On Demanding Solutions To Social Problems


One of the most frustrating and most understandable responses I encounter in the course of activism goes something like this:

“Okay I get that this is a problem but what am I supposed to do about it? Should I decline a job that I supposedly got because of my privilege? What are your policy prescriptions? What’s the point of talking about this all the time rather than doing something about it?”

I hear variations on this theme all the time, and they vary from well-intentioned to not well-intentioned, from honest to dishonest. It’s not always clear what’s really going on. Questions often contain a declarative layer to them, even when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” (Perhaps especially when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” For example:

  • “I’m frustrated by the immensity of this issue and I feel like it’ll never be solved.”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable to have to listen to people talk about how injustice has impacted them. I’d rather hear something more positive.”
  • “I bet you’re about to suggest that the government intervene to fix this and I want to argue about the role of government rather than listen to what you want to talk about.”
  • “I don’t actually think this is a problem.”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything we can to do solve this problem, so I’ll dismiss your proposed solutions anyway.”
  • “I don’t think it’s worthwhile talking about problems if we’re not also taking immediate steps to solve them.”
  • “I don’t think it’s all that important to understand the nature of a problem before trying to solve it.”
  • “Not knowing how to fix something makes me feel inept and useless, so I want to know how to fix it.”

I disagree with some people that it’s always necessarily possible to tell when someone is arguing (or asking) in bad faith, and I disagree with some other people that one should always assume good faith. So I tend to just take these questions at face value and try not to guess at which of these layers may be hidden inside them.

There’s a reason why activisty/writerly types are often advised to include “where to go from here” or “suggestions for action” or “next steps” in their works, and a reason why books about social causes often have that as the last chapter. I think it does make the medicine go down a little easier by showing that all hope is not lost, and it also encourages people to take action by giving them simple ideas for things to do.

But sometimes it’s impossible to include such a section, either because we simply don’t know what to do or because that’s not the intended focus of the piece.

“Raising awareness” gets sort of a bad rap because of its association with car magnet ribbons and Facebook memes about where women put their purses. It’s true that most people are already “aware” of breast cancer, for instance. But most people are not aware of what often happens when someone tries to report a sexual assault to the police or what often happens when a person of color shops at an upscale store or what often happens when you’re a teenager trying to start an atheist club at your high school in South Carolina, for instance.

And with activism, as with any big project, you have to break it down into smaller steps. Sometimes the immediate step isn’t “solve the problem,” but “get people to agree that a problem exists,” and then “show people how the problem impacts others.” Trying to skip one of these steps is like trying to, say, plan a renovation for a building without first taking note of what’s wrong with the building currently, or even getting anyone else to agree that a renovation is needed.

And guess what? If you do genuinely see the problem that’s being described to you, you’re already ahead of most people. If you’re talking about the problem with people, you’re already “doing something” about it. Talking is doing, not only because it educates others, but because that’s how the doing ultimately gets done.

It’s understandable that people find it uncomfortable to listen to really sad stories about really sad things happening to people. Some might even find it triggering or otherwise detrimental to their mental health. At this time, you have a decision to make, and only you can make it for yourself: are you able and willing to deal with this discomfort? If not, you owe it to yourself (and perhaps to others) to step back. Don’t attend the panel, take a break from the book club, stop reading blogs for a while. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling this way, but it’s not others’ responsibility to stop sharing things that need to be shared, either.

But if it’s not an issue of triggers or mental health, then I think that people should make an effort to learn to sit with discomfort without needing or demanding immediate relief from it. Yes, it feels a lot better when someone finishes their presentation or blog post with, “Want to help make a difference? Just donate to our fund/write to your representative/spend a few hours volunteering with us/sign this petition!” Sometimes that’s how a difference gets made, but sometimes it’s not.

It’s uncomfortable to listen to stories of oppression and injustice, and it should be. That’s a feature, not a bug. These stories are not shared to make you feel good, and they’re not always necessarily being shared to “inspire” you to action. More often than not, they’re shared because this is information you need to know to be a good citizen (and a good person). If you take the time to understand the issue, you might find that potential solutions start coming to you, and that you don’t need someone to include a bulleted list of action items in their PowerPoint. You might even feel compelled to implement some of these solutions. You may even succeed.

The people who respond in this way, the “okay just tell me how to fix it” way, are not always men, but they usually are. That’s probably because men are socialized to fix things, and their security in their own masculinity often rests partially on their ability to fix things–not just the broken toilet or the leaking roof, but things in general. It happens on the macro level and the micro level: for example, all the male partners I’ve had who would neither allow me to talk about my depression without trying to fix it, nor ask me to please not share it because it’s too frustrating. They would insist that I share it, and they would insist on trying to fix me, and they would fail, and so would the relationship.

Social problems are similar to depression in that they are complex and require patient and knowledgeable effort from people who know what they’re doing. There is no quick fix for any of these things.

If you’re a man and you find yourself demanding immediate solutions when social problems are described to you, ask yourself if the way you’ve been brought up as a man might be impacting your reaction to the situation. The fact that a feeling stems from gender roles doesn’t make it wrong or fake, but it does mean that the problem isn’t with the person who’s refusing to give you a ready-made solution, but with the lessons you were taught about being a man.

Obviously, looking for solutions to problems is a Very Good Idea in general. But in this specific way, during these specific times, it may not be a good idea. It would be nice if every problem came with a prepackaged bulleted list of Next Steps, but that’s just not life. Don’t let your earnest wish to see the problem solved keep you from listening to the people dealing with the problem.

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Comments

  1. Scr... Archivist says

    Wow. Is this ever a message that I need to hear and remember. Thank you for writing it with such clarity.

  2. Jason GL says

    What do you mean when you say that “More often than not, they’re shared because this is information you need to know to be a good citizen (and a good person)?”

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