This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback
I’ve become aware.
Aware of violence and poverty and hunger and pain, aware of dwindling resources and increasing environmental damage, aware of breast cancer and lymphoma, aware of millions dying of preventable and curable diseases, aware of diseases we might find the cure for soon.
I refuse to accept “the world is cruel” or “people are stupid.” That canned wisdom placates those first encountering the vast injustices in the world but doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of the messes in the world or hint at what we might do to make them better.
I have come to hate the little commitments: the “if I can just make one life a little better, I’ll know I did good” type of baloney. Touching one person, even to their core, isn’t enough. What’s more, presenting that as a dream — a lofty goal to aspire to — devalues the potential within each of us. We can do more.
Knowledge is power, they tell us, and that rings true — awareness is the first step. If everyone was aware of an issue, then of course it would be solved. Of course, as part of a campus community, each issue is highly complex. If everyone spent the time that you did to learn about the issue you care about most, everything else would get squeezed out, and we wouldn’t have the tremendous diversity of thought we enjoy. So now that I have read the pamphlets I’ve been passed, now that I’ve watched the campaign videos online and read the sources for the statistics they cite, what next? How do I turn this flimsy awareness into broader change?My awareness of mental health and substance abuse issues will absolutely lead me to act differently, to think and speak differently. That small change has happened, and is happening, in thousands of minds, as awareness campaigns perform their magic.
It isn’t enough. Just keeping abreast of a single issue could eat up a person’s whole life, and there are so many issues to try to stay on top of. Not everyone has the time or the opportunity to even try. How do we turn awareness into change in ways that don’t require every person to have a fully informed opinion?Our culture is getting good at turning awareness into donations — money or in kind — when the message is right. The networks around these campaigns are built on an increasingly tightly knit techno-social framework, with platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Kickstarter, Avaaz, Change.org, Upworthy and the ones I’m missing because there are a lot; with all this power, we can make great things happen. We are learning to, if the timing and the viral video are perfect. Each disaster is met by instant surges of support from millions. But the slow deaths, the ones without a specific disaster to point to, the ones without a phone number to donate $10 by text — those are bigger and hairier problems.
I want to call you to action. I want you to stand up against the simplistic wisdom that begs you to ignore, to shut off, to switch the channel to something more pleasant. I want to commend you for everything you have done to make things better, and let you know that if you keep fighting, reinforcements will come soon. I want to inform you that you need to be those reinforcements for others, who’ve held out for far longer than they should have to.
We need to get over our apathy. We have to start believing the stories of people changing the world and let go of our fear of caring. We too can be happy, and we too can be kind and good and change things in ways that matter. The biting cynicism of those who have seen too much Washington brutality can be assuaged by the undying, bright-eyed hope of revolution.
Awareness, with its faults, is a first step. It’s hard to accept that these things take time and commitment, but without patience, it is easy to fall into the trap of misanthropy. Things won’t get better if we dismiss them as lost causes or ignore them or leave them for others to handle. We have to take problems seriously, and we have to hold on to our optimism. We are going to fix this, dammit, because it isn’t right. It just isn’t right.
I am not as naive as I sound. Both my parents worked in the federal government, and I’ve felt the wanton cruelty of politics. When I was 12, I saw my dad excoriated in front of a Senate panel; he was subjected to a long and painful investigation instigated by the political machinery, which substantiated none of its claims. The political policing took its toll at home: on me and my mother and brothers, and on Dad especially, who with his name and investigation above the fold in The Washington Post, was effectively out of work once the cycle turned up the other party and his political appointment ended.
And yet, though I know how awful and arbitrary the machine can be, I still believe in it. Despite the human sacrifices that the machine consumes for fuel, I think our democracy is one avenue of substantive positive change in the world. Of course it could be improved. The scandals that seem to come to light every week rightly outrage us, but imagine the scandals that must have gone unnoticed before the age of cellphone cameras and leaked emails. Our power to do good has increased with our ability to screw up, and these have each scaled with the size and complexity of the problems we are facing.
We can make the world better, each taking the pieces we can in our turn, trusting one another and expecting change.