The cost of activism/self-centered activism

The Cost of Activism/Self-Centered ActivismChina, 2010. I’m in a hotel room with Mark Yang in Shanghai. I’m sleeping, he’s on the phone.

It the international existential humanistic conference, and I’m there as a speaker and listener prior to a few days detached to speak in Wuhan. Mark is my bunkmate to save costs. But he’s not just a speaker, but a combination of conference organizer and local guide. When the Americans need something, they go to Mark. Being Mark, he’s all too happy to help people out and he’s one of a few key people competent to do so. His Chinese goes from reasonable to pretty fluent in a couple of years of doing these conferences—because he needs it to.

So I’m sleeping as best I can, and he takes calls all night. So-and-so just got in, they need a ride from the airport. All right, I’ll arrange something. So-and-so is here, needs to check in. OK, I’ll be down in a minute to help him talk to the desk clerk. We need a car. We need this, that, a million other things. Mark makes it happen, with good grace and good will.

By the end of the conference, he’s exhausted. There are still ten days of activity ahead of us.
At the end of all this, in a conference room in Hong Kong, I tell Mark, thanks for everything you’ve done. I just wish I could do more. A lot of the time I’ve been sitting around or touring, I could have been helping.

Mark says, yeah, but everything you do to help requires someone to help you do it. That takes resources and we don’t have them right now.

And he was right.

In the Air Force, we used to hear all the time that for every plane in the air, there were nine or ten people on the ground in support. Mechanics, obviously, but also flight surgeons, accountants, MP’s, etc.

After the earthquake in 2008, Western China was inundated with helpers from all over the globe. Most were pretty well-intentioned, a few were out for glory. But all of them were costly. Every foreign helper needed helpers—to access the disaster sites, to access food, water, and shelter, even to talk to the victims. Many didn’t get the help they needed in order to be helpful, to understand the basics of local customs.

Mark wasn’t there. He came a while later with a band of students from Hong Kong, knowing at the time he didn’t have the local connections or language skills to be of direct help to the disaster victims. He came to be of help to the helpers, the therapists and other folks who had been in the zone since the beginning and were starting to show signs of wear and tear. Fatigue, hopelessness. I write about this a lot so if you follow me at all you know the score there. If not, have a look at Connoisseurs of Suffering.

I should have known then. From a visit in 2008, I should have learned to be grateful for whatever help I could provide, not be so entitled to helping more. In 2010, I almost learned it, and now it is starting to click for me.

Recently, there have been some articles about how Americans do foreign aid—with entitlement and selfies. We go to foreign places to get pictures of us helping as much as to actually help. We feel entitled to be important, entitled to make a difference. Especially if we are White, that White privilege extends to a grandiose feeling of our own efficacy.

Lately, we are confronted with some really serious problems. Global warming and racism are the top two on my list, and I’m ambivalent about the order. Climate change is killing us all, and so it seems like saving all human life from immanent extinction should be the number one priority—but our endemic, deep-seated racism makes me wonder if we are worth saving. And well-intentioned, good, nice, wonderful people are starting to ask, so what can I individually do?

We are frustrated that the answer is generally nothing. Nothing at all. We, collectively, can join in some of the collective actions already happening. But fixing these problems is going to take a mass movement, not a YouTube presidential candidacy. The thing is, we are so used to getting our way, we think we should be able to do something, and don’t know how to respond to the bare, bald fact that we can’t do anything meaningful. Not on our own.

This is the realization I’m coming to: anything I could accomplish would take a lot of help from a lot of people who are already taxed to the limit. My best role is generally to educate, to keep conscious, and to provide support where that support is not too costly to others. I want to do more and I feel entitled to do more. I think I should matter. But I really don’t matter, not in the grand scheme of things.

It comes down to this: millions of people have struggled for hundreds of years for meaning social justice in the United States and its precursors. Do I really believe that those struggles will culminate and be vindicated in some individual action of mine? Am I that self-centered and entitled?

And the answer has to be “no.”

And it has to be followed with another question. More of an invitation, really. What are you doing? And how can I help you without taxing your resources?

— Jason Dias

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