wisdom from Umair Haque, courtesy of MEDIUM
Journalists being massacred…after a President declares the press the enemy of the people. Infants being tried…alone. Government agents knocking down a door during an interview about…their abuses.
This is not normal, my friends. No, not just that part — but also the next part. The response of Americans to all the above. Forgive me. I want to point out what seems to me an inconvenient truth. They just don’t seem to care. At least not enough, or genuinely, often, or intensely. You’ll protest, I’m sure. “How can he say we don’t care?!” So let’s consider it. I don’t mean it in a judgmental or angry way. Just in the way of quiet understanding.
Even in poor countries, when, for example, journalists are massacred, do you know what tends to happen? Their fellow journalists, often, together with civic organizations, professors, lawyers, and just regular people, protest. Sometimes for days. They mass in front of parliaments or supreme courts, and demand some kind of justice — or justice cannot be done, at least some kind of reform, attention, interest. Yes, really. The very next day, usually. In other words, people do three critical things. They stand together, when they are harmed. They demand accountability for those harms. And they call attention to those harms. They do this even when there is a steep price to pay — they’ll be beaten, go on watchlists, be shunned, and so on.
But Americans just don’t do any of this — even though they won’t face those consequences (yet, anyways). They have a moment or two of shared lamentation — and then, a day or two later, go back to the long forgetting. That endless cycle of make-believe, the numb denial that characterizes life now. Or maybe, once or twice a year, there is a big march. But that is the same thing as saying: there is no real reaction except detachment, or maybe resignation, mostly. Do you even remember where the last school shooting was? How about what happened last month? What about the last scandal, outrage, transgression — can you even name it? It’s just one long, endless grey haze now, isn’t it? Ah, but that haze — what is it made of?
The name of that haze is indifference. So the question is this. Why don’t Americans care, enough of them anyways, even at this bleak point, about the dismal fate of their own society? Really care? Not just tap out mournful tweets? To care isn’t just that, because it costs nothing. To care is to pay a price, isn’t it? We say “self-sacrifice”, often, but that hides a deeper truth. To care is to invest in something greater than yourself, which is why you must pay a price to really care — just like those poor journalists protesting will.
When I think about all that carefully, what it really means to me is this. Americans think caring for another is morally wrong. Not just dangerous, or risky — but wrong. Bad. Unhealthy. Toxic. It might make people less well off if I care about them, therefore I mustn’t — that’s what the American mind’s fundamental idea appears to be (even if it doesn’t know it). But how could that be? How could it be wrong to care — not wrong not to?
It makes perfect sense, if you think about it.
The American ideal is rugged self-reliance, independence, but in a curious and hypocritical way. The ruggedly independent person isn’t making his own bullets, axe, or gun. He didn’t build the road into the woods, or blaze the trail into the forest, or even read the book about engineering the road. He is just pretending at independence and self-reliance. But he is pretending precisely because he can. He does not have to care, because he is at the top of a hierarchy. Being at the top, and not having to care, is another way of saying that one does not have to invest in anyone else, because one has the power not to. And in that way, the American ideal, therefore, is about having a very specific kind of power — the power not to invest in anyone else at all.
What do we do in American life? We compete to fulfill this ideal, don’t we? We don’t think of ourselves as “successful” anymore because we have invested in anyone or anything else — whether with money, time, ideas, attention, energy, thoughtfulness, gentleness, support. I would go so far as to say we never did. For us, success is the precise opposite. It is reaching the position at the top of the hierarchy that I just discussed — the one that the patriarch occupies. The place of not having to care, where one can feign self-reliance. Then one thinks to one’s self, in modern American life, that one has made it. One can relax and rest easy now. One has fulfilled one’s self as a moral being.
Make that concrete, if it helps. If I say, “ a successful life”, what does it mean? Probably a big mansion, maybe a big loft, a fleet of fine cars, designer everything, a partner many people envy you for having, and so on, even if I exaggerate a little. What all this means to you, psychologically, though, is just that ideal: “self-reliance” is what your unsaid thoughts say, and you probably think, wistfully — “ah, if I just had all that! Then I could finally relax! I would be fulfilled!!” So you are contesting a position in a hierarchy made of individualist materialism — where success is precisely reaching the point of not having to care about anyone or anything else. That is your moral aim in life — or at least the one you’re told to have.
A successful life to us isn’t one in which we become full human beings, capable of intensely and genuinely caring for anyone or anything beyond ourselves. In other words, we paint success as material — not moral. But if that’s the way that we’re living our lives, then it’s no great surprise that caring about anyone else — which means investing in them, paying a price of some kind to stand with them — is felt as morally wrong.
(The key word is felt. Moral rights and wrongs are mysterious things to us. We feel about things, quite often, precisely the opposite way that we think we should, hope we will, or believe we do. What do you feel when I say: “you don’t care about society enough?” You probably feel angry, don’t you? You want to lash out at me, a little, somewhere, deep inside. Go ahead — it’s OK. We’re just trying to understand ourselves, I’m not judging you. And adding to your anger, I’d bet, there is a sense of shame. What do those two emotions, anger and shame, tell us? You’d only feel those emotions if my image of you was in conflict with your self-image. So they tell us that you are repulsed by the idea of genuinely caring for society — not that you are failing to live up to your own ideal. Thus, you feel that my ideal, that the definition of a “successful” human being is someone who can genuinely care for another, is morally wrong. It’s unbearable for you to hold that thought. “I’d be weak if I cared!”)
Deep down, I think, Americans, whether they know it consciously or not, subscribe to a theory of human life that goes like this. Everything is a hierarchy — and the aim of life is to claw your way to the top. At the peak lies the luxury not to have to invest in anyone or anything else, which is what the great myth of “self-reliance” really is. A myth, because there is not a soul in human history, nor will there ever be, who can fulfill all their own wants, needs, and desires, but only pretends to. Hence, unconsciously, there is the belief that it is profoundly and deeply morally wrong to really care about anyone. It’s a sign of weakness. It makes people lazy and helpless. It corrodes the self and society both to care about anything but one’s self.
But it’s no surprise that Americans have been left impotent by this unconscious belief, either — because if you can’t care about anyone else, what are you? You are a narcissist. Empty inside — always looking for admiration and validation, never able to give love and warmth. (I don’t mean you, of course. I just mean in the general way we are talking about life.)
And perhaps that’s no great surprise. After all, all that is exactly what predatory capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy tell us to be. Narcissists, incapable of investing in anyone else. These three ideologies, which have always defined American life, have, I think, molded the American unconscious into a perfect vessel for them. You must never care, each one says. Capitalism says: you must never care for anyone, period — only use them. Patriarchy says: you must never care for the weak, only trample them. Supremacy says: you must never care for the inferior, only despise them. All of them say: you are just an insatiable appetite — an emptiness to be filled up, with nothing to give.
And so here we are. With nothing left to give. At precisely the time we need each other most.
But that, my friends, is not normal. Not the collapse. The collapse is perfectly normal. Societies collapse every day, in history’s eyes. What’s not normal is how Americans seem to feel about the collapse of their society. Somewhere between indifferent, aloof, resigned, and detached. How little Americans seem to care, in a genuine way, about each others’ lives falling into the hands of tyrants and monsters. And sadly, funnily, that is, if you ask me, because they have been taught, all their lives long, to think that it’s morally wrong to.