How many of you are old enough to remember "We Didn't Start The Fire," that shit-awful Billy Joel song in which he unconvincingly insists over and over that he didn't cause the apocalypse?
Well, what I am finding as time goes on is that we are all secretly Billy Joel. Write an article on the Internet about racism or sexism, and there's always this annoyed backlash. "I did not cause slavery! I'm a white guy who works for minimum wage at Comcast, running the Random Call Disconnection machine! Would you please just move on so we can finally talk about something else?"
Then, every reply to that guy seems to come down to, "No, you really don't get it! Slavery and Jim Crow weren't just bad, they were really, really bad!" And then he rolls his eyes because, well, who doesn't know that? "But I still didn't start that fire. Don't make me flip this table!"
Personally, I think everyone's understanding of these problems is completely backward. And I think that's why people feel like they're never getting satisfying answers to questions like ...
#5. "Why Do People Shit On Me Just Because I'm (White/Male/Straight/Etc.)?"
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I'm going to tell you the weirdest and, yet, most obviously true thing you've ever heard:
You're not a person.
This is going to sound like some real Rust Cohle shit, but bear with me because deep down you already know all of this.
For instance, you already know that you are, to a certain degree, a product of your genes -- they go a long way toward determining if you would be physically imposing or weak, smart or stupid, calm or anxious, energetic or lazy, and fat or thin. What your genes left undecided, your upbringing mostly took care of -- how you were raised determined your values, your attitudes, and your religious beliefs. And what your genes and upbringing left undecided, your environment rounded into shape -- what culture you were raised in, where you went to school, and who you were friends with growing up. If you had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you would be a different person today. If the Nazis had won World War II, you would be a different person, still.
God knows we would be different.
So, even when personal choices finally come into play, you're still choosing within that framework -- you can choose between becoming a poet or a software engineer, but only because you were raised in a world in which other people had already invented both poetry and computers. That means every single little part of your life -- every action, every choice, every thought, every emotion, every plan for the future, everything that you are and do and can potentially be -- is the result of things other people did in the past.
These mostly dead people shaped every little molecule of you and the world you inhabit. You are the product of what they did, just as they were the product of those who came before them. You are, therefore, not a person any more than a leaf is a tree. It makes far more sense to think of yourself as one part of a whole (the "whole" being every human who has ever lived) than as an individual -- you benefit from the whole's successes, and you pay for its mistakes as if they were your own -- whether you want to or not.
As evidenced by you being the one to read this on your laptop, rather than being the one who paid pennies to assemble it.
This is not abstract philosophy, this is not something you can choose to believe or not believe -- this is a statement of physical fact. Refusing to acknowledge it will only leave you endlessly confused and frustrated. For instance, when you show up at a job interview, or a trial, or the set of a porno, that whole context will walk in the door with you. Everyone in that room will be making certain assumptions about you and will hold certain expectations, based on the greater whole of which you are a part.
That means you can't think of your life as a story. You have to think of it as one sentence in a much longer story ... a sentence that doesn't make any sense out of context. But, understand the context, and you will understand your life.
Very few people are really able to do this -- I sure as hell can't -- which is why we get frustrated and say things like ...
#4. "Why Is Everything Always Getting Worse?"
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Let's talk about that "story" for a moment, the one we're all a part of. Here's the first thing you need to know about it:
That shit has gotten weird.
If you don't believe me, let me show it to you on a simple line graph:
McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books
That's a world population graph dating back over the last 2,000 years. Just look at it! Around 200 years ago, a freaking switch got flipped, and shit exploded. There is no comparing humanity over the last couple of centuries with anything that came before. It's like if you were driving home one day and saw that while you were gone, your goldfish had grown large enough to flatten the entire neighborhood.
But make no mistake: What you're seeing on the graph is humanity winning. Winning so hard that we're not even sure how to handle it. That up there is what every single species only wishes it could do. That kind of success requires utter mastery of the environment, food, health, and predators -- humanity just absolutely dunking over all we survey.
Focus On Sport/Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Eat shit, invertebrates.
You and I were born right in the middle of this unprecedented and unfathomable winning streak, during a series of changes that are whipping by at light speed, rendering what we think of as a "normal human life" utterly unrecognizable to someone living just 200 years ago. And change is terrifying. Lots of the old rules have gone out the window -- they were written for a different time, with different problems in mind. Lots of the timeless advice you hear was spoken by people who never anticipated the world you're living in. If you find all of the shit grown-ups say to you to be contradictory and confusing, that would be why.
