, don’t ever listen to their stories, it’s much easier to live in a different world, as if the homelessness-problem doesn’t exist.
When I don’t ever have to see racial discrimination and oppression actually happening . . . when I get to quickly walk away from the headline instead of watching the sickening video of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd crying for help until he dies under the knee of a police officer who onlookers couldn’t stop . . . when I get to treat Ahmaud Arbery like a statistic instead of watching the stomach-turning reality of his murder that was then covered up for months . . . when I get to look away, never see or feel the emotional torment in suffering, I get to keep saying “not-my-problem.”
Seeing the shocking, brutal reality of hurt and suffering–confronting the emotions they bring–that is where minds start changing and people start looking and listening.
If you are the person who starts with this not-my-problem philosophy, I encourage you to LOOK–to LOOK CLOSELY when bad things happen. Go watch the videos and look at the pictures and read the stories. Let yourself get emotional about them. Imagine yourself or someone you love in those stories. Remember that you’re seeing real humans. If that homework seems to you like a bad idea, seems “unnecessary”–ask yourself why that is. Why do you so badly need to look away? What will change when you look?
Second, imagine being part of willing, compassionate solutions to suffering.
Try shifting your perspective for a minute from protecting your right to look away to asking what love and compassion could do to help.
You might find that there are lots and lots of real ways to help. You might find those ways through reaching out individually to suffering people, through volunteering and non-profit work, or through bringing awareness on a larger scale to the needs of suffering people. You might even find that there is a group of people who, motivated by compassion, not compulsion, have elected leaders who can help focus society-wide efforts on helping those in need and making this a safe world for every human. There are lots of people who don’t cling to their “right” to not be forced into solving suffering, and who start instead with “Okay, how CAN we help?”
You might find that we really can help make the world a better place, but only once we can give up our focus, for a moment, on protecting our own need to cling to every dollar, convenience, comfort, ease–“right”–that we have.
What would your role as a benefiting and contributing member of society look like if you switched your focus (at least sometimes) to how you can help, instead of focusing on the threat of being “forced” to help with something that “isn’t your responsibility”?
No more consciously or subconsciously denying that we’re not in the same boat. No more automatically denying the possibility of inequities, hate, bigotry. No more scrambling to justify, excuse, or explain away every racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or greedy act. No more ignoring things that don’t fit our agenda. No more looking away from realities that make us uncomfortable.
I know that part of the discomfort is, “But if I DO acknowledge the massive problem, I have no idea how to help, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, and where do you even start???”
That is okay. Awkwardly, messily speaking up for your suffering fellow humans leads to change. It doesn’t matter if you get it a little wrong. The worst possible thing you can do is look away and let the suffering, abuse, and oppression continue.
We’re not going to get this perfect. But when we have the chance to do some good, to help the vulnerable, to fight injustice and protect our fellow humans . . .
We need to stop looking the other way.
We need to step in and help.
We need to take a stand for love and justice and the right of each human to not be degraded and used and oppressed.
No matter how messy.