At a dinner party I recently hosted (please find me a more Oxbridge manner to open an article) a friend expressed excitement at the prospect of us soon being able to enter the real world. It’s a world we will no doubt change. I was shocked by her candid enthusiasm. I had long ago given up any hope of improving the world; even self-improvement had begun to seem to me somewhat naïve. But when had I become so apathetic?
It is infinitely easier to care about something that affects you directly. However deep your knowledge is of issues of racism, sexism or (bi)(homo)(trans)phobia – there is a phenomenal difference between an abstract understanding and first-hand experience. Whilst almost all LGBT+ people living in Britain will have experienced some form of discrimination it’s impossible to imagine yourself in the situation of people enduring increasing levels of the same – albeit far more violent – forms persecution in Russia or in much of Africa. Indeed such a level of empathy would be crippling. In order to function from day to day we have to shut off large, unpleasant aspects of our own lives and so living with the burdens of others would be nigh impossible.
But is this instinct, necessary for everyday survival, dooming us in the long run?
Short-termism is a fact of human existence. When you’re dieting, for example, the prospect of an immediately gratifying slice of cake is almost always more appealing than the idea that denying yourself it might contribute in some small way to achieving weight loss in the future. Similarly, on a much grander scale, we understand that the modern human lifestyle, in the West particularly, is deeply unsustainable, but the consequences of massive climate change are so alien to our understanding whilst central heating and red meat are so tangible that it is all but impossible to conceive change in modern life necessary for sustainability.
After realising these arbitrary limits on our capacity to imagine and bring about change, does it not become rather difficult to hold – let alone pursue – a desire to improve the world?
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that a person who hadn’t found something they were prepared to die for wasn’t fit living. And my favourite explanation as to why I don’t attend demonstrations is that I don’t hold any beliefs for which I’d be prepared to risk being rained on.
Of course democratic participation does exist; you might point to the 84.6% turnout in the recent Scottish referendum as an example of how people, and in particular young people, can be encouraged to participate in politics. However there is a difference between going to a voting booth once in your lifetime to make a decision that will profoundly and immediately affect your and being able to unflinchingly face the major problems that we as a species face. Indeed, the fact that it was felt necessary to comment on an 84.6% turnout in a poll endlessly described as a, “once-in-a-lifetime,” event is perhaps testimony to a general lack of interest in engaging with the world around us.
So what is the solution? A friend recently said to me that she felt nihilism was a luxury belonging to the 19th century – an utterly unsustainable standpoint to take in the modern world. A luxury because only those whose lives are not in desperate need of improvement can reject the possibility of change. Others simply have to try to believe in it. And even for those in relative comfort, parroting – and miscontextualising – the idea that God is dead becomes rather trite and hollow when you are not prepared to do anything to improve the world in His absence. And we live now in a world where, thanks to mass media, we can see our actions and their consequences more clearly than ever before. Ignorance of the world’s problems is increasingly difficult to maintain.
I confess this piece started off almost as a mea culpa, ostentatiously beating my chest instead of trying to do anything productive. But I feel that understanding that you are incapable of addressing all the world’s woes does not mean it’s pointless to try to improve one or two things. No one can be reasonably expected to improve trans* access to healthcare while securing living wage for workers in London and resolving ethnic tensions in the Central African Republic, but the wonderful thing about societal changes is that they’re a group effort. No one has to bring about change alone. And however spectacularly any attempt to engage with a problem fails, it can’t possibly be any more futile than trying to distance yourself from it. Although it perhaps sounds more even more cliché than anything that a Sartre-reading nihilist might come out with, we simply must believe that change is possible.
Eddie Angel studies Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge and is our Social Media Manager and Junior Treasurer at, “Get Real.” He is also the Cambridge University Student Union’s LGBT+ Communications Officer and is Emmanuel College LGBT+ representative