Social Responsibility

Published in Allyship / Featured - 10 mins to read

I picked a really bad year to stop reading the news - likely the worst year of my adult life so far - despite only just being in June, I feel like 2020 has already surpassed 2016 in terms of awful, terrible, no-good years. Initially the news topic which I felt a responsibility to consume was of course the coronavirus, but in the last week it has been the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in the US. While I tried largely not to write about the virus here as some kind of oasis from it, the only thing I have seen anyone talk about on the internet this week is the current civil unrest in the States, and I would feel uncomfortable not writing about it. To write about anything else would make it obvious I am avoiding the topic, and in so doing I might be silently complicit in perpetuating the problems underpinning it.

A lot of people have been talking about the responsibility they feel in regards to both being informed about the issues involved, and secondly taking positive steps in order to correct the injustice involved. Ultimately, I think that we have a responsibility to ourselves before we have a responsibility to others, and if you are already struggling and feeling overwhelmed, the news can bring an extra wave of despair that isn’t manageable. A lot of people are feeling this way in the wake of the pandemic, and I think we all deserve to cut ourselves a healthy amount of slack in these unprecedented times, and so in some circumstances I do think we can be absolved of some of our personal responsibilities. With that being said, I do think that a responsibility still exists, and that it’s important to draw the line between “I don’t have the emotional capacity to engage with this right now” and laziness and apathy. With lockdown restrictions easing around the world, it feels like there is a genuine possibility of change in a lot of ways, and so is there a way in which we (and by we I mean I) can engage with the news and with broader social issues without feeling overwhelmed, and in a way that can genuinely help?

I had a lot of initial hesitation in writing this blog, largely because I don’t want it to be about “me”, it is not my issue or my story to tell and I don’t want to try and inject myself into it (but that is somewhat inevitable when writing a blog), and also because I myself don’t feel I’m as informed as I should be - I haven’t been fulfilling my responsibility for the reasons described above. I spent some time today trying to read and understand more about the situation, and there is a lot of social injustice in the world. The first thing I thought to try and learn more about was the ongoing Hong Kong protests (which have now lasted for more than a year) where police brutality has also been a theme throughout. That was at one point gaining a lot of media attention and space in popular discourse, but has now largely died down. The story of up to a million Uighur Muslims in China being detained in internment camps was pretty much just a blip on the news, and I don’t recall many people talking about it (although maybe I am listening in the wrong places). According to Wikipedia, there are 12 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual acts are punishable by the death penalty. This does not include the scores more in which homosexuality is illegal with a lesser penalty or same-sex couples are not afforded the same rights under law as hetero couples. Similarly there are still many countries in which women do not have the same rights as men - I could go on.

The point I am trying to make is not that the issue of racism in America is any more or less important in comparison to these other issues - I think they are all important - and to some extent we have a responsibility in them all. But the current movement and protests has, as far as I can tell, captured the attention of such a significant portion of the Western consciousness in a way that none of those other issues have previously. Again I think this is a good thing - raising awareness about one area of social injustice can help in other areas too.

Fundamentally I think our social responsibility probably dilutes the further away from us the injustice is occuring. This is largely for practical reasons - nobody has time to be informed on every social issue in the world. If I tried to keep on top of the LGBTQ rights movements in the ~73 countries in which homosexuality is illegal, I would burn out and feel overwhelmed very quickly, and I suspect the majority of mentally-sturdier people would too. Our immediate surroundings are also where we can have the most impact - if I want to change the fact that in Brunei you can be killed by the state for engaging in consensual same-sex sexual acts, which actually I really, really do, the reality of the situation is that there’s not a lot I can try to move the needle. But, if I want to change attitudes in Guernsey, there is a far greater chance that I could make a difference, and then be spurred by my success to take further action.

