“If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” -Ayn Rand
As of my writing this, Buddhists are killing Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Millions of people are displaced from Syria and Iraq. Children are still starving in Africa. There was a terrorist attack in London this morning. Antifa is vandalizing American streets. North Korea is threatening nuclear war. Harvey has destroyed parts of Texas. Irma has destroyed parts of Florida. And that’s just whats getting coverage every day. That doesn’t even include the day to day struggles that we all face. Struggles with personal health. Struggles with family health. Struggles with finances. Struggles at the workplace. We all have our own problems.
But with a new international or environmental crisis popping up by the hour, one has to ask themselves a hard question:
Can I care about everything?
And I mean truly care. Truly empathize to where I will give my time, money, and resources to help solve the problem? And if not, to what level can I care? If I placed your level of care on a spectrum, with one end being “abstract concern” and the other end being “complete dedication of time, money, and resources” to an issue, which side of the spectrum would most of the world’s issues lie in your mind?
- Climate change?
- Wildlife conservation?
- Breast cancer?
- Nuclear proliferation?
- Genocide (Any… Pick one)?
- Pipelines running through Native American lands?
I imagine that you find one or more of these issues important to you. But if you were honest with yourself, despite them being important to you, most of them probably fall on the “Abstract Concern” side of your spectrum. You intellectually have an opinion on the issue, but you’ve done literally nothing about it other than change your facebook status, or “raise awareness” behind your keyboard.
I would venture to argue that we don’t have the empathic capacity to truly care about most problems in the world. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s Rule of 150 suggests that we can only form meaningful relationships with 150 people. Despite our social media friends lists, we don’t have the cognitive ability to maintain meaningful interactions in a group much larger than 150. Naturally, there are those few social outliers who can operate at a higher number than the rest of us, but the Rule of 150 suggests that there is a limit to our empathy.
If I told you that you were going to be stuck on a desert island, and you could only bring twenty people, what would you do? You would prioritize. You would most likely start with the closest of your family members, and work outwards from there. The closer the friend, the more likely they make the twenty. You are being forced to prioritize, and therefore you make a decision on the people you care about the most. We do the same for the world problems that we care about. Your mother died of Cancer? You probably care about Cancer treatment more than the next person. You were robbed at gunpoint? You probably care about crime in your city more than the next guy. We prioritize the issues closest to us, and work out from there.
A uniquely 21st-century problem arises with the advent of social media and globalization. We are exposed to so many more hot topic dilemmas outside the scope of what we care about within our immediate family, and yet we are asked to care. In an age where putting a special frame on your profile picture somehow translates to caring. The Age of #Kony2012. The age where raising awareness is the equivalent of actually sacrificing time or money. An age where you can be shamed and judged for your priorities.
Taking the same island scenario, what if I shamed you for not bringing your imaginary creepy mustache wearing uncle Craig? You were never really close to Uncle Craig. You didn’t talk to him much. He never said anything that resonated with you other than Happy Birthday every other year. He only came by to steal food from your parent’s fridge when you were growing up. He wasn’t a bad guy, you just never connected with him. If I made you feel bad enough, you might feel the need to apologize and signal that you love Uncle Craig too. This is the same way that social media personalities attempt to force you to care or support their cause.
“You didn’t signal that you hated Nazis on social media? What are you, a racist?”
“You don’t care about Harambe being shot? Seriously?”
“You won’t donate to the Foundation for Homeless Little People? You’re heartless.” It’s the online equivalent of the grocery check-out asking you to donate to autism and then looking at you funny when you throw in the minimum amount.
Solicitations from Social Justice Warriors rely on an assumption of universal altruism to be effective. It doesn’t matter what is happening, who is being hurt, or where in the world they are; unless you take immediate action, their pain will not be allayed. You can argue, but that won’t get you anywhere.
Sometimes it’s okay to just say “You know, I haven’t given that issue much thought.”
“That really isn’t my priority right now.”
“I really don’t care about that right now.”
And that’s okay. Because someone else does. And while you may not care about the Soccer Mom Association that meets every third Wednesday of the month, they probably don’t care about the volunteer work you do at the homeless shelter every Friday. The good news is there are enough people in the world to support every issue and make a meaningful difference.
We have a finite amount of mental energy to spend on problems. While no single person can legitimately care about everything, it is our responsibility to try and expand our empathic capacity. Part of this is evaluating our priorities. Do football or basketball games legitimately affect our lives? Do we get upset over what happens to the Kardashians or the Real Housewives? Do we conflate things that objectively don’t matter with things that do? That’s a sign that our priorities are backward. Evaluating the hobbies and activities that you spend your time and money on will give you insight into where your priorities are.
You can’t truly care about everything. And you can’t pretend like you do. The best you can do is reject universal altruism, make time for the causes that are meaningful to you, and accept that everyone else cares about different things than you. And that’s okay.