Moving Mountains

August 15, 2014

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend from St. Louis (a former Marine who served in the Gulf War and is now working in IT) who was disgusted by the protestors in Ferguson and said that he didn’t see how they could possibly do anything to change the situation. He told me that while he admires people who get out and take an active role in change, he just didn’t feel like anything they (or he) could do would make any kind of a difference.

Then he launched into a very angry defense of his position.

And I while I completely disagreed with his perspective, I understood why he felt the way he did.

The problems associated with inequality based on race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and a host of identity markers in this country are overwhelming, and for most people are too vast and complex to constantly scrutinize while also maintaining control of their daily lives. And until something affects people personally it feels distant from their own experiences and unrelated to their lives, and, trying to change things feels, quite frankly, like moving mountains.

But here’s the thing – it’s not.

Every large injustice is an explosion of thousands of little pebbles of injustice built up over time. What it boils down to is that Michael Brown’s shooting is connected to the inequalities of the American educational system which is connected to the resulting economic disparities and suffering of minimum wage workers which is connected to the limiting of access to reproductive control by corporations through the government which is connected to the ways in which people fiercely protect their Second Amendment rights which is connected to — the trigger and explodes.

I told my friend that, in my opinion, solving these awful injustices will require the concentrated effort of people seeking change on every level. When he told me he didn’t have time to be marching to city hall or protesting government policy, I told him that he needn’t think of it in terms of one or two large actions, but rather in terms of small actions taken on a daily basis.

Sometimes simply speaking up when confronted with an injustice instead of accepting it as a foregone conclusion is enough to get someone to think differently about it. Asking why a person thinks what they do can have the effect of turning the discussion back on them in a way that can be far more productive than browbeating them with oppositional points. And sometimes, not always, but sometimes simply listening without judgement can be far more effective than any massive campaign we could launch.

When my friend finished venting his frustrations, he stopped and said, “You’re not saying anything.”

I replied, “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one and move on.”

At that point, he began asking me why I feel the way I do, and in a calm manner I laid out my position.

He was silent for a moment, and then said, “You probably think I’m a really selfish middle-class white guy, don’t you?”

I told him that only he could make that call, but that I did think we had very different assessments of the problem and possible solutions.

He exhaled as he said, “I work a million hours a week, and now that Anonymous has taken down servers, I’m working a million plus a thousand. I don’t have anymore to give!”

I summed up his position by saying, “You’re frustrated because what happened doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t understand the other side’s perspective, and you are frustrated because protesting the injustice has created a problem that is not only exhausting, it’s currently unsolvable.”

He sighed, and said, “Yeah, and now I’m afraid that if I can’t solve it, I’m going to get fired.”

We ended the conversation amicably – with me suggesting that maybe he could volunteer a few hours every month to teach people computer skills.

He laughed, and said, “If I’m not out looking for a new job.”

I don’t have an answer for the world’s problems (although, earlier this week I did suggest that perhaps forming peer editing groups, as we do in my English classes, might be the start of a solution), but I do know that all of the rage that people are directing at one another (whether deserved or undeserved) is making it harder to have any type of discussions about how to solve problems.

Perhaps, as difficult as it may be, the first step is to simply stop, look and listen – and then ask yourself what small action you could take; because in order to move mountains, you have to, at some point, begin by carrying stones.

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