Some time ago I wrote this post on the theme of privilege and entitlement. A while later, Rob – the somebody in question – dropped a lengthy reply in the comments section, in which (forgive my paraphrasing) he stressed that we should all be focused on living the best lives we can in the here and now, doing what we can to build a fairer world, rather than flagellating ourselves in penance for the mistakes of past generations.
In the first place, I should say that in the final analysis, I pretty much agree. I don’t see that any good will come of working ourselves up into a masochistic lather, and I know that people are fundamentally self-interested, so indeed the best we can hope for is that everybody lives their own life and tries to avoid acting like an asshole in any glaringly obvious way. Those of you who were just hoping for some practical advice from this post can stop reading now: go ahead and live. If anybody asks, tell them I said it was okay.
The thing that I don’t understand, though, is how so many people – intelligent people, even – seem to think that this pragmatic course of action is actually a morally defensible position. Like it’s actually possible to enjoy all the benefits of a developed nation, and still call yourself a decent human being. It’s not. Of course it’s not. Here we are, spending our money on luxury consumer goods, moaning about trend growth rates and structural deficits, while more than a billion people around the world don’t even have access to clean water. Everybody knows about this. It has been formed into dozens of clichéd little sayings, as Rob pointed out; we learn them by rote, parrot them until they become meaningless. We deploy the hypothetical misfortunes of starving African children as a rhetorical technique to coax our own spawn into finishing their suppers. The process of mental conditioning is so effective that most of us are capable of accessorising designer outfits with Make Poverty History wristbands and never blinking an eyelid at our own hypocrisy.
Let me be clear here: I’m not saying we should feel guilty. I’m saying that if we actually cared, we would take real action. I’m not talking standing orders to Oxfam, gap years spent building schools in Tanzania, foreign aid parcels dished out to serve the dual purpose of soothing the itch in our vestigial consciences whilst stuffing the pockets of corrupt oligarchs who, in return, sell us the wealth of their people and keep them too beaten and desperate to complain. I’m talking about devoting ourselves – with a real and urgent effort, as our top priority – to providing food, water, education, sanitation and healthcare for the whole world, and to dismantling the systems by which we maintain our own profligate way of life at other people’s expense. I’m talking about giving up whatever is necessary to achieve those aims. That’s what we would do, if we actually believed in the ideas of right and wrong that most of us profess.
Of course, moral hypocrisy serves its own ends. We’re all instructed in moral certainties from an early age, and by example we quickly pick up where these moral judgements are supposed to be applied and where they are not. I’ve written before about the competitive advantages of a keen single-edged morality, so I won’t get into all that again. Suffice to say that I guess that way of thinking is here to stay.
My concern, though, was never really with the health of society or societal attitudes as such. I think perhaps this is where I have been unclear in the past and have allowed misunderstandings to take root and flourish. I have no pretensions towards arbitration of public morality, and no illusions that I have real answers to any of the issues I’m discussing. I’m also not talking about the best way to present these issues in order to draw a positive response from the masses. This is not about education or reform. My concerns are a lot humbler and more selfish than that. I am only setting out to understand these things for myself, to piece together a picture of this society and formulate my responses to it.
That said, I’m willing to admit that I am subject to certain knee-jerk reactions to the more revolting aspects of my subject. Hence, for instance, my previous exhortation with regards to our society that we should kill it with fire. This, I confess, was not the considered and sincere prescription for public betterment that it may have appeared. It was more like the horror-struck resolve of the protagonist in a B-movie who discovers that his house is built on an Indian burial ground. All the worse for him when he realises that the rest of his family have known this for years and have been scrubbing away daily at the blood-sweat oozing from the walls, playing light music to drown out the threatening disembodied voices, and resigning themselves to the mundane reality of an occasional horrific death among their number at the hands of a shrieking, vengeful spirit.
Naturally I’m still convinced that a mass conflagration would be the most elegant and fitting end to the twisted and tumescent growth that we are pleased to call ‘civilization’. I am, however, willing to accept that that answer does have certain downsides. Firstly, it’s hardly an eco-friendly scheme. Secondly, our successors would certainly fuck everything up all over again; people are people, and if they don’t have ready-made societal channels for their greed and stupidity then they will surely perform heroic new atrocities in their efforts to forge new ones. Thirdly and finally, there is the question of who could possibly be mandated to carry out a sentence like that one. It may be a just and fitting end to an utterly corrupt institution, but what sort of monster could destroy billions of human lives for the sake of ideologies and institutions? If there was a god, perhaps he could take the necessary action – and perhaps this is some reflection on why eschatology has enjoyed such massive popularity throughout history. But as an unbeliever, I have to acknowledge that I can’t conceive of any satisfactory executioner.
The only remaining hope for a clean and poetic end, then, is that in our hubris we act as architects of our own demise. A lot of people seem to genuinely think this is going to happen, but I have my doubts. Shit has been rolling downhill since time immemorial, and now it seems that the people at the bottom are going to have rising sea levels to worry about too. Whatever ramifications might come of the wealthy’s mistakes, it hardly seems likely that it’s the wealthy who will suffer the brunt of them.
So, having exhausted the obvious possibilities for a cinematic ending, there’s not much to do but reconcile myself to the fact that I just don’t care enough to seriously fight against most of the world’s injustices and iniquities, or even to divest myself of their profits. And if you’re reading this, neither do you.