On acting from where you stand
The other day, I was trying to explain to two incredibly brilliant, but thoroughly pessimistic people, why the world isn’t actually shit. I think they suffer, like many well meaning, middle-class people, from a saturation of mainstream and social media; it weighs them down with a profound, dystopian hopelessness.
As I have said before, I stopped using social media when Facebook rolled out it’s ‘timeline’ function, which, going by some googling, was about nine years ago now. I used Instagram for a while during the pandemic, but have since deactivated it in disgust. I also recently tried Twitter for a couple of months, as I have been thinking about how to share the writing I put on here. It will not be via Twitter, of that much I am sure.
Let me be very clear: Twitter is an abomination and I firmly believe it is affecting the architecture of people’s thinking. Twitter encourages people to think in isolated or linear ‘facts’; when in reality, knowledge and wisdom is an interconnected and contextualised web of understanding. Facts, in and of themselves, are meaningless, but Twitter encourages people to latch onto tiny, and often irrelevant pieces of understanding, without knowing what that fact points to in terms of a greater, holistic comprehension.
As well as that, consumption of social and mainstream media more generally results in a psyche saturated by disaster after crisis after doom after chaos. It encourages apathy, animosity, and anger. It results in an emotional and psychological impotence where all the negative emotions remain trapped inside the consumer of the media; the emotions have nowhere to go because social media confers no capacity to act upon the user. This results in a negative worldview mainly as a consequence of emotional saturation.
In the past, I have felt that it was an act of privilege to withdraw from reading the news or to stop keeping up with current affairs. I no longer believe this in toto. Not only is there literally nothing I can do about almost everything that occurs on earth, but we are also at a particularly peculiar moment in time. By this I mean that it is clear that the politicians leading this country have lost all semblance of human decency, honesty, and respect for just about anything or anyone other than themselves. They are clearly playing some new game but pretending that it is still parliamentary democracy. It is not, and until someone is able to expose what they are really up to, I see no sense in getting outraged because Boris Johnson told yet another lie or Priti Patel dehumanised and demonised yet another group of people.
Instead, as I kind of intimated in my post about having a home, I have come to understand that the best way to empower myself and effect the kind of change I want to see, is to undertake small acts of kindness and helpfulness from where I stand. I could get outraged by racism and classism in the academy (and I still do when I encounter it), but instead I focus myself by helping any non-traditional student I can with their applications and by giving feedback on their essays. I use my talents for writing and of seeing through to the truth of people by helping someone with difficult customer complaints, as English is not his first language and I understand what moany bastards want better than him. Recently I cleaned out the garden of a local disabled woman as she could not. Each of these acts mean a lot to the people I do them for at the same time as giving me a sense of agency and meaning. It is a genuine win-win.
As a consequence of this, I live a very small life ignorant of most things going on in the world but which is also choc full of meaning. I am fulfilled and feel powerful in my own small way. Getting outraged, shocked, or horrified by whatever is out there happening to other people does not benefit them or me when I have no capacity to act on my outrage, but helping anyone who asks me helps us both.
Each of us sit in a matrix of connections: some deep and some small and superficial. None of the examples I gave above were acts for friends; they were all for strangers, acquaintances, or people I am a customer of. But yet and still they asked and I said yes and in the saying of yes, a positive bond was formed, even if only one of memory. I guess what I am trying to say is, what can you do from where you stand? What power do you have in your life and how can you use it to push back against the kinds of forces which outrage you on Twitter or whatever news site you read?
That said, I do not shut myself off from injustices that are happening, but rather I now realise that there are experts out there like the Good Law Project who can fight against whatever obscenity this government is currently undertaking in far more effective ways than my private or public saltiness can. I think the saner move is to support the experts who are doing good work, read the blogs and newsletters of organisations and individuals who clearly know their shit, and figure out how I can do a version of ‘good work’ in my own life.
I think a lot of people do not act in their own life because they are afraid of getting it wrong. Afraid of being rejected. For instance, it is easier to act out your anti-racist (etc.) principles by railing on social media about some far away wrong-doing, than it is to act in your community or place of work and risk the humiliation of getting it wrong. And you will get it wrong because we all get it wrong at first, but the point is to try and to listen to feedback and to eventually learn how to respond to the individual in front of you, not the group or cause you think they represent. I think that living a good and helpful life is a lot like living a creative life: you have to be prepared to fail in order to reap the rewards.
We each have at least one power and privilege that we can use to benefit others. All of us. Mine are that I am fit, have academic expertise, am a good writer, and have a way of seeing through to the truth of others. I am trying to use those powers and privileges to the advantage of people who ask and need. What are your powers and privilege and how can you make your life matter by acting from where you stand?
(PS: *hat tip* to bell hooks whose book title I have clearly stolen. Somehow I don’t think she’d mind.)