Your helplessness is a delusion

I was recently invited to a local community college to discuss what we, in the modest little corner of New Jersey that we live in, can do about issues as huge and seemingly untouchable as global human rights. It is a terrible topic for a speech. Human rights, for most of us, is just something to be depressed about, and that is because activists and advocates like myself are notoriously bad at making people feel hope about the state of the world. 

The problem, of course, is that we advocates have pet issues we want to fix, and in order to fix them, we first have to tell you about them. 

If I want you to donate money to my cause to save the Rohingya in Burma, I first have to tell you about the Rohingya in Burma, and that is going to make you feel sad. Then, my compatriot over at the charity next door will come in and tell you about the plight of the Syrian refugee, and this, too, will make you feel sad. This, too, will make you open your wallet, or maybe pick up the phone to call your congressperson.

We have no shortages of causes we’re fighting for, so this cycle will continue with a parade of us detailing the modern world’s atrocities and catastrophes, and eventually, you will not only get tired of donating money, you’ll start to feel numb to the virtually endless suffering of other people around the world.

Activists have a name for this. We call it “compassion fatigue.” You yourself have experienced compassion fatigue if you, like me, mute the TV every time that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial comes on. 

Closing our eyes to the pain of another living being may make us feel cold and callous, but really, the problem is simply that our individual capacity for compassion is finite, and the world’s suffering is infinite.

The choice, it appears to us, is to either numb yourself or to die of empathy.

Helplessness blues

So when we read the news about the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis growing out of it, many of us feel helpless, like there’s not much that can be done. And to an extent, this is true. Assad has all but won the war, so the dictator who gasses his own people will likely remain in power, now firmly backed with the military might of Russia and Iran. Even if we intervened now, that core fact would not likely change, nor would the fact that the “other side” fighting Assad has a lot of radical Islamist elements in it that most of us would prefer not to be allied with.

When it comes to refugees, we’re also past the point of being able to do very much: If they were here, we could welcome them to our neighborhoods and help them rebuild their lives, but the current administration is not going to let them in, and that position is not likely to change, no matter how much we protest. 

We can give money to organizations that support refugees, we can vote for candidates who are pro-refugee, we can get involved with activist groups, and we can educate ourselves on the conflict, it’s context, and it’s history, but short of actually leaving our homes and going to Europe or the Middle East, our ability to directly help is limited.

The reality of the situation right now is that most of what needs to be done for Syria and Syrians needs to be done at very high levels of government, and most of what really needed to be done to stem the violence should’ve been done years ago. 

The details differ, but the same is basically true of the case of the Rohingya in Burma, or the gang violence in Central America, or the ongoing collapse of Venezuela, or the war in Yemen — the decisions that caused these events were made high up, and they were made in the past. By the time they hit our newspapers, we’ve already failed in the ways that really matter. 

That, I admit, is a pretty depressing thought. It’s thoughts like this that make us feel helpless about the state of the world.

I’d like to argue that any sense of helplessness you feel when confronted with these humanitarian catastrophes, though, is misplaced, and that it stems from thinking about it in the wrong way. So before we can figure out what we can do to fight for human rights, we first need to change our thinking about it. And to do that, we need to address the elephant in the room.

Nazis ruin everything

There’s a rule on the internet known as “Godwin’s Law.” Godwin’s Law states:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

There’s a corollary to this, which is that whoever is the first to bring up Hitler loses the argument. 

There’s a good reason for this: Nazis poison everything. It’s impossible to talk about the world and politics in a world where the Nazis existed, and, sadly, continue to exist. More importantly, it’s impossible to even think about humanitarian catastrophes without discussing the Nazis. They are the black hole of humanitarian work and political activism. You can’t escape them, and your thoughts and actions bend around them. 

Most modern human rights work was built in direct response to the atrocities the Nazis and their allies committed during World War II, and much of what drives modern human rights workers is the specter of the Holocaust. So instead of trying to avoid the Nazis, we should take a moment to confront them: There’s a major problem with how the Nazis influence the way we talk and think about the world. They make us lazy thinkers, and worse still, this lazy thinking disempowers us.

I’ll explain.

Inevitably, whenever people discuss how to stop human rights abuses before they occur, they bring up the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy when he went to Munich to negotiate with Hitler. The idea being that, if Chamberlain had been more forceful at Munich, World War II would have been averted. 

