Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Taking Action on Inaction

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, June 14 / 21

Zack Gross

After another month, since my last column, of COVID and climate change denial, grim historical discoveries related to Canada’s history with the Indigenous People of this land, and hate-fuelled violence against minority cultures, in this case Muslims in London, Ontario, the question might arise “Why doesn’t someone do something?” Or, maybe, putting it in the past tense too, “Why Didn’t Somebody Do Something?”

Those of us who do try to “do things” for people and for the planet – not always enough, not always exactly the right things – struggle with that question but don’t always analyze why our societies, our human population, doesn’t match up to what is required of us to change the iniquities we face.  I’ve had a few what are called “Ah-Hah!” moments over the years, in reading and hearing certain speakers, to help me understand the challenge of moving all of us to action.

This article is not to excuse those people or ideas that slow action on the challenges facing humanity.  Rather, if we can list and examine them, maybe we can find ways to take action on inaction.  A writer named Peter Singer, who has focused mostly on animal welfare and environmental issues, authored a book called The Life You Can Save, which I read and recommended to my university students. Although the book encourages people to take action on issues like poverty, for me the most powerful chapter was about why people don’t take action. 

Another American author, Isabel Wilkerson more recently wrote the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontent which looks at why the US has such extreme political alienation and contention.  That country is a huge, powerful contradiction, filled with extreme wealth and poverty, extreme regressive and progressive views, diversity and racism, liberty and limited opportunity.

I know people who just don’t recycle, who won’t get their COVID vaccine shot, who think and speak negatively of people whose racial origins are different from theirs, who are suspicious of charity, who think all politicians are crooks, and on and on.  Some of that attitude comes from a person’s upbringing, although a person may, as they grow up, go in the opposite direction, too.  A very progressive-minded person may come from a very conservative-minded family, and vice-versa.

Many people just don’t know what is going on.  They may be focused entirely on their job or their family, or may not follow daily news.  Making history and some form of current issues or civics a mandatory course in high school, or throughout schooling, would help.  I had a student who, when I assigned a book review on global issues, came up to my desk and told me that she doesn’t read, especially non-fiction.  She wanted to know what she could do instead?

When we talk to people about living in a fairer society, many may be thinking “Well, life hasn’t been fair to me, so why should I care?”  If you are working three jobs, making minimum wage, scrimping to pay for food, rent and other basics, you may not be ready to hear about helping others.  “I’ve got my own problems”, they might say.  But, many of us, in fact have a feeling of entitlement and don’t realize how privileged we really are.  As Spider-man says, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Some people see life as dog-eat-dog – it’s either them or me!  Some people defend their position in life by believing that they worked harder and lived smarter than the person who is not doing well.  I’ve had a few people tell me that they worship the right God, so they’ve done well in life.  Some people don’t see that the rules are for them as well as everyone else, like the dog-walker who doesn’t carry a small, plastic bag.

Being able to empathize with those who are suffering is a key ingredient to taking social responsibility.  If it isn’t happening to them, some folks are unable to grasp what it feels like to face discrimination, poverty, unemployment or poor health.  When 215 children’s bodies are found, what do we feel?  When a family is mowed down by a truck, what do we feel?  Do we think “Those were our people?” or do we think “Those were their people

At the start of The Life You Can Save, Singer tells the story of a person headed to a job interview, wearing brand new, clean clothes and wanting to be punctual for this opportunity.  As he walks by a pond, he sees a child drowning and calling for help.  He hesitates.  He thinks, “I’ll be late and I’ll ruin my clothes, if I go save that child
.” What does he do?  What would you do?

Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Manitoba-based international development organization.

The Life You Can Save - available here as a free e-book or audio book.

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