On social justice activism and The Overview Effect.

By | January 11, 2011

Extra sugar, extra salt! Extra oil and MSG!

Hey kids! Today is my birthday. Because it’s my birthday, I’m going to ask that you indulge me in a small mental experiment.

Go to a window. It can be any window. It doesn’t have to be open; we will not be shouting today. Look outside. Do you see people? If you don’t see people, then turn on your television. Something newsy, if possible. Do you see people? Look at the people out your window or on your TV.

Now imagine every single one of them just dropping over dead.

Play along, kids. Imagine every single living human on this planet dropping over dead. I’m not creating a zombie apocalypse here; they won’t be getting up again. They’re all dead and you’re alone. You’re the last person left alive anywhere, in a world of corpses.

How’s your life going to change?

There are practical considerations. Nobody’d be coming round to pick up your trash at the curb, that’s for sure. Nobody’d be able to ring up your purchases at the grocery store, but then nobody’d be stocking the grocery store either. The guy who drives the subway train you take every morning? Gone. The neighbor who checks in on your cats when you go out of town? Expired. All of your Facebook friends? Permanently deleted. Your best friend? Passed on. Your whole family, your coworkers, anyone you ever loved? Ceased to be.

You’d have no one to talk to, in fact. It’d be dreadfully quiet.

So everyone’s dead and you’re alone — what does anything mean after that? Who cares? Aren’t you just waiting to die, then? I think I’d read some books, for awhile, all the books I wanted, though always lingering at the back of my mind would be the reality that at some point, the food will run out, I’ll go mad from isolation, I’ll stop being able to take care of myself, and then what? I suppose I’d have to kill myself then. I’m not a terrifically outgoing person, but even I’m not sure I’d last very long in a world without other people.

There is a reason why solitary confinement is a controversial form of punishment even for the most heinous of criminals. Humans, like it or not, are social animals. It’s just how we’re wired. Take us out of the social space, and our minds start to break. Every once in awhile someone will come along whose wiring is different, or whose wiring has been rearranged by accident or design, and they’ll cause a whole bunch of mayhem while the rest of us blink in uncomprehending horror. I felt this on the morning of September 11, 2001 — as the south tower fell, I thought of all the people who would have been trapped in there, people who would never be rescued now. And I was overwhelmed not just with grief but with pure terror at the realization that this event was wrought by other people. I was stupefied by the very notion that anyone could be capable of so much death, an obscene amount of death — a complete disregard for the lives of fellow human beings. I thought, dimly, nothing will ever be the same again. And that turned out to be true.

Yet in the days following that attack, as in the days following many major crises, we also saw some of the best of what humanity is capable of — we were reminded that, ideological differences aside, we are all sharing space on this planet and that simple kindness is so precious and so necessary. In the rote repetitions of daily life we forget to be kind, to sympathize, to take another perspective, to remember that even the people with whom we disagree are still people and therefore deserving of a certain modicum of dignity and respect — dignity and respect we must give to others if we ever hope to have it for ourselves. Sometimes an event will shake us, and we reach out to others for support and comradeship; our inclination toward social interaction is deeply instinctive as much as it is conscious.

For as long as folks have been going into space, some astronauts have reported experiencing a “transcendental, euphoric feeling of universal connection” later dubbed the Overview Effect. Many of these astronauts describe it as a sudden and deep understanding that literally every atom in the universe is intricately connected to every other. This has proven of great interest to neuroscientists, who liken the experience to deep meditative states achieved by spiritual practitioners — indeed, many of the astronauts themselves discuss the sensation in almost religious tones. One astronaut, Ed Mitchell, believes the experience to be connected to quantum physics; meanwhile, neurobiologists wonder how space travel may cause physical changes to the brain itself. What causes this sensation is of less interest to me here than the repercussions of it. The astronauts who claim to have have felt this “Overview Effect” are markedly changed by the experience. It makes sense that they would be. To see the entire span of all humanity, to look down on the comparatively-tiny habitat that contains all the people that have ever existed — that must be one epic mindfuck. We are defined by our social context, by the degree to which we are connected to other people. We know this intellectually, but rarely do we get to see the one thing every single one of us has in common: the planet on which we live.

Those of us who work for social justice must strive to remember this.

Working for social justice, no matter the context, is about caring as much for the welfare of strangers you will never meet as it is about caring for oneself. It is about working to build a better world for people who don’t know you’re doing it and probably wouldn’t care if they did. If you’re doing this work exclusively for yourself, then you’re doing it wrong. That is not social justice based activism. That is the gaping arsehole from which shit like vague warnings against social justice “gangs” who “target” young people issue forth. One does not need to subscribe to groupthink in order to work toward equality for marginalized groups; it doesn’t even help if you do. That idea is put out there to deter social justice work in favor of self-interest, aruging what good is doing such work if one does not get public recognition for it? What’s in it for you?

These days we’re so fixated on individual heroism, like it’s a fucking miracle that someone would give enough of a shit to do something to help someone else in a terrible situation. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re not supposed to be cold-hearted self-interested disgraces to human compassion. We’re supposed to care. You are not an island. You are not an isolated instance of exceptionalism; you are not a special fucking snowflake; you are not the big winner, the number one, the first most important thing in the world. You are one cell in the organism of humanity; what befalls anyone befalls you, and compassion demands that you care, that you do what is in your power to do — even if you never get the chance to run into a burning building to save puppies and orphans, even if your power is only the ability to speak up when someone else says something hateful or cruel.

I would rather not live in a world of corpses, empty bodies to whom I can no longer relate. I would rather live in a difficult world full of difficult and complex and diverse individuals. I would rather challenge and be challenged, and help others to realize that no matter our differences and our divides, the thing we share is our humanity. Because our connections to one another — even to those of us who are the hardest to take — make us better people, more thoughtful, more moral, more loving, more kind.

We can disagree. We can fight. But we must also respect each other. We must help each other when circumstances require it. We must be better than the hate we condemn.

This is how I’m beginning my thirty-fourth year. Thank you for helping me do it.


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