As I read about and watch the events unfolding around us in recent months I find that I have more questions than answers, and unfortunately more despair and anger than I do hope or clarity.
I'll get to the questions in a moment. First, the things I know:
Black Lives Matter. The open wounds of slavery and racism upon which so much of modern U.S. society was founded and continues to operate are far from universally acknowledged or understood, let alone healed. Finding ways to pursue justice for black people and people of color everywhere is one of the greatest and most important challenges of our era. The ongoing hate, oppression, discrimination, aggression, violence and death that is wrought by us upon our fellow humans because of the color of their skin is an atrocity, an outrage and an embarrassment to anyone who would think us any kind of moral model in the world. It demands our greatest care, attention and action. As white people, it demands our solidarity, our self-examination, our hard work, our listening, our discomfort. I fully support the protests and other direct action happening around the world in the name of big changes and in pursuit of justice.
We live in a broken world. It was broken before the murder of George Floyd, before the pandemic, before this Congressional dysfunction, before Trump, before modern warfare, before 9/11. Our political systems are broken. Our leadership is broken. Our economic systems are broken. Our neighborhoods are broken. Our environment and care for the natural world is broken. Our healthcare systems are broken. Our education systems are broken. We have traded civic engagement and fiscal responsibility and government of the people for rampant consumerism, a surveillance-based police state, and a fanatical regard for personal wealth and affirmation that corrupts at all levels. We have participated in furthering this brokenness out of a misguided notion that most of us will do okay in the end, and by turning away from those who clearly aren't okay.
The answer is not "out there." Help and solutions will not come from the federal government or elected officials or philanthropic billionaires or hitting Like or through prayer. The change we seek, the justice we need, will only come about because lots of people change their minds about the way the world can and should work, and decide to do something about it on a large scale, possibly at risk to their own safety and comfort. Whether each of us does that out of a sense of moral rightness or care for a neighbor or having our lifestyle threatened or from personal reflection or after seeing a police video, it doesn't matter too much how we get there. What matters is that people are driven to act, and to coordinate with each other on effective action toward common goals.
Those are some things I think I know. I welcome being challenged on any or all of the above. But as much as they represent any small bits of clarity for me, these days that clarity is overshadowed by my questions:
How can we get people to care about and act on problems that don’t seem to immediately or directly affect them? Whether it's systemic racism, climate change, toxic masculinity, gun violence, political corruption, disinformation or any number of other crises, how do we shift people away from the mindset of defending and preserving all the things they want for themselves in life and toward creating a just world that works for everyone?
How can we get people to care about making the distinction between what’s verifiably true and what’s not? In so many contexts, from journalism to science to politics to what people say and share on social media to the little misrepresentations we make about ourselves and our lives all day long, how do we get people to consistently and ferociously pursue the truth, and support the reporters, candidates, leaders and community members who do the same? Even when the truth is uncomfortable, even when it's damning?
How do we make change happen fast enough to matter? I celebrate the hard-won victories of past movements for social change and civil rights, but I worry that this moment calls for more than the incremental and slow-moving change that we are typically able to handle. I don't think we have generations to re-educate people here or campaign for the occasional progressive candidate there when current failures of our culture and systems mean widespread pain, oppression, poverty, illness, violence and death on a daily basis. When the whole world is on fire, collective instincts sooner or later bring many of us to the desire to put out those fires and move on, but this rarely leads to dismantling the systems or conditions that led to the fires in the first place. Don't we owe it to our fellow humans in pain to do more, today? How do we get there?
What should I do? Today. Should I march? Donate? Write? Build? Teach? Study? Scream? Where can I make a real difference? What does the world need from me? When there's no clear answer, paralysis can set in. And what a twisted privilege it would be, to be awake and anxious, and still do nothing.
In the past, I've believed in changing minds. I've thought that if enough people became aware of what was happening in the world, often being done in their name, or if enough people took the time to think hard about what a society without this level of war, hunger, poverty, racism, misogyny and destruction of other species and the environment could look like, they would make changes and take action toward justice for all.
In various forms, I focused time and effort on bringing about that awareness and new thinking, sometimes finding a great sense of success along the way. I organized and attended conferences, got training, attended protests and rallies, educated myself on history, ran for elected office, formed and led various not-for-profit organizations, and much more. I thought globally and acted locally. I tried to be the change I wished to see. I tried to be a part of the solution.
And hey, if you like clicking on links, I've written about those experiences and the thinking behind them, including:
- On being outraged and paying attention
- Powerlessness and Empowerment
- Disruptors among us
- What would make YOU protest in the streets?
- Civic engagement goes beyond voting
- Is personal lifestyle change effective?
- Discouraged and Encouraged
- Inventory of Sustainability Efforts in My Life
- Turning points in environmental awareness?
- My political aspirations
- On the Nature of Civil Protest
- Our education system is broken
- Post Fact
- Hope in the dark
- The Trump we asked for
- Why Activism is Failing
- Our complex relationship with revolution
In the last several years, it has been difficult to feel like any of that action or thinking has made a long-term difference when the systems that create these problems only seem to grow stronger and more broken. It suggests a need to further rethink what kind of change is possible when working within certain parameters, what other kinds of action might be necessary, and whether I'm capable of contributing to it.
Again, it's quite a privilege to even take the time to lament that maybe my own work and activism hasn't made a difference or been enough, when others are so much more directly and regularly impacted by these issues than I am. But I have a hard time throwing myself at something when I don't believe it will actually work.
So, cynicism sets in. Exactly the kind of cynicism that the current U.S. president counts on to maintain his power and influence. Exactly the kind that lets the world keep on burning for another day.
I am the solution. I am the problem. It's not about me.
Again, please challenge me here. I'm glad for your comments, suggestions, insights and stories. Take care.
One thought on “World on fire”
Dear Chris: I just today became aware of your columns!! Why hadn't I heard of them before, I wonder?! Anyway, I think they are great and I am going to read them one by one. I found the articles because I was looking for Black Lives Matter in Richmond, Indiana, and found your article written after the march in (May?) Thank you for doing these. We have a new chance to listen, and to find out how to work for equality and justice.