Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Courtney Martin writes of an interesting cultural
phenomenon at the Development Set blog
on Medium. She calls it, "The Reductive Seduction of Other
People's Problems." I'll set aside: (1) my major differences with the
author on the morality of
altruism, (2) the whole notion of "privilege," and (3) how an education that fails
to challenge the young might breed this kind of thinking
error. Instead, I'll focus on the broadly-applicable:
If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it's a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.This phenomenon isn't restricted to the young and idealistic, or to busybodies: It can happen to people of genuine goodwill, and exactly for the reasons Martin notes, be it ignorance of the "unknown unknowns" of the "new" problem or acclimation to (or even a feeling of being overwhelmed by) more familiar problems.
But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda's -- rural hunger or girl's secondary education or homophobia -- she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.
I've begun to think about this trend as the reductive seduction of other people's problems. It's not malicious. In many ways, it's psychologically defensible; we don't know what we don't know.
But Martin's altruistic persuasion causes her to miss something anyone can use: The same sort of thing can happen with regard to one's own problems. Who hasn't had a longstanding or difficult-to-address problem and felt the pull of an exciting, new project at the expense of working on it? There can be a sense of excitement, and an anticipation of personal efficacy that can come with embarkation on a new project, and which will make the new seem a refuge from the old. (This isn't always mistaken, but it can be.) But the new project, too, will bring disappointment if it isn't properly addressed, as becomes apparent from Martin's piece. This is not to say that a new project is always a bad idea: If attacked properly, the experience can help on in many other areas of life, including even the problem one ran from or put off before.