Some Thoughts on Recent Events and the Need for Change

Ferguson. Mike Brown. Sexism. James Foley. Rape culture. Ezell Ford. Anita Sarkeesian. John Crawford. Fraternities. Steven Sotloff. Racism. Zoe Quinn. Misogyny. ISIS. Ray Rice. GamerGate.

I think there’s a connection between every word and name on that list. It’s tempting to treat them as though they have to do with largely disparate issues like racism, gun control, law enforcement policies, feminism, video games, international relations, national security, presidential action, terrorism etc. Or that they need to be dealt with in complete isolation of each other. But on a very basic level, they all have to do with one simple thing: how we relate to each other as human beings. When we focus on the minute specifics of the situations above, we get farther and farther away from the basic fundamental problem of how we MUST treat each other as fellow human beings.

Before any long-lasting change can take place, it seems like we need to reach some general consensus around the answers to (at least) two questions:

  1. Can we all agree on some basic principles that guide how every single person in the world should be treated in every single circumstance? (Regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, skin color, age, socio-economic status, past acts, socio-political standing, family relations, job description, what you need from them, what they did to you, etc)
  2. Can we all agree that getting there will require us – as individuals and as a society – to change our current patterns of behavior and thoughts to better line up with those principles?

To answer the first question, I think the United Nations office of the Bahá’í International Communiy NGO offers some good stuff in their definition of world citizenship as an ethic. The following is taken from a 1993 statement to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development titled “World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development”:

World citizenship begins with acceptance of the oneness of the human family and recognition of the interconnectedness of the nations of “the earth, our home.” While it encourages a sane and legitimate patriotism, it also insists upon a wider loyalty, a love of humanity as a whole. It does not imply abandonment of legitimate loyalties, the suppression of cultural diversity, the abolition of national autonomy, nor the imposition of uniformity. Its hallmark is “unity in diversity.” World citizenship encompasses the principles of social and economic justice, both within and among nations; non-adversarial decision making at all levels of society; equality of the sexes; racial, ethnic, national and religious harmony; and the willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Other facets of world citizenship – all of which promote human honor and dignity, understanding, amity, cooperation, trustworthiness, compassion and a desire to serve – can be deduced from those already mentioned.

They go on to recommend that the idea of world citizenship and the oneness of the human race be incorporated into children’s school curricula all over the world. Can you imagine? The changes within a single generation would be astounding!

I think the second question brings up what seems like one of the biggest obstacles to any conversation about social justice: attachment to ideas. People are really attached to their particular views and opinions. I mean for reals. And there seems to be a direct correlation between how attached one is to their idea and how little they’ve actually interrogated them. The ideas we stubbornly stick to the most tend to be the ones we inherit from previous generations, usually without ever taking the time to question their validity. That can be a very scary and dangerous situation, especially since it can be hard to know if we’ve inherited any bad ideas.

If you’re worried that you or someone you know may have inherited some bad ideas from their ancestors, be on the look-out for one of the most common symptoms: passionately justifying inherently unjust events.

This can take several forms, but is commonly expressed in statements put through the following formulas:

  • “Well, if [insert victim(s) of injustice] hadn’t [insert victim’s completely reasonable actions] then [insert injustice] wouldn’t have happened.”
  • “I agree that [insert injustice] is usually bad, but [insert reason for why THIS instance should be excused]. It’s completely different.”
  • “Yes, what happened to [victim of injustice] was inexcusable. But did you know before that happened, they [insert list of unrelated negative behaviors that seem really bad when lumped together but are actually part of virtually everyone’s human journey of figuring out the world and making not-as-good decisions on our way to better ones].”

There are other formulas and symptoms, of course, but that would be a whole other post. Injustice should never be justified. It should be eradicated.

Changing one’s behavior requires – by definition – a reevaluation of those behaviors and the values that guide them. You used to think/say/do THIS, but now you think/say/do THAT. Somewhere in between, you reevaluated that thought/action and decided to change it. This could be an instantaneous act, or it could take years. But if you’re not open to change, then you probably won’t change. And long-term, sustainable changes in society are only going to happen with long-term, sustainable changes in individuals. It almost feels like a cliché and yet how hard have people really tried? Gandhi said it in the endlessly quotable “be the change you want to see in the world.” Michael Jackson sang it in “Man in the Mirror” and “Heal the World.” The part neither of them talked about was the hardest part of the process: being humble and truthful enough to detach yourself from an idea once you’re shown a better way and committing yourself to that new and better idea until you’re once again pointed to an even better way.

But all of that presumes an approach to life that encourages and even pushes you to change yourself. Too many of us are ok with just keeping our behaviors the same throughout most of our lives or changing them based on the situation or conversation we find ourselves in. Everyone knows somebody who’s said something to the effect of “Yeah, I’m a jerk. I can’t change that.” Or maybe they didn’t say it. You just knew that’s how they felt from their actions.

I think the non-profit organization, Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (ISGP) gives us a pretty good place to start in developing a framework for social action and change:

The Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity believes that the two-fold moral purpose of every human being is to develop their latent potentialities through efforts to contribute to the advancement of civilization. At this critical juncture in history, the advancement of civilization entails the construction of a global social order, based on a profound consciousness of the oneness of humanity, in which justice is the central organizing principle, and the well-being and prosperity of all peoples is pursued.

Change yourself and you change the world. Change the world and you change yourself. It’s an organic loop that keeps feeding itself. It can simultaneously sound too small and meaningless to pursue and too big and fruitlessly aspirational to undertake. But it’s happening all over the world. And it’s working in ways both big and small.

None of this suggests that justice for the people above should not be sought. Those situations need to be dealt with immediately, with unconditional justice, and with the acknowledgement that a lot of our stubborn old ideas have historically left certain groups at a disadvantage in developing their full potential. However, only focusing on and trying to fix specific isolated instances won’t do much for long term sustainable change. Changing law enforcement policies, increasing fines for professional athletes, arresting murderers, enforcing education on sexual assault, are all important work. But it can also feel like this is all we’re doing:

 

this is the end

 

You can add all the tape you want to the crumbling wall. It might make it last a little bit longer, but that thing is coming down whether you like it or not. And it’s bringing down all of our outdated and unjust beliefs with it.

Where will you be when it does? Trapped under the rubble? Or well into building a new and better wall to replace the old?

I’ll just put this here:

‘Human solidarity’ is greater than ‘Equality.’ ‘Equality is obtained, more or less, through force (or legislation), but ‘Human Solidarity’ is realized through the exercise of free will…the idea of human solidarity, based upon mutual help and understanding, would lead to the peace and comfort of the world…

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

 

(Just to be clear, the tape stands for policies and quick fixes. The wall is the fabric of our society. Explaining metaphors can sometimes take away their power, but this topic is too important to risk missing.)

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