No Lives Matter

Nothing will really change in the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens unless we stop shouting and start working to change at the personal, family, and community level. True change, lasting change, will only happen from the bottom-up.

There are currently 7,442,922,000 people on this planet (as of today, August 12, 2016 at around 4:00 PM EST). 265,000 have been born and 110,00 have died in the last 16 hours.

I know about 600 people. At least that’s what the New York Times[1] says the average American knows, and I’m pretty average. Another somewhat weaker estimate[2] is that the average person will meet about 10,000 others in their lifetime. Some of these people will develop a close relationships, and move into that inner circle of 600, and some will just be like ships passing in the night.

I have really close relationships and care very deeply about an even smaller number of people. I love my family and my close friends. If anything happened to my spouse, to my kids, I would be devastated. I would grieve. I would mourn. I don’t know if I would ever be the same again. I would not be nearly as upset about some of the other 600 people that I know. While I would miss them, I would not mourn the way I would if they were someone really close. Someone dear to me.

Now, what about the 110,000 people that died so far today? I don’t know any them. I am not mourning. I cannot “care” about them because I do not know them. And this is a good thing! If I had to bear the same pain as losing my spouse, losing my parents, losing my children for each and every one of these 110,000 people my soul would be crushed. I would not be able to survive even for a single day. I think that holds for most people.

So do lives matter to me? I mean really matter? A small, insignificant number of them do — terribly so. But that number is just so unbelievably small. Let’s say I can kid myself into believing that I know and care about all 10,000 of the people I will cross paths with in my lifetime as if they were my family. That is still only 0.0001% of the Earth’s population, less than 0.003% of the US population. It’s less than rounding error. It’s effectively zero.

By any objective measure, on a planetary scale, we are oblivious to almost everyone’s birth, life and death. We are blissfully unaware of their daily struggles, of their joy, of their sorrow. Their lives do not personally matter to us in any meaningful, emotional way.

Let’s face it. While our travel and communications technologies have made the world a much smaller place, biology still works pretty much the same as it always has. We are still wired much the same as our ancestors from a million years ago. We think, feel, and interact locally. We feel strongest about the people we live with and interact with every day. We care deeply about our families. The rest of the planet? Not so much.

The problem is that when you try to care about all of it, you really end up caring about none of it. There is that famous quote from Joseph Stalin: “ The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” We humans simply don’t have the emotional capacity to care at that level. We move from caring at a personal, human emotional level to grappling with statistics.

Yes, these deaths do matter in that more abstract sense. They do matter in a discussion on how we can create and live on a planet and in a society that encourages and promotes the higher qualities of human nature: liberty, fairness, fellowship, understanding, and service toward others. But, they don’t — and can’t — matter in a close personal and direct way. We will learn their names if the media decides they are “newsworthy”. We will learn a precious little about their circumstances (whatever the media deems important to tell us and no more). But we can’t know them and care for them in the way that we would if they were in our circle of 600.

I went to run errands the other day after checking Facebook and being buried in yet another mountain of posts shared by “outraged” white suburban people arguing over black lives vs. blue lives vs. all lives. There were lots of charges of “white privilege” flying back and forth — lot’s of value signing and smugness of the “I care more than you” variety. Lot’s of charges that “it’s systemic”, and “something has to be done”. Then, while conducting my errands, I listened to a story on the radio recounted by a refugee from the Congo who witnessed a woman being chased down by a mob. They put a tire over her head, pinning her arms to her side, doused her in gasoline, and set her on fire. This was horrible, unspeakable cruelty. Worse than anything that happened in Dallas or Baltimore or Baton Rouge. And it was for the most banal of reasons. It wasn’t because of something she did. It wasn’t her race. She belonged to the wrong tribe. The wrong family.

So what should I be outraged about? Ferguson? Baltimore? Baton Rouge? Dallas? Nice? Syria? Africa? All of it? The story I heard on the radio was much more upsetting. Yet, all the outrage on social media is silent on this particular cruelty. It happened years ago. It’s not “trending”. It’s forgotten — but I can’t seem to forget it.

This is why I don’t understand the shouting contest. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Lot’s of posturing. Lot’s of accusations. Of course all these lives matter, but more in that abstract, intellectual sense. We can “know” that they matter. But no, they don’t really matter in any sort of emotional, visceral sense to most of the other people on the planet. We cannot “feel” that they matter if we do not know them.

And to pretend that we do is the worst form of self-serving hypocrisy.

This is not to say that these are not issues that need to be dealt with. We need to work together to solve these problems. But we are not going to make any progress at all by demonstrating, by marching, by shouting slogans at each other. The problems will still exist unchanged once the outrage, the emotional energy is spent. The media will get bored and move on to something else — and we will all follow. Arguing over whether Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter accomplishes nothing. Solves nothing. Changes nothing.

So, we should all try to think and act more locally. The vast majority of us will have very little impact on Ferguson, or Chicago, or Baton Rouge — mainly because we are not from Ferguson, or Chicago, or Baton Rouge. The problems there are going to best be addressed and solved by the people that live there, not by outsiders imposing their opinions on Facebook and Twitter. Not by demonstrations in distant cities.

However, we can all have a huge impact locally.. We can work to be good neighbors and good friends. We can treat everyone we directly meet with openness, respect, fairness and justice. We can assume, and expect, and insist on the same from our friends and neighbors. We can make an effort to get to know those who serve in our local communities and help them to get to know us. We can try to be good citizens in our local communities. We can raise our children to be open and tolerant of others. We can instill our children with a sense of duty and of service. We can work to be of service to others in our community.

We need to remember that our reach is small. Our capacity for caring, deeply caring, is limited by our puny human scale. On a global scale — even on a national scale — lives don’t matter. They can’t matter except in the abstract.

But if we each do our best with what is within our reach. If we resolve to give our best to those within our circle of 600 and within our local communities — if we strive to be our best to the 10,000 people we may meet in our lifetimes we can make a difference.

If we all do that — or even if just a portion of the 7.5 billion people on this planet do that, then just maybe we can move from No Lives Matter to All Lives Matter — and the world will be a better place.

[1] New York Times, New York edition, February 19,2013, page D7