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May 29 2013

What Matters Determines Who Matters

Before I get into the meat of this post, I would very much like to thank Melody Hensley for putting together a lineup of speakers at Women in Secularism that was not something we’ve all heard before. Like many (if not most) who attended, I walked away from the conference with my head buzzing.

Unlike many, I was already familiar with the drive to matter, the topic of Rebecca Goldstein’s talk. Believe it or not, there are advantages to a good general education in psychology, though I still didn’t know that the idea in its current form originated with her–or in a novel, for that matter. So that part of her talk didn’t hit me as hard as it hit some people.

The part that did get the hamster wheel turning was when Goldstein pointed out that “What matters determines who matters.” Again, this isn’t a revelation, but stating in those bald terms helped to pull several unrelated lines of thought into a pattern that was easy to see.

Goldstein used Achilles as an example of someone who was highly focused on mattering. It wasn’t a compliment on her part. Achilles drive to matter was a drive to be sung of by the poets, which is a very limited sort of mattering, if a very, very common one. That narrow drive to matter meant that Achilles focused on his reputation, not on the army that relied on him. He was a hero in only the most selfish, individualistic way.

But he got what he wanted (assuming he ever existed as a single person rather than a cultural ideal). The poets repeated his name until it was written down. It’s passed along in idiom and anatomy. Achilles is still famous. He’s still a hero.

For being a selfish asshole who didn’t survive to see the comrades he ignored succeed using strategy, not the might that he offered. Yay, Achilles?

The question this raises, then, is how are our world and our striving shaped by the attributes our poets find attractive? All right, maybe we’re not talking about poets per se unless we’re talking about the influences of music on teenagers, but the question still stands.

Today it is journalists, biographers, moviemakers, photographers, reality TV directors, talk show hosts, Wikipedia editors who profile us for posterity. We look to them to know what will make our names live on and introduce us to generations of people who may not have even been born when we die. Their priorities are reflected in ours.

What are those priorities? What can we do to matter in the eyes of our modern poets?

We can be violent. Bleeding leads. Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, John Wayne Gacy–they are all remembered for ending the lives of many, many people. So too is General William Westmoreland as the driving force behind the U.S. scorched-earth strategies in Vietnam. Socially sanctioned or not, killers are remembered, immortalized.

That has an effect. It isn’t an option most of us would choose, but more frequently these days, we see young men who simply see no way to matter in the lives we offer them picking up an arsenal and shooting or bombing their ways into our collective memories. They have found a way to matter, however horrific that way is.

Money matters. Large amounts of money moving all at once are recorded for posterity. That can mean charitable giving, but it doesn’t have to. Mergers, acquisitions, large trades–they all get reported. They don’t have to be ethical. They don’t have to be legal–they get more attention if they’re not. Charities don’t have to be good ideas or even do tangible good. Political funding, the buying of government, is a big deal no matter how bad for us it is, because it makes tidy, easy news. It’s the money, and the people who move it, that is reported, that matters.

The same goes in politics. Politicians who quietly make things happen don’t matter. Those who feed our news media’s hunger for the horse race do, whether they ever accomplish a piece of legislation or not. We report. You matter.

Extremes matter. “Normal” lives do not. Conflict matters. People working in harmony with others do not. Tidy narratives matter. Complicated realities do not.

Now that I’ve filled you with doom and gloom, an upside. Many of these people and these behaviors matter to us less than they used to. The “poets” of today are less constrained by the economies of traditional media than they used to. The costs of publishing have dropped, and the gates have opened.

Everyone has more opportunities to matter than they did ten years ago. Many more people can write. Many more people can create documentaries. Many more people can “hang” their photos on these virtual walls we have all around us. Many more people can pass along the stories of the people they think matter to their friends, and those networks of friends are interconnected like never before.

Those changes are making a difference. A black, female high school student who was unjustly punished for a failed science experiment mattered to so many of us that she’s now going to space camp for free. Parents who stand up for their children’s right to express gender in their own way matter to us. People who have been treated badly by corporations matter to us. And they matter not because some media corporation decided they were a sure bet for pulling in viewers but because enough of us decided independently that these were the stories we wanted to share.

Violence still matters, but people working to end violence matter more than they used to. Moving money still matters, but so do the people who gather together to say that there are fundamental unfairnesses in who decides how that money moves. Horse-race politics still matter, but so does some sports-stats geek who undercuts all those traditional narratives of uncertainty, and he’s making the horse-race reporters matter less.

The internet, and the social nature of passing along information on the internet, is broadening our definition of what matters. Shared identities, shared hobbies, shared political viewpoints, shared fandoms–all these matter because people say they do. We are the poets, and we have emerged from our various undergrounds into the light.

That is changing who matters. More types of people matter. More complicated people matter. More people doing things that make us feel good to be human matter. More people who stand up for themselves and others matter.

As we have more poets, more people matter. This is a good thing. Thanks to Rebecca Goldstein, I now know how to say it and how to help this trend along its way.

2 comments

  1. 1
    sheila

    A black, female high school student who was unjustly punished for a failed science experiment mattered to so many of us that she’s now going to space camp for free.

    That’s great! And it’s nice to feel that my slacktvism might have had a tiny, tiny part in making it happen.

    Yes, between us we can set more of the priorities than ever before. It’s hopeful.

  2. 2
    LicoriceAllsort

    Thanks for this. I was recently reflecting on how my decision to not have children affects how I might “matter” in the sense you use here. (Progeny are one way to ensure one’s memory survives after death, at least for a generation or so.) I was thinking about how it’s becoming increasingly easier to matter to people beyond those we contact daily via the sharing of ideas through modern routes of communication. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all ideas survive, but maybe it increases the chance that good ideas will get picked up and used elsewhere. I won’t be passing along my genetic information, but maybe I have more of a fighting chance to leave behind a memetic sign that I was here.

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