It’s a Problem that it’s Not Your Problem
The world isn’t a fair place. And changing that means doing more than our share.
You. Yes, you, reading this. You. Answer me this question: Did you invent slavery?
Yeah, you heard me! Did you invent slavery? Were you the very first person in the course of human history to look at another human being and say, “this person is going to be my property. They will perform unpaid labor for me and not receive the same rights as a full citizen of my state. I will hold total power over them and get to treat them as well or as badly as pleases me.” Were you the person who invented that?
What about racism, the belief that a person’s inherent worth is determined by the color of their skin? What about oligarchy, where a privileged power class takes as much wealth as possible and leave the rest to starve? What about sexism? What about homophobia and transphobia? What about rape culture? What about patriarchy?
Well, dear Reader, pat yourself on the back, because it’s pretty likely that you didn’t invent any of these things.
Now here’s the thing: I don’t care that you didn’t invent them. And you shouldn’t either.
A BELIEF AS AN EXCUSE
When things go wrong, human beings have an interesting tendency. We start asking who to blame. We want to get to the root cause of a problem and correct it at the source. The reason for that is actually very intelligent: problems are best solved if you know what they actually are. Addressing a symptom is all well and good, but a symptom is not the disease. And patting yourself on the back because you’ve addressed the symptom is rarely the end of the fight.
Unfortunately, this business of blame also leads to a short-circuiting of sorts. People are often less interested in finding out who is at fault, and more interested in finding out that they themselves weren’t. After all, the whole business of figuring out who to blame is so that we can tell them to change. And none of us wants to change. Change is hard work. We have enough on our plates as it is, what with bills and marriages and furthering our education and children and mortgages and health insurance and getting enough exercise and getting enough sleep and eating healthy and somewhere in there finding time to do something we actually want to do, like watch TV or have sex or read a book. Why add on more work if we don’t need to? Nope; change is a luxury. We change only when we need to.
But in my experience, blame is a terrible and useless thing, because it enables one of the most destructive attitudes a human can ever take: the one that says, “That’s not my problem.”
Before we go on, I’d like to clear up a misconception. People do genuinely stand by and say, “But it’s not my problem! I honestly didn’t do it. I didn’t invent slavery, or wealth inequality, or racism or sexism or ableism or transphobia or rape culture or any of these things! And, perhaps more importantly, they don’t affect me. I am completely outside of this problem, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Therefore, what could I contribute? I don’t know anything about being raped by a stranger on the subway; how could my words ever be helpful or even relevant?”
First off, it’s probably not true that you are outside the problem; if you weren’t a victim of one of these things, you are probably a perpetrator of it, or at least have been invited to be so. After all, that’s how systemic inequalities work. They make the world worse for most people but better for a few, and perpetuate themselves by inviting you to be a part of that privileged few. And, well, that’s a lustrous allure.
Second off, it is still your problem, because all of our fates are interlinked. The human race is an ecology, and when something goes wrong for one of us, it goes wrong for all of us. You see that man, over there? The one driving his car way too slow and holding up traffic? You do not have power over him. You are probably not his wife, you probably did not cheat on him, you are probably not the reason he’s suddenly wondering if he even fathered his own children… you, probably, have nothing to do with the fact that his entire life is collapsing. But if you honk at him to pull his head out of his ass and start driving his car, he can still pull that gun out of his glove compartment and shoot you dead. You don’t have power over him, but he has power over you. Maybe it isn’t your problem… But it can certainly become your problem, and fast.
Students once asked their teacher, “How should we treat those who are different than us? How do we treat others?” And the teacher said, “There are no others.”
Now I’m going to adapt something from genetics called a Punnett Square. It lists the interaction between two yes/no variables. You probably did more complicated versions of these in grade school; I know I did. But in this case we’re not tracking genes; we’re tracking two questions. The questions are, Is it my fault? And is it my problem?
The squares where the text and background are the same color are sort of the ideal of the blame game. They fit our innate sense of fairness. For the square that says it’s my fault and my problem: well, I screwed up, and I’m learning how not to screw up next time. Likewise, the square where it’s neither my fault nor my problem is appealing. Why should I take responsibility for something I didn’t do? Why should I change my behavior when my behavior was above reproach? These outcomes fulfill our belief in a just and fair world.
The other two squares are more problematic.
The square where it’s your fault but not your problem… Let’s be frank: this is the square we all want to live in. It’s the square where you don’t have to pay for your mistakes. It’s the square where you can screw up and not have it held against you. It’s the square where you never have to change, even if you ought to, because you can’t be held accountable for your wrongdoings.
It’s also the single most destructive square on the diagram.
