Shit People Say to People Who Care About Shit

Or, an incomplete list of responses I get when I talk about the things I care about.

“Yeah, well, what did you expect?”

That’s an easy one to answer. I expect better.

“So what, are you surprised?”

I’m not surprised. I’m angry. Those are not the same emotion.

Often people seem to think that just because you “should have” expected something, you no longer have the right to be upset about it. This is false. First of all, guess what–people get to feel however they feel about things. Second, the fact that this is “just how the world is” does not–and should not–mean that we shouldn’t care anymore.

In fact, if something unjust happens so often that you think I don’t have the right to be surprised about it, doesn’t that make it much worse than a random, one-off act of injustice?

“You’ll never change that anyway.”

Man, people have said that to literally every activist, every group, every cause that’s ever existed.

Sure, some failed. But most of those have simply not succeeded yet.

Besides, when I’m old and my kids and grandkids ask me what I liked to do when I was young, I’d like to say that I did something other than make money, go to the gym, and go out drinking sometimes. I hope I’ll be equally proud of the failures as I am of the successes, because as disappointing as it is to fail–as an activist or as anything else–trying really is better than sitting on your ass.

“But that’s just human nature.”

People often say that social justice isn’t worthwhile because it’s “human nature” to create unjust institutions and societies. Humans are naturally biased, they are naturally tribalistic and selfish, and so on.

I’m not sure I agree that “human nature” can be defined, but even starting from that premise, I don’t see how it leads logically to “social justice is a waste of time.” Even if humans are “naturally” one way, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we can shape our natures and societies into something different?

After all, it’s “natural” for rivers to occasionally flood, but we build levees. It’s “natural” for humans to have disputes that they need to resolve, but we have a court system to help them do that. It’s “natural” for fires to sometimes happen, but we have firefighters to help put them out. It’s “natural” for some climates to be inhospitable to humans, so we use technology to make it easier for people to live there. It’s “natural” for people to get sick, sometimes fatally, but we have doctors, surgeons, vaccines, antibiotics, painkillers, MRIs, and all sorts of ridiculously high-tech stuff I’ve never even heard of to help diagnose and treat them so that they can live longer and feel better.

There isn’t a single other domain of human life and society in which we’ve decided to just throw our hands up and let what is “natural” control our lives. So even if sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are “natural”—which is, again, a premise I do not accept—I don’t see a reason to let that stop us from finding ways to eradicate or circumvent them.

“You’re just gonna make yourself miserable!”

This is a red herring. If these people really cared about my mental health–or knew anything about it–they’d listen to me when I say that what really makes me miserable is doing nothing to work on the issues I care about. How do I know? Experience.

I think we all sometimes have difficulty imagining how or why someone would hate the things we love or love the things we hate, but people are different. I cannot imagine a life in which I find activism boring or depressing, and I’m sure some people can’t imagine a life in which they find it inspiring, meaningful, and fun. But if you’re one of those people, you’ll just have to trust us when we say that caring about things doesn’t make us miserable. It makes our lives worth living.

Disregarding that, though, I’m not sure why it’s anyone’s business whether or not activism makes me miserable (unless they’re someone who’s actually close to me, in which case they’d know that it doesn’t). Plenty of people are sometimes miserable because of what they do, and as long as they knowingly and willingly chose that path, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s when people have no choice but to be miserable that I see a problem.

“Why are you making such a big deal about it? X Issue is more important.”

It seems to be a common misconception that if someone’s advocating about a particular issue, it means that they think that that issue is The Most Important Issue Of Our Time or whatever. Actually, no. For instance, you might be surprised to know that I don’t consider gender inequality to be The Most Important Issue Of Our Time, and I don’t think mental illness is it, either. If I had to choose, I’d choose environmental degradation and climate change.

But I don’t advocate on those issues because, frankly, I’d be shit at it. I don’t have the educational background for it, and I can’t get it because I’m spending my time studying what I need to for my career. More importantly, I just don’t have the passion for it. I care, to be sure, but I’m not that interested in the specifics of biology, chemistry, and physics involved, and I can no more force myself to be more interested in them than I can force myself to lose my passion for psychology and sociology. Why do I have this set of interests and not that one? Hell if I know. But I do know that I’ll be the most effective activist in the areas for which I have the most passion. I do a lot of activism around social issues primarily because I’m intensely curious and perceptive about the way elements of societies and cultures fit together and produce our lived experiences.

