Against Disaster Outrage

May 15, 2014

Of course, I am sad for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. I mourn for their families and their communities. But, the reality is, I am not more sad for them than I am for 3.1 children that die each year because of lack of adequate food, or the millions of women that are raped every year, or the 2,400 people who have been killed by U.S. drones in the last five years.

I have concerns about the social media and traditional news media focus on this incident. I feel similarly about the obsession with the Malaysia flight that was lost, the recent Korean ferry disaster, the Haitian earthquake, and I even remember inklings of this concern in the wake of 9/11. My concern is not particularly aimed at individual people who are posting on facebook or sad, but I am speaking more broadly to the disaster/outrage/forget pattern that we are all familiar with by now.

My concerns are several. First, when we focus our outrage and our energy on disasters or dramatic incidents, we distract ourselves from the slow grind of suffering that is all around us, and all around our world. The kidnapping incident is terrible, yes. But it is but one of hundreds upon thousands of terrible, traumatic, and unjust happenings that are routine around our world. We need to train our hearts and minds to be attentive to the world as it is, not as it is filtered through the most sensational news stories of the day. We cannot know all of the suffering in the world, and we certainly can’t be sad or outraged by it all, lest we collapse from the weight of the pain. But, we can be thoughtful in managing our time, energy, and moral outrage. It is not a series of sprints from one disaster to another, but rather a slow, long, and difficult walk of endurance that demands awareness of, and an ongoing attentiveness to, our complicated world. It also demands that we take the time and effort to reflect on what actions we can take, actions that will likely not be easy or without cost to us.

Second, I am particularly concerned with the U.S. tendency to get so worked up about injustice somewhere far away, particularly if the injustice is taking place in Africa (Kony 2012, anyone?) or by those claiming a connection to Islam. I recognize that the outrage and the concern comes from a sincere place, and that it is rare that intentions are bad. Yet, I think we are all called to dig deeper and to ask ourselves why outrage comes so easily for this, but the injustices that are so close to home are not social media sensations.

Finally, the reality is that social and news media outrage does not have a particularly strong record of mattering. Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur have written an early draft of a study on viral social media engagement. They point out that there is very little empirical research on the impacts of such campaigns, but they speculate that, in a flawed and broken political system, social media campaigns have the potential to enhance democracy. I hope that they turn out to be right and that all of the hashtags have not been for naught. However, I suspect that efforts such as #bringbackourgirls primarily serve to provide people a sense of efficacy and mattering, but are not particularly helpful in actually creating change. I think by and large, change is slow hard work. My fear is that much online activism and Facebook outrage serves a palliative function, letting us imagine we are doing something when we are not. I include myself in this, of course. I am well aware of the irony of blogging about the ineffectiveness of hashtags and facebook posts.

And so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone else as we stumble together toward the world we long for:

I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the work of love and justice is often about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world.

We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our world, town, congregations and families will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Too many people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people.

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because, to everyone, their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, to be aware of the ways we perpetuate systems of harm and can work to interrupt those systems, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be, and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need harm-mitigation work.

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Just Not That Into the Election

November 6, 2012

My facebook feed is full of people who are inspired by voting and the election… those who are excited about their candidate or love to make fun of the other side. I, on the other hand, feel really ambivalent about the whole thing. I voted, but I wasn’t even sure I wanted to wear my “I voted” sticker. Because, for me, making a big deal about voting and how wonderful it is distracts from how profoundly broken our political system is.

This whole election season has been disheartening and depressing and I just cannot bring myself to pretend that I think otherwise. I think so many regular people like me (not to mention my students) are alienated by the partisan ridiculousness, the harshness of both sides being nasty and making fun of each other, and failure of the system to speak with authenticity to the everyday people who want to work hard, care for others, balance public good with personal needs, and make our world a livable place.

So, I say, do your voting. Then, roll up your sleeves and try to make the world better. Because I can make a promise: neither candidate is going to make this world the world you want. That can only be done day in and day out by everyday folks trying to do the hard work of love and justice and freedom that so many religious and political folks say they value.