You may recall that, once upon a time, a girlfriend of mine asked me how people could possibly be moral, or do good, if they didn’t live in fear of someone punishing them for doing bad. It took me a while to formulate my answer. (I didn’t include it in that article because, frankly, it wasn’t germane to the discussion being had.) But what it came down to was this: in a world without moral absolutism, without an (arbitrary) authority deciding what counts as “good” or “bad,” the only concrete measure of behavior is the question of whether it benefits you. Natural Selection as applied to behavior, basically: that which gets you closer to your goal is “good,” that which takes you further away is “bad”. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, because there’s also the question of whether short-term gain is worth long-term sacrifice — whether getting what you want today, right now, is worth not getting what you want tomorrow, because of the consequences of your actions today. Whether or not you believe in God, you do live in fear of punishment; it just may not be God handing out said punishment. After all, if you transgress the laws and customs of your society, you get in trouble. Or, to quote a very smart physicist, “For every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”
In my opinion, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is the foundation for all morality, whether or not you believe in a higher power. “For every action there is at least one consequence (and often others you may not have thought about or even been aware of).” Therefore, one must ask oneself, “What is the consequence,” and, “Is the gain worth said consequence?” By answering those questions — and, more importantly, by answering them correctly, in a way that leads to self-benefit, or benefit for others, or at the very least fulfills the Hippocratic ideal of doing no harm — one can become a good person.
And that’s why I think the square where it’s your fault but not your problem is the most morally corrupt square there is. In that square, there are no consequences. A person who lives without consequences is a person who is able to believe, wrongly, that they are never capable of making a mistake. A person who cannot make mistakes does not learn from their mistakes. And if “learning from your mistakes” is the process by which a human being is refined into a good person, then a person who “doesn’t” make mistakes cannot be refined. A person who lives in a world without consequences is a person who is not — who fundamentally cannot be — a good person.
Which explains a great deal about our current president. But I digress.
Finally we have the last square, the one where it’s not your fault but it is your problem. This is the square none of us want to live in. Most of us have to, at least at work; we didn’t drop the ball, some other department did, but we’re still the ones who have to stay late and get it done. It’s also the story of that man driving super-slow down the freeway. It’s not my fault his wife is faithless and selfish, but it sure as heck is my problem, since he’s making me late to work (and possibly blowing my head off). Let’s face it: this square sucks.
Which is why I am extremely sorry to point out that it is, in fact, the square that all of us live in — at least when it comes to things like racism, sexism, rape culture, transphobia, and basically every other cause that social justice concerns itself with.
I’ve said it before: The whole point of social justice is to stand up and voluntarily accept bad karma. If that sounds like it sucks, well… you’re right. A commitment to social justice changes the way you approach the world. Now that I know what ableism is, I’ve had to completely change the way I insult people (for fear of accidentally offending someone besides the person I was trying to offend). I can’t call them “stupid” or “dumb” or “lame” because those are all slurs, similar in intent (if not in target) to the N-word. It’s not a huge mental transition for me — even from my youth I refused to use the term “gay” to indicate perversity (or, worse, femininity) because there is nothing inherently bad about homosexuality or feminine traits in men — but it’s sure become hard to tell someone that they are ignorant and uneducated. It sucks to… see, there’s another one I shouldn’t be using, because it derives from “cocksucker,” a gay slur! (Or just from the act of fellatio, and let’s be honest, anyone who claims that a blowjob is a bad thing has simply never received a good one.) The point is, it’s hard to describe being in a state of difficulty or negativity when you’re woke. And that’s just the start. Imagine being unable to curse and having to take responsibility for things you didn’t do.
But if we don’t stand up and say, “It’s not our fault but it is our problem”… Then how the fuck are we ever going to fix it?
It’s true that we — the Americans alive today — did not invent racism. It’s true that we did not invent rape culture. It’s true that we did not invent wealth inequality, or sexism, or murder culture, or excessive emphasis on self-determination, or any of the other social ills that plague our nation. We did not invent any of these things.
But the people who did are all dead. And their poisonous legacies continues. Those legacies will continue to hurt the world — to hurt you — until they are stopped. Think of it like an oil spill. When the Exxon Valdez cracked open, we didn’t just get Exxon in trouble, we also cleaned up the mess. Why? Because it made the whole world better if we did. And we — for good or ill — give a flying fuck about the world.
“Not my fault / not my problem” may appeal to our sense of fairness and justice, but it does not improve the world on a systemic level. Most things that hurt others are not our fault. Most of the things that others do to hurt us are not their fault. But if that takes us off the hook for actually correcting the behavior, then nothing will ever get better.
It also makes me wonder about self-described Social Justice Warriors who claim that it’s not their job to educate the rest of the world about the oppression they (the SJWs) experience every day. Their argument is that they spend their days fighting it; they don’t want to spend their nights fighting it too. That’s natural, reasonable and understandable; everyone needs a refuge. But it also — once again — doesn’t solve anything. Even if it’s as simple as saying, “I have neither time nor energy nor desire to explain it, but here’s a website that will help you educate yourself,” it’s a step forward. No one’s requiring you take personal responsibility for educating the world; but, by the same token, it’s not your place to abandon the fight just because it’s inconvenient.
It is not your fault. But it is your problem. It’s everyone’s problem. And until we accept that placing fault is little better than a cover-your-own-ass mechanism, the world is not going to get better.
I don’t care whose fault it is. It’s still our problem, and what I want to do is fix it.
Are you with me?