I’m sure there are activists who do think that their niche is the only one that matters, just as there are probably those mythical feminists who hate men and those mythical vegans who shove veganism down people’s throats (whatever that means). I don’t think that these people are nearly prevalent or influential enough to generalize from.

So, I don’t really care which issues are more important and which are less, not that there’s any objective way to tell, anyway. I’m going to do whatever I’m most suited for based on my skills and interests, and I know that there are bright and passionate activists working on the causes that I can’t work on myself.

“You’re just looking for things to be upset about.”

I can see why people might think this way. The more privilege you have on various axes, the less injustice plays a role in your daily life. (Or, perhaps, injustice plays a huge role in your life but you don’t realize it because you’ve been taught to blame yourself.) In that case, for you to see injustice in the world really does require going out looking for it.

But for many people, it doesn’t. A person of color need only get followed around in a store or stopped by the cops for spurious reasons or avoided by passerby on the street to witness racism at work. A trans* person need only get yelled at or attacked for using the “wrong” bathroom. A woman need only find that her insurance plan won’t cover birth control while male reproductive needs get covered. Do any of these people really have to “look” for things to be upset about?

Besides, so what if we are?

Telling an activist that they’re “just looking” for things that are broken in society is like telling a computer security specialist that they’re “just looking” for vulnerabilities in a piece of software, or telling an editor that they’re “just looking” for writing errors, or telling a surgeon that they’re “just looking” for tumors. Of course they are! Looking for them is how you fix them.

But so great is the bias toward “looking on the bright side” and being “positive” that people pressure each other to avoid the sometimes-unpleasant but absolutely vital process of exposing the ways in which we fail each other and finding ways to fix those failures.

Ultimately, these responses, this shit people say to people who care about shit, are all really ways of saying the same thing: “I don’t care.” “Yes, but I don’t care.” “Ok, maybe that’s a problem, but I don’t care.” “I don’t know enough about this to really have an opinion, but I don’t care.” “You can’t change this anyway, so I don’t care.” “This is too hard to change, so I don’t care.” “You have compelling arguments, but I don’t care.”

I actually wish people were more willing to come right out and admit that they don’t care, because then they can put it either of two ways: “I don’t care; can you explain to me why I should?”, or “I don’t care, so you might as well stop wasting time talking to me.”

I can work with one of those.

Comments

  1. Margaret says

    then they can put it either of two ways: …

    Or a third way: “I don’t care; they deserve all the bad stuff being done to them.” It’s really disturbing when you realize this is what they mean, but that just makes me agree with you all the more in wishing that people would just come right out and admit it.

    Thanks for this post. I am always confused when I get one of those odd responses when I bring up something that I happen to care about.

  2. Margaret says

    Meritocracy? Oh, you’re thinking of those who blame poor people for being poor. That is probably the main source of the “they deserve it” attitude. I was actually thinking of a conversation where I brought up my anger over the rape threats to Jessica Ahlquist. The woman I was talking to clearly wasn’t interested in some teenager getting rape threats. But then I told her who Jessica is, and the woman became angry about anyone daring to try to take down a Christian prayer, even though it was in a public school. It was disturbing and I didn’t handle it well. It also made me wonder about previous conversations where she didn’t care about something else that made me angry.

      • leftwingfox says

        “Meritocracy” might be part of it. “Just World Fallacy” might be a broader fit.

        A lot of times where an individual receives directed abuse and harassment, there’s always a few people who will point out some transgression the victim did which must… MUST be acknowledged. I swear, a group of people can be talking about how horrible it was that a child was summarily executed for jaywalking, and there will be people intent on making the jaywalking the centre of the conversation.

        It reminds me a lot of abusers who use any excuse to justify the beatings.

  3. says

    Well said. The one that really strikes a chord with me is the tendency for people to debase your cause du jour by claiming “X” is more important, or by saying “Y is not the only bad one here, Z does it too!” This comes up so often in comments at my blog that I can predict the end of the comment well before reading it. It’s annoying and unhelpful to hijack a blog or statement with “but what about the other bla bla bla…”

    I am an activist in this sphere because I care enough to be one. I would be angry at myself if I didn’t do it, and simply sat back on my couch complaining about how much I hate “My Kitchen Rules”, or about how biased a certain report is on the news. It’s not easy, but this doesn’t deter me.

