Friday, July 13, 2012

But People are Dying!

In polite conversation with good progressives one sometimes encounters the more emotionally difficult areas of international geopolitics - civil wars, famine, natural disasters, and rampant poverty.  Sitting in the local activist-approved Starbucks-alternative, the disparities between our mocha and our perception of human suffering lie gaping before us pulling on every sense of injustice we have. The void that opens before us cuts a hole through the earth into the upside-down image of whatever third world country we're discussing, let's call it Africa.  The point is, we're staring at the undersides of black feet at the bottom of our black mochas that eerily resemble the incomprehensible chasm between our comfort and their despair and the words that slip off our tongues are like salve for the wound: "but people are dying!"  The words roll off the tongue and over the gaping hole and suddenly the unbearable distance, the aching chasm before us, is less threatening.  It's going to be okay.  

Obviously people are dying.  People die everywhere on earth all the time.  We don't need a void in our mocha to tell us that.  A third party listening in might think that the point is that people die in radically unjust ways.  After all, poor people in developing countries are dying much younger and for all sorts of reasons that rich people don't generally die from.  But that third party would be mistaken.  If that were the statement's utterance, it would be said with a sign as one reflects on the void in one's mocha.  

"But people are dying!" is said with force.  It is a reaction to the despair that threatens to swallow one whole at the impossible treachery of it all.  "But people are dying!" is a statement not just that people are dying in unjust ways but that something needs to and can be done about it, not just in theory but by people like me.  I need to and can stop the dying.  That is why it feels so good, why suddenly everything is going to be ok, why the conversation can end and the void can close and we can finish our mochas and go on with our lives.

At its heart it is not an observation about them, those people who are dying, but an observation about me and my capacity as I gaze at my own pain.  And here is where it's tragic danger lies. It is rooted in a all too common unstated assumtion that we wouldn't need to stop the dying if they could stop it themselves.  Certain types of people (poor, of color, third world-women, third world-queer people) need help and certain types of people (white, rich, first world) are the ones who can help.

This has been a long held belief.  It has led to many attempts over centuries by very well intentioned people to stop unjust death.  It's much easier to assume bad intentions on all those who went to colonized lands in the past, that they were going exclusively personal benefit.  The more difficult truth is that, despite some selfish colonizers, most people had good intentions not just for themselves but for the people in the lands they were traveling to.  They wanted to save them, bring them modern comforts, or educate them - not in a superficial way but in a deep believing way.  They wanted to help colonized people live better lives.  It may seem obvious now that what they were doing was often very harmful and created the dynamics of death that we observe today but in the past many were motivated by the same observation - "but people are dying! (and I can save them!)" 

The person staring at their mocha and sighing probably knows that people aren't just dying of apolitical reasons beyond the control of just those who are dying (and the people around them who don't seem to be helping).  People are dying for reasons we are deeply connected to.  The dilemma lies in the desperate need for us white folks to divorce ourselves from the bad white folks of the past - we're different! we're better! we're anti-racist! we mean well!  we can really help!

But the fact that we think WE are the ones who can and have to help is a continuation of the same systems of thought that helped create such oppressive deadly dynamics in the first place.  What on earth makes us think that if the aggregated results of our past interventions are more death and suffering that we are therefore the best group of people to stop the death and suffering?  If a company destroyed one of our coasts, lets pick BP at random, we would not bring them back to develop a plan for cleaning all of our beaches and solving all the ills of coastal life.

Given the same (not all-together ill-founded) logic, if a group of people destroyed the systems of sustainable living of another group and replaced it with systems that left them structurally poor and more vulnerable to natural disaster and famine, would you really want them trying to solve all your problems?

We have to resist the urge to say, "but those people aren't me!"  We come from the same frame of thought that gives us the ridiculous entitlement to think it is our job to go save people and fix things.  You may mean well but so did a lot of people in the past and look where that got us.

My point however, is not that we white folks (and we first world folks) can't do anything.  It's that we have to be very critical of our urge to want to solve everything right away and that we ourselves know how.  This has been written about a million times already, but let me reiterate the point here briefly.  We cannot be the leaders (or the string pullers) of a movement for real change in communities that are not our own.  We come from a long line of well-intentioned, entitled people who really messed shit up and it would be arrogant of ourselves to think we're any different.  We do not know the pain or the joyful fullness of peoples' lives that are not our own.  We do not know their wants and needs.  We can help.  We have access to people and resources they may not have access to.  But we cannot frame the movement or determine its demands.  We need to step back and listen.  And we need to stop exclaiming that people are dying.

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