How hard could it be? Just be nice to people. Yeah, just try to put other people’s needs in front of your own, and try to go out of your way to do nice things for them once in a while as well. Nobody expects you to be perfect at this, so all that’s required is that you try your best.
But what about real help? Some people need more than a shoulder to cry on, or a compliment sent their way. There are people out there who live in abject poverty, who live their lives in a constant state of malnutrition, or who struggle even to find a place to keep out of the rain and the snow. Just “being nice” is not enough to be a decent human being. I have to do something to help these people. Well, it’s a good thing there are plenty of charities set up to do just that. Great! I’ll just send in my money, let them do what they’re best at, and continue being a nice guy in my everyday life.
But what happens if those charities aren’t actually helping? What if paying to ship thousands of crates of free rice to developing countries only ends up stifling the ability of the local farmers to sell their own food? What if these charities keep the people they are trying to help in a constant state of dependency? Shouldn’t we be trying to help people be self-sufficient and autonomous? But then, that means I’ve given money that ended up harming the well-being of others, instead of helping. Oh no! How can I be a decent human being if my efforts are having the opposite effect of what I wanted?
Perhaps it’s just a matter of better research. Not all charities can be bad, right? So I’ll spend some time and make sure the money I spend is going toward a charity that is doing good work. I’ll give money to charities that are making real individuals self-sufficient. The money I spend will make people better off and ensure that they have a higher quality of life.
But what about the long-term? What happens if I spend money on vaccinations, but then those people grow up and have children and those kids wind up in the same desperate situation? I have to do more than just help individuals. I have try to change the structure surrounding them to permanently remove the barriers they face. I have to help lift whole groups out of poverty, rather than pulling one individual out just to push another back down. Decent human beings have to be concerned about the long-term effects of their actions, not just the immediate consequences.
So now what? I’m committed to fighting the structural barriers that keep people in poverty. But what are those? Where do I find that out? And how come everyone seems to have their own opinions on what those barriers are? Is it rich people? Is it Western imperialism? Is it their own laziness? Is it capitalism? Is it rampant consumerism? And how do I find out what these barriers are without a Ph.D. in…everything? I guess I just need to learn. But learn about what? Where do I start? And to whom do I listen?
Perhaps the people who might know best what is keeping people in poverty are those who are actually in poverty. But how do I find out what they think when they live on the other side of the world? Perhaps I should look to other oppressed groups and see if they face similar struggles. Maybe they can shed some insight. And a decent human being would try to help them as well anyway. So let’s find some oppressed groups.
Women? Alright, I’ll learn about feminism. Visible minorities? Alright, I’ll learn about racism and civil rights as well. How about people with disabilities? I’ll try to learn about disability and ableism. Gays and lesbians? I suppose I should learn about the LGBT movement.
Boy, the list keeps getting longer. And each one of these issues is so complex! How am I ever going to have time to learn about and listen to all these people? All I wanted was to be a decent human being, but it seems like the task is getting so large. I need to know about economics, about power dynamics, about laws, about rights, about oppression, about stereotypes and prejudice, about intersectionality, about privilege, about “othering”, about human needs and values, about politics, about history. I need to read the literature of feminists and capitalists and communists and anarchists and anti-racists and homosexuals. I need to learn what it is like to live as a person in poverty, as a woman, as a gay man, as a transgendered person, as a sex worker, as an indigenous person, and any sort of combination of those as well.
My head is spinning. Where does it end? All I wanted was to make a difference. All I wanted was to be a good person, a nice person, a decent person. But it seems like being such a person is a full-time job that takes a lifetime of work. And in the meantime, as I learn, every action I take has the potential to be unintentionally hurtful, harmful, hateful, or horrible. My goal was simple, but the task seems unimaginably immense.
I never thought it would be so hard to be a decent human being.