    If I get it wrong, I willingly admit it. It’s all part of growing. But I care enough to continue. And thanks to you for caring enough to continue also.

    Thanks for this blog post! I see a lot of the questions I ask myself when reading the comments of others…

  4. says

    “You’ll never change that anyway.” Man, people have said that to literally every activist, every group, every cause that’s ever existed. Sure, some failed. But most of those have simply not succeeded yet. Besides, when I’m old and my kids and grandkids ask me what I liked to do when I was young, I’d like to say that I did something other than make money, go to the gym, and go out drinking sometimes. I hope I’ll be equally proud of the failures as I am of the successes, because as disappointing as it is to fail–as an activist or as anything else–trying really is better than sitting on your ass.

    QFT. When I argue that no one should be denied equal civil rights because of where they were born, that no person is illegal, that no one should face detention and forcible deportation simply for being a foreign national, that what happened to Jackie Nanyonjo or the women of New Bedford should never happen to anyone again [trigger warning on both links], I am constantly told that I’m being too idealistic and that I will never succeed. To which my answer is: that isn’t a reason not to try. Immigration enforcement is a racially-coded system of institutionalized violence and injustice, and it needs to end.

  5. says

    You forgot “Get a job!”

    And “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

    To which my responses are “This pretty much is my job.” and “No, I don’t have anything better to do other than demand a better world by picketing this hate group/church/these cops.”

    • says

      You forgot “Get a job!”

      Ooh, good one. So many layers of assholishness embedded in that one; there’s the assumption that only unemployed people care about social issues, and also that unemployed people are axiomatically not worth listening to; there’s also the assumption that, if the activist is complaining about something that affects them personally — like, say, poverty — that getting a job, any job, will fix that, when of course most of the poor people in this country *do* have jobs, they just don’t pay enough. Or you’re a disability activist and you either can’t work at all, or can only work some kinds of jobs, or only part-time, or can only work with accommodations. “Get a job? Sorry, can’t! That’s the whole point I’ve been trying to make!”

      And my favorite implication is the implication that it is a good thing to have your job take up all the time, energy and caring you have so that none is left over for activism.

      Talk about internalizing the oppressor’s perspective…

  6. Dunc says

    I suspect that all these are often just covers for learned helplessness… It’s much easier to use any of these excuses, or even retreat to a simple “I don’t care”, than it is to admit that “I’m too beaten down to allow myself to care, or to believe that you can change anything”. (I speak from some experience here.)

  7. says

    i wish i had read something like this when i was in high school—i wish i had a dollar for every time my mother told me to stop trying to solve the worlds problems—i might actually have a savings account—

    btw—i think another reason ppl dont care is—i dont have a dog in this fight, so why should i care

    thanx 4 an excellent article

  8. pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile says

    “Why are you making such a big deal about it? X Issue is more important.”

    I hear a common, sort of similar remark about my animal welfare advocacy: “they’re just dogs, why don’t you focus on the all the people that need help?”

    I want to smash things when I hear that. I do care about and have advocated for certain human-related issues. I am also capable of caring deeply about more than one issue. And, if you’re that dismissive about animal abuse, then obviously you don’t value them, so we won’t ask you to join our effort. But those remarks just tell me they have nothing to contribute other than to criticize us for giving a shit.

    Very good article, Miri!

  9. says

    First– yes, yes, and hell yes. I love this post. I want everyone I’ve ever met to read it.

    Second, I just want to talk about human nature for a second. I think most people who have done any research into how the mind works, specifically how biases work, recognizes that biases are human nature. We’re practically made of them. We apply them every day– even the most logical of us– whether we want to or not, and that will never end. Fine. I’ve made my peace with that.

    However, that doesn’t mean that becoming aware of our biases and trying to correct them is a worthless endeavor!

    Quite the contrary. People rectify the more egregious of their biases all of the time, once they become aware of them. Racists become non-racists. Sexists become non-sexists. Homophobes learn that homosexuals are sooooo much more like them that they ever imagined….stop being homophobes. Empathy is an amazing counter to bias, and you can learn how to empathize better. More often. More reliably. More thoroughly. And how do you trigger empathy? By giving people a better understanding of who their biases hurt. The harmful effects they have on people they care about, and eventually people in general.