Chamberlain and Hitler at the Munich Conference.

Chamberlain and Hitler at the Munich Conference.

Here’s the thing: This is not the moment in which we could’ve stopped World War II. It’s chosen more or less arbitrarily, and usually by people who are trying to justify the use of pre-emptive force. Chamberlain went to Munich in 1938. This is one year before the start of the war. It is five years after the Reichstag fire, five years after Hitler banned all other parties in Germany, five years after Germany had begun to rearm. It would be very easy to argue that 1938 was already far, far too late. 

If you chose to, you could make the argument that the right time to stop the Nazis was 5 years earlier, when they started violating the peace agreement from World War I.

But why stop there? If we wanted to really stop World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nuclear Era, we could just as easily go back to the mid-20’s and build a less speculative American banking system, averting the crash of ‘29, the Great Depression, and the global rise of authoritarianism that came with it. 

Or we could go back to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, which put such onerous terms on the Germans that their interim democracy was pretty much doomed from the start. We could go back and prevent the absurd and utterly pointless violence of WWI, we could undo all of those antiquated alliances and pointless squabbling, all the constant jostling for colonial supremacy. 

At this point, if you’re keeping track, we’re reaching back into the 19th and even 18th century.

I could keep going back and never stop, but I’ll spare you, as doing so would miss the point. The point is that there is no one moment in history where we could’ve prevented World War II. There were millions of moments. The point is that when we discuss the big moments where the course of history could’ve been changed, we almost exclusively focus on moments where old powerful men were making important decisions in closed rooms. Most of us weren’t alive when these decisions were made, and if we had been, we would not have been in the rooms where they were being made. 

Looking at history in this manner, where the only people ever making a difference are powerful old men, and where there’s only one moment in which the right decision can be made, is fundamentally disempowering to the rest of us.

Gentler alternative histories

I would like to offer a few alternative moments to when the horrors of Hitler could have been prevented: like the moment in 1905 or so, when, at a dinner table in Austria or Germany, someone could have spoken out against an anti-Semitic, war-mongering, or hypernationalist comment made by a friend or relative, and didn’t.

We do not know anything about this moment specifically, but we’re all more familiar with what it would have felt like than we are with what sitting in the room at Munich or Versailles would have felt like. This is because we have all been having these types conversations lately. These conversations are often terrible. They are tense and awkward and sometimes they lead to fights we would rather not have. 

But they are as important now as they were in 1905 Germany, for a single reason: there are often children present at dinner tables, and children listen. Children that hear about how war is glorious, that hear their country is destined to rule all, and that hear that Jews or gays or immigrants are untrustworthy and subhuman, are going to have a very hard time shaking those ideas off in adulthood, no matter how well-meaning and decent they grow up to be.

It would be tempting to imagine that if Hitler had heard an adult he respected speak up for the humanity of the Jews at a young and impressionable age, that he would never have been more than a failed painter, of the harmless type that still lives in your Uncle’s basement. But I think most of us have trouble imagining Hitler as a child, without the mustache and swastika, without the seething, furious charisma. It is hard to imagine the most evil, warped human being most of us can think of as ever being anything but evil and warped, even if we ourselves have never met a truly evil 5-year-old.

Instead of trying to imagine a better Hitler, let’s think about all of the other dinner tables in Germany, the ones filled with the 5-year-olds that would one day join the stormtroopers, attend the rallies, work in the factories, and turn a blind eye as their neighbors were beaten in the streets and dragged into cattle cars.

Imagine if they had learned, at a young age, that a person is a person, regardless of race or religion, that their country was beautiful but that others were, too, that their destiny was not one of conquest and domination, but of peace and cooperation. Imagine if a country full of those kids would have been quite so willing to follow an embittered, failed painter into the violent oblivion of the Second World War.

Now: None of the parents of 1905 could have possibly seen the future that was bearing down on them and their children. None of them could have possibly fathomed the decades that lay in front of them. You can’t really fault them for not being able to see the future. But if you can judge a parent by the children they raise, they were among the worst parents in history.

It is because these kitchen table moments are not recorded in our history books that we don’t remember them, but there were far more of these moments than there were treaties, sanctions, or proclamations, and even in those important, historic instances, all of the men who were in those big important rooms had once sat as children at humble kitchen tables.

