I finished an excellent book recently titled Global Values 101, edited by Kate Holbrook, Ann S. Kim, Brian Palmer, and Anna Portnoy. It is based on a course at Harvard University titled Personal Choice and Global Transformation, in which individuals visit the class for in-class interviews about their thoughts on confronting the injustices in the world. The book consists of excerpts from 16 of these interviews, including some with well-known individuals such as Howard Zinn and Katha Pollit. I sometimes feel hopeless in the face of so many global problems such as war, hunger, and oppression of women, and it was inspiring to read about the ideas and hope of the people interviewed. I frequently had the thought “yes, exactly!” as I was reading because the interviewees put into words thoughts or feelings I have had but had not been able to articulate. For example, Howard Zinn discusses how it is that individual humans can go to war and send off bombs that kill thousands of people:
You make one judgment at the very beginning of your participation in the war, the judgment that I am on the right side. There is Hitler or Saddam Hussein. Once you make that decision – they are the bad guys, we are the good guys, you don’t have to think anymore. No more judgments have to be made, no more reconsideration. You have already decided everything, and at that point, you can do whatever you want without thinking about it. That is how you get the bombing of civilians in enormous numbers in Dresden, a hundred thousand dead in Tokyo in one night, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Once you recognize that the people sending down these bombs are just normal people and not unusually cold-hearted maniacs, you can begin to look at things in a different light. In general, trying to think about things in a new way or from a different point of view can be enlightening, as Elaine Scarry points out in her example of symmetrical thinking:
It is important to find ways of practicing symmetrical thinking, and the piece … “A Nuclear Double Standard,” provides an example of our tendency to think nonsymmetrically. They have one weapon under way and not yet made. We have thousands of weapons already made. Yet their not-yet-made weapon is monstrous, monstrous enough to warrant international or national force, whereas our thousands of weapons do not seem to make us criminal in our own minds. We can say that this is in part because we trust that these would never be used. But we have to then say, “What if we were living someplace else where we were potentially on the receiving end rather than giving end? Would it look like they couldn’t be used?”
She goes on to discuss how most presidents in the past 60 years have come closer to using nuclear weapons than the public thinks. As a final sample from the book, Jennifer Leaning demands that we recognize our privileged status:
We have no excuse not to recognize that we are unutterably privileged, and whatever flick of fate meant that you were born here and not in many parts of the world … does not give you any reason to think that they matter less than you do.
Reading the discussions in this book make me feel more hopeful, as it shows me that there are many intelligent people out there who have ideas for how things could be different and are taking action towards change. Although I have not yet figured out how I can be most effective in creating change, it is important to me to recognize my privileged status and to make use of that status to fight the injustices of the world.