Trouble shooting is an essential skill for growth and development. We cannot overcome troubles if we do not first identify them and any change, either personal or societal, only happens after we recognize then address existing and potential problems. A discerning eye and critical mind are crucial assets but like all good things they can be taken too far eventually becoming problems themselves. Trouble shooting and perpetually finding fault are not the same thing.
Trying to affect any significant social change is a process fraught with all manner of challenges and obstacles to overcome. Two of the most important which are also incredibly difficult to achieve and manage are the breaking of silence and starting to integrate actual change once the problem has been recognized. The first can take generations or can happen in an instant, the second always takes far longer than we would like all the while remaining infuriatingly fragile.
There is no shortage of examples to choose from when it comes to societal struggles for change however a particular genre of struggle which has become far more central in our common discourse over the past couple of decades has been issues of minority identity and the societal treatment thereof.
Race, religious persuasion, gender, sexuality, there are any number of different forms of minority identity which have suffered from negligence, suppression, abuse, or even attempted genocide at the hands of empowered majorities. Throughout history those in positions of power have declared their personal traits and characteristics to be ‘normal’ and in all too many cases then acted to diminish or even outright eliminate those who differ.
This phenomenon gets all the more exacerbated when the difference encountered has been previously unknown. Explorers with greater wealth and military technology quickly become conquerors, religious missionaries become crusaders, attempts at ethical mentoring become inquisitions.
Over and over again far too many groups and communities which have found themselves outside the declared norms of the times have been subjected to absolutely abhorrent behavior. Enforced segregation, sanctioned discrimination, legalized slavery, criminalization. One of the greatest shames our species caries with us is the staggering number of people for whom being different has wound up being a death sentence.
Not all discrimination escalates to the point of overt and fatal violence. Some of its manifestations can be insidiously subtle enabling them to become subliminally woven into common social attitudes, practices, and structures only visible to those victimized by them.
As a result an enormous and difficult part of breaking silence and raising awareness ends up being the exposing and dismantling of these ingrained discriminatory attitudes and practices. Much of the defensive backlash to such efforts comes from genuine shock and dissonance over being told actions learned as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ have in fact been causing harm. It is far easier to discredit the accusation than accept the weight of unintended consequences.
The shocked defensiveness can be understandable to a degree and there must always be at least some room for acknowledging a prior lack of knowledge or information. Some degree of shock is to be expected but once the reality of the problem has been revealed and illustrated persisting in harmful behaviors under the auspices of ‘that is just the way things have always been’ forfeits any forgiveness on account of being uninformed. Choosing to remind ignorant is not the same as not knowing any better.
Thus trying to break silence and raise awareness can be an exhausting, drawn out, and often cyclical struggle. Having to inform despite the backlash then re-inform and re-inform then re-validate and re-validate can be maddening and soul-depleting. We can end up feeling like all we do is spend our lives grabbing people by the ears and forcing them to see and acknowledge things which ought to be obvious or at least clear once pointed out.
It is vitally important to note that any identification of a problem is only as effective as the solution it then seeks to achieve. Merely pointing out a problem does not make it then cease to exist, even if it is fully and genuinely acknowledged. Generating awareness is only the first step and will ultimately generate nothing but conflict unless it is followed by the laborious and time consuming processes of affecting sustainable change.
The larger the scale of change we are seeking the longer it takes due in large part to the greater number of people, and minds and attitudes, we will need to bring along with us. Even if it were to go smoothly large scale informing and reframing takes time. Time during which the impacts of the previous paradigms and practices will continue to occur. It would be wonderful if when the light turns green all cars simply start moving forward simultaneously and swiftly but it takes time for progress to make its way to the cars towards the back of the line.
Thus those who push for change and progress can wind up spending most of their time constantly pointing out problems, educating in order to validate, weathering resistance of varying intensities, and then doing it all again with the next group.
Anything we do constantly becomes a habit, for good or for ill. As well intentioned and necessary as the work of raising awareness is if we spend all of our time looking for and pointing out what is wrong it winds up being the only lens through which we view everything in our lives. Nothing in life is perfect, there will always be problems in any scenario. If we spend all of our time fixated on the problems eventually problems will be the only things we ever see in anything.
Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to him who searches for it.
Or if you prefer a less Biblical form -
Don’t look for trouble, because troubles look for being found by those who look for them!
Mehmet Murat Ildan
We’ve all encountered those folks whose only response to any and every situation is to point out all the things which are wrong with it. It can be the result of insecurity lashing out in an attempt to feel powerful, it can even be done in a genuine spirit of wanting to help, but critical input is only helpful if it is aimed at finding a solution not merely an indictment of guilt.
Demanding to know ‘what you are going to do about it’ might sound like it is seeking to enforce a necessary change, and it can seductively feel that way, but it is a stance far more invested in assigning ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ than it is in affecting actual change.
Those who spend their time looking for the faults in others usually make no time to correct their own.
The unfortunate truth is that the burden of effort will always fall to those who are seeking change. Is that fair? Most often not, especially in cases of oppressed minorities. Those who have been harmed by a norm should not then have to do virtually all of the initially heavy lifting in raising awareness as well as the lion’s share of the educating, mentoring, and shepherding of the gradual processes of change. But they do.
In the face of such draining work sources of motivation and stamina can be rare and precious but there are no shortcuts. We have to be careful we don’t fall in to the trap of letting ourselves become so incensed by the unfairness that resentful accusation becomes our only mode and tone.
The anger and exhaustion are natural and understandable but if we become consumed by them we wind up blind to anything beyond the sting of the latest perceived slight.
Rising above and looking beyond are admirable notions and easy enough to say but can be incredibly difficult to accomplish in the heat of the moment, facing angry backlash and ongoing harm. Resigning ourselves to unchanging norms, no matter how harmful, however is not the answer regardless of how compellingly it may be argued by those resisting change.
Identifying and exposing problems will always be a necessary part of the solution but only if the solution remains the genuine goal. If through habit, insecurity, or power hunger all we are interested in is identifying and indicting problems the only thing we will accomplish is placing name tags on problems thereby increasing the tally of identified wrongs.
There is no prize for finding the most faults. If ‘what is wrong with it?’ is the only question we ask our only reward will be name-tagged problems and further confrontation. Genuine, beneficial, and sustainable change requires ‘what can we do about it?’
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
I’ll just leave that one there.