Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stealing peace of mind

Courtney has just written about people's tendency to do nothing and feel okay about it by "borrowing" or just plain tearing down others' efforts, and I wanted to expand on that a little. Firstly, I wanted to voice my agreement: anyone who thinks that it's a good thing that I live responsibly because it helps to make up for your shortcomings, well... don't you ever fucking dare to tell me so to my face or I will wipe the floor with your smug, condescending little smirk. I live my own life, and I take responsibility for my own actions, and if you try to lay the burden of your sins and your dirty conscience on me, well, whatever god you believe in help you. You are, and always will be, responsible for every single repercussion of every action you ever take. You, and you alone.

Let me explain something to you: the history you learned in high school gave you a very misleading impression of how the world works. When you think about history, you probably think about Big Names, leaders, heroes and anti-heroes like Napoleon, Gandhi, Churchill, and Stalin. You probably think of World War II in terms of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia and Roosevelt's America and Truman's atomic bombs. You probably think about Caesar crossing the Rubicon, not about Caesar's legions, and you probably think about Genghis Khan laying waste to Asia, not about the Mongol nation.

This approach is wrong. The way you think is wrong.

Do you think these "great men" would have accomplished one damn thing by themselves? Do you think that Caesar could have forged the Roman Empire without generals and lieutenants and adjutants and cronies and friends and, most of all, lots of soldiers? Do you think that all these people were slaves or automatons? That they had no wills of their own? Do you think Hitler that killed six million Jews, or that, perhaps, "his" ruthless and highly organized forces played a role? The history you know paints pictures of eras filled with kings and generals and "their" armies, of presidents and "their" nations. It gives the impression that the great bulk of humanity are faceless, nameless, and empty of thought or will, slavishly devoted only to the trends of the time and the plans of their leaders.

This is a fact, but it is not truth.

As a human being, you always have a choice. I am not here to make an argument about the nature of what we call "free will," but I will assert that whatever free will is, we have it, or at least something like it. We do make choices, and at the most basic, physical level, the universe is far too complex for anyone to realistically claim that those choices are deterministic. We have no usefully complete grasp of either the basic nature of the universe - of why quantum phenomena happen the way they do, and of what and why subatomic particles are - or of the function of our own brains and minds - emergent phenomena of breathtaking complexity. Suffice, for now, to say that we all have some sort of will. People behave in statistically predictable ways, but the derivation of those statistics is purely observational. We know what people are likely to do, but not why. Sociologists may argue with that statement, but not with any real conviction.

Anyway, we've arrived, via that somewhat grandiose and circuitous digression, back at the point I was trying to make: you have a choice in everything you do, and your choices do matter. Great men are only great because you allow them to influence the choices you make, and they do not allow you to influence theirs.

Putting it that way takes some of the magic out of it, doesn't it?

So here's what I'm getting at: you, and only you, are responsible for the effect you have on the world. If you think there are things wrong with the world - and if you don't you must be either comatose or evil - then you have an obligation to do what you can to mitigate those wrongs. You do yourself a disservice, and you morally betray yourself and everyone around you, when you shirk that responsibility, or, worse yet, when you attempt to assuage your own guilt by dismissing or denigrating the efforts of others.

The bottom line is this: "great" men - in the sense of "great" that simply means large or powerful - are just men (yes, yes, or women, it's a linguistic issue, not sexism, so get over it). You, the individual, are there the power lies, albeit only en masse. You make things happen. Your actions are part of the trends and movements that shape the world. When you act, every time you act, you are changing the world for everyone; and when you fail to act, or act in ways other than those you know you ought to, you change the world in ways that you do not want.

There are "great" men in the world today who spend their lives starting wars, stealing from the poor, and encouraging those from whom their derive their authority never to think about what's happening. You know the ones I'm talking about, and you also know that you, and everyone around you, have the power to make things right. I'm not just talking about voting, either; I'm talking about the things you don't say to your friends and neighbors, and the calls you don't make to your representatives, and the political rallies you don't attend, and the causes you don't donate to, and the volunteering you don't do. I'm talking about the ugly truths you choose not to think about because it doesn't feel as nice as thinking about the luxurious dinner you're going to have, or the new car you want to buy, or the trivial problems you're facing at work.

And I know what you're thinking now, too: you're thinking that you just have to live your life, not worry about everyone else's. Well, guess what? Foul. I cry foul. I call shenanigans. I call bullshit. I call you out.

Creating a false dichotomy - "either I live my own life and don't worry about the big things I can't change alone, or I sacrifice my own life to try to change things I can't change alone" - traps you in a presumption of defeat. These are things you can change. You need to be part of the larger movement to create the changes you know need to be made; you cannot accept defeat when defeat is not inevitable, nor can you shirk your responsibility by lying to yourself and thinking that someone else will do it. Someone else will not, cannot, do your share. They can only do their own.

Do your share. No one else can, not your leaders and not your neighbors. You know what do to; you don't need me to tell you. Do all the things you've lazily assumed don't make a difference, because they do. Being a part of mass action doesn't feel like an adventure; you won't feel like Caesar. You will make change.

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