More on Hope

June 30, 2009

I am thinking a lot about hope for the future these days, and also trust in government. A recent commenter said this:

I think there is something really positive about feeling good about Obama in itself. If people are behind him and positive whatever change he can actually make will be more effective than if people are totally cynical. I’d rather feel hopeful (perhaps with a sense of reality) about a president doing mediocre things than to be disparaging about a president doing mediocre things even if the outcome is the same.

Thoughts? Is it good to be hopeful even if it isn’t very founded, or it is based on mediocrity? Is it good to trust government even if it isn’t very founded, even if the government isn’t THAT trustworthy? Does it somehow make for a better democracy? Are hope and trust important values in and of themselves, or just ways of indulging our idealism and desire for things to be different?

p.s. On the off chance that someone knows literature that deals with these questions, I would love to know about it.


Obama and hope

June 28, 2009

I thought ChaliceChick was pretty amusing today when she said this – she remembers what it was like to be a Hillary supporter when

Obama was made of kittens and fairydust and was going to change politics forever and ever.

I try not to get too involved in politics since I live with Mr. Political Science who is involved enough with it for both of us, but I still thought this was funny. I think of my wise friend who is the benefactor of this blog when she was visiting last summer: she said, “If it was easy or even possible to be non-partisan and work together well with the Republicans, lots of people would have done it already. It isn’t like anyone hasn’t thought of that before.” Not that I don’t appreciate his efforts and the nice words he says, but it seems that this whole post-partisan change new world we-can-do-it is just a lot harder than he thought.

Not to be all anti-Obama, because I think he is just fine, just not nearly as good as he said he was going to be and everyone thought he would be, it does remind me of this cartoon which I find amusing.

cartoon

Just some random thoughts on another rainy day….


What are we to do?

May 7, 2009

My partner is German, and he and his generation dealt with the question of what to say to their parents and grandparents who knew what was happening during the war, but didn’t do anything. How to understand that? What to do with that?

What are we to do with this?

In all, 98 detainees have died while in U.S. hands, with 34 identified as homicides, at least eight of which were tortured to death….

I fear that these numbers are too low, but even if they are exaggerated, one death by torture is too much. How will I respond to my little one, who sleeps on my chest as I write this, when he grows up and asks if I knew of the torture my country was committing? When he asks me what I did? Blogging and sermon-giving and voting and going to a protest and praying all feel woefully inadequate, yet it is about all I can think of. I am so disappointed with my country of citizenship and residence. I have never identified strongly with my country, yet I don’t think that somehow relieves me of guilt by association when terrible things are done by the U.S. government.

I knew of so many bad things in our past… yet somehow for me, systematic torture during my lifetime seems so clear… so obvious… so much like something that I feel we should be able to stop. If this is okay, what is not okay? If this doesn’t provoke outrage… and legal action agianst those responsible, what possibly could?

I find myself increasingly questioning what a democracy is. At what point is a country no longer a democracy? How many human rights and international laws must be violated before a country gives up the right to claim noble values and good intentions and such things as rule of law? I know this is not a well-thought out or well-articulated post. Mostly I just feel despair and sickness and a deep sadness about this. I wanted this nation to do better. To live up to its best self instead of confirming the worst.


The Rick Warren Bru-ha-ha

December 20, 2008

I am of two minds on the Rick Warren matter.

My first reaction is to say, “Look, I don’t like the guy either. I don’t agree with his theology. I don’t agree with his politics. But it isn’t like he was chosen to be the minister-in-chief or something. He is giving an invocation. I know it has a lot of symbolic meaning, but it doesn’t have any practical consequences in and of itself. It is a gesture of the president elect to say, ‘I am not a president only to progressives or to liberals, but a president to the whole country.’ And, there are big parts of the country that can identify with Rev. Rick Warren. And, as conservative evangelical pastors go, he is one of the less offensive ones who has at least made some overtures toward changing the tone of the rhetoric. My hope is that it is a gesture that will soften the hearts of those who would tend to be more opposed to Obama and his policies. It will not solve many problems, but it is a gesture of unity, which people are always talking about. You know, one country, working out our differences and that sort of thing. By saying all of this, I don’t mean to say that I don’t understand why people don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it either. But I see it as a strategic move that may help in the long run with things that matter more than who gives the invocation at the inauguration.” (It is of course another matter whether there should be invocations and benedictions at inaugurations anyway.)