So I think my responsibility for being informed about and acting upon issues of social inequality is greatest in Guernsey, then in the UK, and then further afield, including America. One of the reasons I think the George Floyd protests have captured the attention of so many non-American Western countries is perhaps because America is often a distillation of Western values and culture, taken to its logical conclusion. It is the most xyz at everything. Other Western countries have a shared history with the US (and with England before the existence of the USA), and the only thing separating many of them from being the States is (marginally) less polarised politics and a smaller economy. I think the initial responsibility I felt I had towards being informed about the protests has changed during the process of trying to fulfill it, and now I think/understand it more to be a responsibility to be informed on the same issues, but closer to home, with the current situation serving as a powerful example of both the kinds of injustice in the world and also the kind of action that can be taken against it. I think there’s more to solidarity than just saying “we stand with you against your problem”, and instead it is “we stand with you because we have the same problem”, which kinda seems obvious in retrospect, but if it initially wasn’t to me, then perhaps it isn’t to other people as well.

In my opinion the UK clearly has a similar issue with systematic, institutionalised racism than the US, even if it manifests itself in different forms. Islamophobia and Antisemitism are both still found in the highest level of British politics, so it’s unavoidable they are embedded into all levels of British society, and obviously they aren’t the only kind of racism found in Britain. Brexit and the current iteration of Conversative government have caused division rather than unity, and xenophobia has thrived. The echo chamber I’ve been privileged enough to live in had led me to believe for a long time that it was simply a generational problem, and in 40 years time my generation would all be accepting and inclusive, but the slightest bit of research into whether or not that was true has left the bubble thoroughly burst. I’ve yet to see much of the current discussion in British media regarding George Floyd translate into how Britain can do better - I haven’t looked as hard as I could, given I’ve been trying to protect myself from despair-fatigue a fair bit recently, so maybe it exists, but if it is truly not there then I hope that conversation will be brought to the forefront soon.

In Guernsey, I find it a lot harder to understand how racism affects our society, but after having read/thought about all this I want to learn more. Because the island is so predominantly Caucasian, I feel like I’ve seen few discussions about it, and it doesn’t appear to feature highly on political agendas or in the local news. I realise that a large part of this is probably due to me not seeking it out or being ignorant of it even when it is in front of me, and I am more than sure it exists here, even if I don’t have a comprehensive grasp on its form and effects. The conversations I have had with others in Guernsey about race have been exceptionally fleeting - the only thing that springs to mind was an Indian colleague joking about getting “randomly” searched at the airport, which was one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke. At school, all bar two in our year were white, and I can’t remember a single conversation about race for my whole time there.

In terms of fulfilling my social responsibility in a way that doesn’t seem daunting and potentially overwhelming, engaging closer to home seems the way to go. The issues are smaller and more manageable, and it is possible to actually see change. I can’t solve racism in America - maybe I can make my workplace a more inclusive environment though. I think my obligation is to be informed about my local community first, and the global community second, and I think there are certainly things I can do in my local community. The obvious one that applies to everyone is of course to vote, which probably has the best effort:effect ratio of any of the things one could do. I can listen, and not only listen passively, but seek out new voices to listen to that I might not otherwise. I can try to influence local politicians and decision makers - in this time of stress the idea of writing a strongly worded letter to a States of Guernsey member who gets paid by the taxpayer to peddle lazy, selfish opinions and policy sounds quite cathartic.

And I can talk about it. When I started thinking about this today, my intuitive reaction to a lot of the way people talk about it was quite a cynical one - I was perhaps quick to paint people with the “slacktivist” brush. Providing you’re not causing any harm, then slacktivism is at worst net even and at best a positive, so there’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s better than silence. But having thought about it a bit more, particularly armed with the thought that cynicism is usually cheap indifference masquerading as intellectualism, it’s just me projecting; I don’t want to write a blog about this for show and then ultimately do nothing of substance, to let this make me feel like my dues have been paid. Having written a whole series of posts on the qualities that I want to embody as a man and a human being, many of them are relevant here; responsibility, non-complicity, empathy. I feel like I am veering off into “me me me” territory a lot more than I would have liked here, but ultimately people are selfish creatures and I think it’s OK to admit that.

Like I said above, out of the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought, people have become more aware of broken systems around them, and seem to have a new vigour for bringing about change to those systems. Hopefully now is the time to throw off cynicism and be part of trying to make that change.

See other posts in the Social Responsibility series