For instance, this is why you will endlessly hear people confusingly talk about how great things used to be, about how men used to be "real" men, how food used to be "real" food, and how people used to make honest paychecks doing "real" work. This is, of course, objectively wrong -- they're referring to a time when humans didn't live as long, didn't have as much, and lived lives with fewer options.
"You can die from black lung disease, or you can drown as a fisherman -- choose wisely. Thus concludes career day."
All that happened is these people were raised under one set of rules, only to find the next generation "breaking" them. So, you get a grizzled old guy who remembers when a hard day's work meant sweat, sore muscles, and danger. He remembers how that day ended with a meal cooked by a subservient stay-at-home wife. When civilization advanced to put that dangerous job in the hands of a machine that can do it 10 times faster and to give the stay-at-home wife the chance to pursue a career, the guy sees that old life as the "real" one and this new world full of cubicles and political correctness as the world having gone "soft."
But, listen closely -- when he boasts that kids these days "have it easy," he's accidentally complimenting the world on its success. Making things easier is, after all, the goal. Which brings us to complaints such as ...
#3. "Why Do People Act Like Sexism/Racism/Etc. Are Rampant, When Even Mild Jokes About Those Things Will Ruin Your Career Now?"
One of the big reasons for that upward spike in humanity on the line graph is we started to figure out how to get the most out of humans. For instance, 1,000 years ago, if you were a genius born on a farm, it didn't matter -- it just meant you were going to be a genius who shoveled shit. Two hundred years ago, if you were a genius who was born as an African-American, it didn't matter -- you were going to live your life as a genius slave. A hundred years ago, if you were a genius who was born a female, it didn't matter -- you were going to be a genius who stayed home and changed diapers.
The upward surge in humanity has coincided with us taking down more and more of those arbitrary barriers because humanity realized it badly needs all those geniuses out in the field doing genius things. I don't even mean "Einstein" type geniuses -- humanity needs people who are geniuses at teaching, plumbing, repairing air conditioners, rapping, etc. And for millennia, we were arbitrarily telling 80 or 90 percent of our talented people that they had to sweep floors or dig ditches, purely because they weren't also born white male heterosexual Christians. Progress came when we started pushing for things such as universal education and literacy, along with rights for minorities and women to pursue careers and advanced degrees.
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Where upon they made breakthrough discoveries, such as "a penis is not required for chemistry."
Sure, we framed this as "equal rights" and a heroic triumph of empathy over bigotry, but the system always secretly had this other, selfish motive. It's no coincidence that desegregation started happening after World War II, when lots of white soldiers came home from having served alongside blacks and realized these guys were capable of greatness when given a chance. It's no coincidence women were only allowed to join the economy after that same war forced industries to turn to them in an absence of males -- and found they could do all sorts of shit that had nothing to do with raising babies or ironing shirts.
U.S. Office of War Information
It's hard not to take someone seriously when they can build their own goddamn tank.
All they needed was a chance. The advancement of society has, in fact, largely been measured in how good it is at giving people chances to be all they can be. And you can see where we are in that process by looking at what kind of chances people still don't have. (Hint: If you get shot by the cops at age 16 while committing a misdemeanor, you never had your "chance" -- giving people room to make youthful mistakes without dying is part of it.)
That brings us to the problem, which is that even though these changes unquestionably made the world better, the world still had to be dragged along kicking and screaming. The big flaw in humanity is that we always cling to short-term comfort over long-term prosperity (because we see ourselves as individuals, instead of part of a whole), and certain classes of people were benefiting from doing things the old way, even if humanity as a whole was not.
This is why there are still barriers up all over the place -- only 14 percent of top business executives are women, only 20 percent of Congress. A white person is almost twice as likely to have a college degree than a black one of the same age. You weren't born in the aftermath of the battle, you were born somewhere in the middle of it.
lofilolo/iStock/Getty Images, Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"I'm going to do everything I can to help my kids get ahead!" isn't such a
positive sentiment for all of the other kids who get pushed back for that to happen.
And that is the confusing part for most people reading this. All of those numbers in the above paragraph are, after all, way better than they were a century ago. We've clearly improved. So, when some white kid on Facebook starts asking why there isn't a White History Month, it's because, in his lifetime, he's seen that minorities and other marginalized groups have made greater gains relative to his own, without realizing they're still not on his level. He's only seen the part of the game in which these groups have scored the last five touchdowns, but is missing the fact that the score was 64-0 when that streak started.
And once again, it's for the same reason: That guy (and all of us, really) instinctively thinks history began with his own birth. That's why if you start talking about the history of Jim Crow and gas-lighting and anti-sodomy laws they'll say ...