    I believe there is such a thing as human nature, and that there’s some dumb, dangerous crap in there. I also know that in our nature lies the ability and the inclination to fix the dumb, dangerous stuff given the right prompts and circumstances. Sometimes we need a push. Sometimes it takes a while. But it can happen.

    It happens all of the time. So don’t give me that “human nature” line pretending that only the nasty parts are our “nature.” The good stuff is as well. We fight the bad stuff with the good stuff.

  10. doublereed says

    Great post. Absolutely. I have no idea where this idiotic defeatist attitude comes from. Maybe because people think cynicism = maturity? “What, it’s not like you can change it!” Uhm. Yes we can. We just have to change it.

    Humans have shown that we can pretty much do anything we want. We just have to WANT to. The reason we don’t have a good healthcare system, for example, is because I genuinely think many Americans just don’t want a good healthcare system. They simply don’t think the poor deserve healthcare. That’s all there is to it. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, or are unable to do it, it’s that we don’t want to.

    We ended slavery which was ubiquitous in societies for millenia. And we ask if we can end war and get the same cynical answer back every time. It’s difficult, not impossible. Reminds me of this article over at Less Wrong:
    Can The Chain Still Hold You?
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/99t/can_the_chain_still_hold_you/

  11. katykay2010 says

    thank you, thank you thank you again, for another beautifully written, spot-on article, clarifying insights, thoughts so well organized and expressed….

  12. inhumandecency says

    This is great, thank you. One thing I’d add — I suspect (partly based on some instances of my own sad behavior) that “you’ll just make yourself miserable” often but not always means “please stop talking to me about this before it makes me miserable.”

  13. jamessweet says

    I think a big cause of stuff like this is the cognitive dissonance people experience realizing they aren’t perfect. Let me explain what I mean by way of admitting a way in which I am quite actively not perfect right now.

    Zinnia Jones has pointed out a blatantly transphobic advertisement for Arrested Development. Reading some of the comments has reminded me of some pretty blatantly transphobic plot points in the show. There’s no denying it.

    I’m still totally going to watch Arrested Development when it comes back on Netflix. I recognize that it is nothing better than out-and-out cis privilege that allows me to make that decision and not have to cringe about it or feel weird. I’m basically making a decision to not care as much as I could about this issue, and I know I only have the luxury to do that because it doesn’t affect me. That’s a failure on my part — probably a relatively minor failure, but a failure nonetheless.

    A lot of people can’t handle that idea that they aren’t perfect, so you see people in the comments to that post arguing that nothing AD has done has ever been transphobic, that it’s an “edgy” show so that makes it okay, etc. They can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance to say to themselves, “hey, here’s an issue that’s important and matters to people, and yet I’m not going to do anything about it myself.”

    Because people are unable to say, “yeah, I’m not perfect,” they have to say, “But that issue just doesn’t matter!” or “You’re wrong about that issue!” or “Stop caring about that issue!”

    • says

      I haven’t seen the ad, James, but I think you’re neglecting something here. It’s not that people can’t accept their imperfection; it’s that they don’t want to improve. Improving takes work. Work on yourself, that they don’t want to bother with because it doesn’t seem fun.

      Would your refusing to watch Arrested Development benefit anybody? I doubt it. Would it do any harm? Yeah, it sounds like you’d go without a pastime you enjoy. So what is the failure in watching it?

      “I’m not perfect” is an excellent excuse to go on being not perfect. It’s the one people so often employ when they want to go on doing something for which there would be real benefit if they’d stop. I don’t see you doing that here.

  14. doublereed says

    You should make a sequel article called

    Shit People Say to People Who Care About People Saying Shit About People

  15. says

    I have had this conversation, or a variant on it, many times. Maybe our culture worships money and power, but we don’t have to. I don’t. Others don’t. So what if my vision for what would make the world a better place is hard? If I didn’t believe that people, as a whole, could change, I would have a much tougher time getting through the day. And what if I’m wrong? I’ll spend time trying to change things, fail, be sad, and die. You (the other party here) won’t, and maybe you’ll succeed at what you want. Be happy about that. But don’t begrudge me my vision, and I won’t begrudge you yours.

  16. says

    Miri: Thanks for the great article!

    Pianoman: I agree… some people just don’t realise that everyone can’t be responsible for everything; the world just works better if different people focus on what they care about and focus on doing *that* well.

    Like you say, somebody has to give a shit :)

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