That said, it occurred to me how often discrimination against women or the GLBTQ community can often be chalked up to theology, while few people will stand for discrimination against ethnic minorities chalked up to theology. I try to imagine if someone gave the invocation that said that they still supported slavery based on theology. Or that women should obey thier husbands based on theology (heck, Warren may agree with the second of those statements). What would it mean to have someone give the invocation as a gesture of unity and goodwill who was known to support legalized discrimination against women – that they should get paid less, that rape should be less of a crime, that they should not have inheritance rights? Hmm. No matter how symbolic or strategic that would be, I would be feeling really unhappy about this. So then I started rethinking what I said above.

And now I just don’t know. The thing is, so many of these difficult issues are totally intrackable. “We” dig in our heals. “They” dig in their heels. We write on our blogs about why we are right. We affirm each other at our churches about why we are right. We are smug. We know whose side God is on. And where does this get us? What is the way forward toward better understanding each other, finding common ground to work on together, even, dare I say it, finding areas where compromise makes sense. I am not talking about any particular issue, but rather all of these very intense social and political issues that are so close to our hearts – all of our hearts – and where it seems so difficult to move forward.

I’m guessing having Rick Warren give the invocation at the inauguration isn’t the answer. But I wish we could come up with a better one that just insisting on how right and just we are and getting offended and indignant. Not that I am somehow immune to this. I do it to. But there must be a better way…


Glad about the president-elect. But let’s get something straight…

November 6, 2008

Or really two things.

First, racism is not dead. Or over. We are not living in a post-race America, for God’s sake. If I hear one more person saying we are now a united country, or that racism is over, or that Americans are no longer racist, I am going to puke. I thought it especially interesting that the Boston Globe said,

As they woke yesterday morning, settling into the news that voters had elected an African-American to be the next president, schoolchildren and professors, chief executives and bus drivers, black people, white people, and others were asking themselves a simple question. Is racism in America dead?

Really? Black people are asking that? Do they live in the U.S.? And, like, ever watch T.V. or leave the house? What about all these other people (including the media who seem to be asking this the most, may God have mercy on their souls)? Did they not not follow any of the election coverage? Like where the guys said that Obama was going to pull up the rose garden and plant a watermelon patch? Did they not receive the emails about him being a Arab Muslim terrorist or the other very racist emails that parts of my very extended family felt inspired to share with me? Did they not hear people say it isn’t that they don’t like Michelle Obama, it is just that she seems angry? Have they not read the incarceration statistics for the United States?

It is progress people, but it ain’t over.

Second, Barak Obama is not Jesus. Or the Buddha. Or a magic worker. He is a politician. And last time I checked, you don’t get to be the president of the United States without being far from perfect. Without having to answer to corporate interests. Without exaggerating, stretching the truth, and balancing a lot of competing interests. I think he is a decent guy, but I’m afraid people are going to be in for a shock if they think that THIS IS IT. I loved it how he said that this isn’t the change we seek – this is the opportunity for change. And how he asked for sacrifice. And hard work and service. Let’s see how that flies. I hope it does because we need it. I hope he can do something different. But I think we should keep our expectations reasonable and not project this savior thing on him. He is cleaning up a huge mess. It will be hard. And I don’t think even the greatest politician ever could do it in one term. I hope America will be patient. And that Obama will be able to live up to, at least to some extent, what I do believe he wants. It is just that if uniting and bipartisian work were very easy, my guess is that someone would have done it by now.

We shall see.