“If You Do Nothing, Do It On Purpose”
by David Cain
“Well here we are, folks. For the last two weeks, whenever I go through my social media feeds I see more and more people wondering aloud why so many of their peers are remaining apolitical, while half the world wakes up and goes to bed in a state of horror about what the US president has just done or will do next. This is not a current events-related blog, and it will stay that way. But it would feel strange not to acknowledge what is presently unfolding in the government of the world’s most powerful nation.
I presume people come to this site because they share my interest in human well-being. I cover everything from outsmarting your bad habits, to being a better stranger, to imagining your neighborhood in the post-apocalypse. It’s an eclectic mix, but all of it has to do with how human views and motivations affect the experience of this planet’s inhabitants.
We all care about human well-being, even if we don’t think of it in those terms. So I can understand why politics fans sometimes ask why I seldom discuss current events here, given that public policy has such a direct effect on human well-being. Well, it’s because it works more powerfully the other way around. In the strictest sense, the word politics refers to the affairs of government. But even the affairs of government hinge directly on states of mind—what beliefs and emotions are swirling, at breakfast and at bedtime, in the heads of our leaders and the people who vote them in, pay for their campaigns and clap at their speeches.
The human world is interconnected all the way from how our minds wander during our commutes to the laws we live under. Laws and institutions are the direct products of how human beings think and how they respond to their experiences. Every human action feeds this process, whether it’s consciously political or not. As many have argued, everything we do is political. Your Facebook habits are political. Your diet is political. Your meditation regimen is political.
We only care about politics, in the strict sense, because of its effect on well-being. Generally, I see current events—as in what’s popular in the news—as too far down the causal chain to be the best place for a typical citizen to apply much leverage to how things unfold.
The root of bad choices: When it comes to the health of humanity, I see our current political details are the leaves of the tree, our habits and lifestyles the branches, our beliefs the trunk, and our direct relationship with moment-to-moment mental and physical experience as the root. The leaves are the most visible part, the part to which we have the most visceral and immediate reactions. We most easily fixate our concerns here, often at the expense of everything else. We occasionally acknowledge the branches these leaves are growing from, and the trunk that holds them up. It’s uncommon to pay much attention to the root, or even be aware of it.
Pruning rotten leaves improves overall appearance and may prevent some short-term problems, but leaves intact the disease behind the rot. Direct political action is indispensable but it seldom addresses the deeper problems that make it necessary—the unskillful way we human beings tend to manage our emotions, beliefs, and other elements of our subjective experience.
Naturally, it’s more efficient to work further down, with the overall health of the organism in mind. The further down this causal network we make our improvements, the deeper and more lasting the effects. There’s no question in my mind that turning someone on to meditation or self-skepticism influences the proceedings of the human experiment many times more profoundly than changing their mind on a proposition vote.
Fighting bad policy is a good thing, but it begins to seem like a treadmill if we don’t recognize that bad policy stems from our species’s underdeveloped powers of self-reflection, critical thinking and compassion. Until we begin to see our problems as existing on that level, we have an infinite capacity to produce bad policy. Our species has serious problems indeed, much more serious than a bad regime. History is almost nothing but bad regimes.
There is a drawback to addressing humanity’s problems at the deeper level though, and we shouldn’t overlook it: it takes a lot longer. I really do believe our species is becoming wiser and less vulnerable to tyranny over the decades and centuries. But drastic policies create drastic and immediate effects, and people (as well as international relations) are already suffering. The US government is showing signs of a bullrush towards autocracy, the threat of which is exactly why the system features a president instead of a king.
Doing means deciding: Many conversations I’ve had in the last two weeks have at some point gravitated to US politics, eventually landing on the implied or explicit question, “Ok, this is bad. What do we do?” The tone of everyday current-events talk has changed. People not normally disposed to direct political action have been talking, donating, protesting, organizing, losing sleep.
Whatever you think of marches and protests, they’ve demonstrated that there’s an enormous amount of energy available, at least for the moment, to do something. But this energy will dissipate over the coming weeks and months as shockingly stupid executive orders from an emotionally-stunted president become less shocking.
The danger that this willingness to act will fade is especially acute because it’s happening in a country that isn’t used to drastic regime changes, and people don’t know what to do. So the urgency is real, and each of us will, inescapably, respond to the American political crisis in some way, even that response is to do nothing. Another danger, which I try to point out frequently, is the belief that simply following the news is a meaningful form of participation. Consuming news alone can quench the need to feel involved, while you remain a spectator. Doing nothing might make perfect sense to you. It’s a valid response. But if we’re going to do nothing we should ask ourselves honestly whether we’re doing it on purpose, or simply out of inertia.
The US situation means something different to each of us, depending on where we’re from, what our beliefs are, and where we get our information. My views are obvious and I’m certainly not taking for granted that you share them. Some of you may even be pleased with the new order, while others will find it no bigger a deal than a dozen other political emergencies happening in the world at any given time. I won’t argue with anyone on that level.
That’s not the point though. The point is that with most issues we care about, when we don’t act it’s not usually because we’ve decided not to, but because we never made a point of deciding. Decisions are by definition conscious—they don’t happen accidentally. Even if you aren’t at all moved by the American situation, that danger is there for every issue you do care about.
I’m not coming to you as an organizer of grassroots action; as I said above I’m not accustomed to working on that part of the organism. But if you feel some moral urgency about responding to this new administration, here are some practical, what-to-actually-do ideas from Harry Smith, a 93-year-old activist and political commentator, and some other seasoned figures. I share these in case you’re missing that all-important starting point. Go with what seems genuine to you. Be skeptical and smart.
Beyond writing this article, I haven’t decided what to do next, but it will be a single, focused role. There are a lot of issues with this administration—immigration policy, climate policy, open contempt for the press, a 20-billion-dollar fence—and it makes sense to apply your energy to one rather than all. Or maybe you’ll decide you do want to work on a different part of the tree, somewhere else in the world, on some other level of the human well-being game.
So with this or any other issue that moves you: do something, or do nothing, but in either case, do it on purpose.”