We’ve all of us been incensed by a news story, cultural trend or incident on the public bus that’s led us to understand that social injustices that are supposed to be a bygone product of old-timey values are still alive and kicking. The vast majority of us will stop at feeling angried-up, or sharing those angried-up feelings with friends, loved ones, or like-minded acquaintances. Comparatively few people will actually be motivated enough to think about making other people’s problems their own.
Studies show that this phenomenon isn’t really about laziness, or a lack of empathy, but of a deep-seated rule of social decorum that we have to mind our own business. Heavens forefend that we lose decorum, as a people, but the line between striving for solidarity with others and getting all up in somebody else’s kitchen could be profitably questioned. Especially because studies also show that we’re less likely to help a person out, even in an emergency, if we don’t identify with them; that is, if they don’t look like us.
Solidarity is the most effective means of making change in the world, but it’s not always clear when and how we should get involved. Certain events galvanize really disparate groups of people who nevertheless see themselves as involved in a shared cause. Witness Idle No More’s support of Palestinians in Gaza and vice versa, sex workers and Anglican clergy taking Canada’s problematic new anti-prostitution laws to task, or Nebraska ranchers and Hollywood environmental enthusiasts joining together to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Great divides of geography, class and gender can be bridged when people find a commonality in their struggles.
The real challenge to creating social change lies in becoming active against injustices that haven’t particularly been levelled against us. Barriers to participating in culture-changing movements are often based on a feeling that it isn’t our fight. There are obvious considerations there that need to be taken account of, especially if you enjoy any amount of privilege relative to the majority of people involved in the cause you feel drawn to. If you happen to be male, straight, able-bodied, wealthy and/or white, it’s absolutely necessary for you to defer to the ideas and methods of the group to avoid being anything in the range of irritating to highly inappropriate and colonial.
There’s been a lot of thought and literature devoted to the problem of how a person whose sex, race or ethnicity has historically been oppressive towards another sex or ethnic or racial group can work effectively to support that group in the present. Mia McKenzie and Jaime Utt remind us that to be an ally and participate means not just understanding the theoretical issues being fought, but making efforts to acknowledge our relationships to the power dynamics that have created those issues. There are spaces and tasks that can only belong to the group who has most immediately experienced the business end of an unfair practice and really being in solidarity means respecting the places and times where we don’t belong.
That said, it also needs mentioning that, without effort, many of us will not ever really immerse ourselves in circles of people who look different than we do. It’s far more common for visible minorities to find themselves…wait for it…in the minority in many social situations than it is for, say, an able-bodied person to find themselves at a meeting table where the majority of the participants are in wheelchairs. That’s not an accident. It’s not an accident that certain professions are gendered or racialized. It’s not an accident that people typically have educations, careers, friend circles and households that replicate the ones their parents had. In theory, we live in diverse societies. In practice, keeping people apart works to solidify discriminatory barriers and perpetuate cultural stereotypes of what people are capable of while maintaining the fiction that everyone has equal opportunities. Actively becoming invested in somebody else’s concerns flies in the face of what the ubiquitous “they” want us to do.
Becoming part of a cause that isn’t our own is one of the most straightforward ways to learn some perspective about our own centrality. Taking a back seat while working to make someone else’s life better, not because it benefits us, but because eradicating arbitrary and unfair limitations on that person’s life will make the culture we live in more equitable, decentres the self. Giving greater weight to opinions and ideas not our own allows us to remodel the individualist structures of perception that have enabled oppressive practices in the first place. If, just on occasion, the world is not even a little about us, we grow in our ability to empathize. And that could be really culture changing.