The argument is not that the acts of the powerful do not matter, but that the tone of them is set by the accumulation of millions of tiny little acts of kindness or cruelty in a thousand little communities over the preceding centuries. 

What is true of genocides is true of hurricanes: the real life saving work is done long before the crisis point hits.

The darker timelines we never lived

Most importantly, you do not hear about the genocides that didn’t happen. You don’t hear about lives that were saved, about children that were unharmed, about women that weren’t raped, about family heirlooms that weren’t stolen, because if we’re successful in our work, those people don’t exist. If we’re successful in our work, no one will ever thank us, because no one will know there’s a reason to give thanks. 

It’s impossible for us to compare ourselves to darker, more violent timelines that may have resulted had people been crueler in the past, or brighter, more peaceful timelines had we chosen to be kinder and wiser. But there is reason to think that we’ve been getting better as a species over time.

There’s a school of thought out there right now, most notably put forward by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that says that rather than focusing on short-term, horrifying anecdotes, we should be looking at the broader trends of history. And the broader trends of history are much more positive than you might imagine: violence has steadily declined over the course of history, as have the number of wars, massacres, and genocides. Fewer people are dying of preventable disease, life expectancies have lengthened, and respect for human rights has risen around the world.

There are, of course, major weaknesses in this theory: past performance is not an indicator of future success, and “fewer genocides” is not the ideal, “no genocides” is. A decrease in violence and hardship also doesn’t really matter all that much if we destroy the world with nuclear weapons or climate change in the next few decades, which seems increasingly possible by the day. 

But this outlook does give us a dose of much-needed hope for the future. It does show that human beings can change, and that they seem to gradually, glacially, on an almost generational scale, change for the better. 

A more realistic system of thinking is offered by Rebecca Solnit in her physically slim but emotionally massive 2004 book, Hope in the Dark. Solnit, unlike Pinker, sees the flaws of humanity with clear eyes, but she suggests that hopelessness is still an irrational response to the world. The sheer amount that has changed in our small lifespans alone should lead us to reject the idea that we can see the future and that it’s bleak. 

When I was a kid, virtually no one used the internet, which, for good or for ill, now shapes the world in massive, unpredictable ways. When I was 3, the Berlin Wall fell. A few years before, a world without the USSR was unthinkable. Until I was 16, gay sex was still illegal in 14 states. After Bush’s devastating reelection in 2004, virtually no one would have told you a black man could ever be President, let alone in the next Presidential term. 4 years ago, before Obergefell v. Hodges, there were 15 states where gay marriage was either banned or was not totally legal.

The work that led to these changes started small. It was not Reagan who knocked down the wall, but ordinary Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Russians, dissidents who for decades had been writing poetry and fiction and essays in jail cells and gulags and in the secret corners of their homes. It was not the Supreme Court that legalized gay sex and, eventually, gay marriage, but groups of activists who insisted on their dignity for decades, and were willing to sacrifice their time, money, and personal lives to demand that dignity in court. It was not Obama who brought us a black President, it was thousands of activists who, for centuries, demanded equal rights for blacks, even if it meant being beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered by the very state that was supposed to protect them. 

The "great men" are just surfers. We are the waves.

A butterfly flaps its wings

Most people are terrified of the apparent chaos of the world, but there’s something beautiful about it. Chaos, for one thing, makes the future impossible to predict. This is because small, even microscopically insignificant actions now, can snowball into something massive. This, for those of us who feel insignificant or small, should inspire hope rather than dread.

Most of us are familiar with the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a butterfly can flap its wings in China and that this can cause a hurricane in the Atlantic months later. While no one has ever caught this asshole butterfly in the act, the idea itself is now widely accepted among meteorologists and climate scientists. 

In historical terms, the idea is similarly expressed by the old proverb.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

You cannot predict what will change our future. You cannot predict what it will look like. We do not see the horrible futures that collapse every time we choose to act with kindness rather than cruelty, or the bright, beautiful utopias that evaporate when we lash out at those around us, but those futures are as real for us now as they were for the parents of 1905.

Push it in the right direction. Start seeding more good into this chaos.

Go ahead, little bug: flap.