What should we do?
What do we do with the thought that some things are more important than others? Specifically, how do we deal with the awareness that some human problems are more urgent and pressing than others? How do we sort them, how do we rank them, how do we decide which ones we should pay most attention to?
Here are some of the subjects I’ve been highlighting on my blog in the last few days:
- The trafficking in young girls sold as “brides” in India
- Signs on restaurants in Saudi Arabia saying “No single women allowed”
- University students in China going on trial for contributing to a website run by jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti
- Global reaction to the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the US’s less than stellar record on human rights
- The arrest of popular Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi on sexual assault charges
- The murder of four polio workers in Pakistan
- Climate change and the grim prospects for the human future
- The pope talking nonsense
- Police violence and gun culture in the US
- The Law Society’s withdrawal of its guidance on Sharia-compliant wills
- The Texas State Board of Education’s vote on a new set of social studies materials, including a claim that Moses along with Locke and Montesquieu was an important influence on the men who wrote the US Constitution
If I wanted to rank them in order of importance, would I know how to go about it? Not really. I think they’re all important, but they’re important in different ways, for different reasons. That’s one reason I don’t want to rank them, and one reason I find it irksome when other people undertake to rank problems or issues.
I understand the thinking behind good-faith efforts to rank degrees of misery. There is such a thing as being spoiled, and failing to realize the magnitude of one’s good fortune and prosperity. There’s such a thing as shouting the house down about a tiny wrong done to oneself while ignoring massive injustices done to other people. There’s the fact that some of us prosper off the exploitation of others, and that we don’t do enough to find out about it and try to do something about it. There’s all of that and more. And yet – broadly speaking, I don’t think people should be chivvied or scolded for talking about, say, sexual harassment in the workplace when they could be talking about child marriage in Bangladesh.
That’s not because I don’t want the world to pay more attention to child marriage in Bangladesh. I do want the world to pay more attention to that and many things, and that’s why I write about them on my blog. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who tells people to stop paying attention to their concerns and pay attention to my concern instead. I don’t think I’m the judge of that, and I don’t think anyone else is either. Concern isn’t something that can be commandeered. We can offer our concerns for the consideration of others, but it’s futile at best to demand that people pay attention.
There’s been a fad for doing this lately among some freethinkers and atheists who dislike what they take to be contemporary feminism. Richard Dawkins, for instance, told the reporter Kimberly Winston in the Washington Post last week that he is “a passionate feminist”… but with a sting in the tail.
The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism – and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.
“I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.
That’s where I disagree. Of course Islamism is a terrible threat to women, but it doesn’t follow that women can’t or shouldn’t talk about sexual assault by the water cooler. It doesn’t even follow that it’s the responsibility of Richard Dawkins to tell women which of their concerns are “relatively trivial”.
It’s not useful, that kind of thing. It’s not wise or helpful to try to adjudicate the degrees of importance or triviality of other people’s problems. It isn’t other people’s business. By all means talk about what you think is more important instead; by all means try to promote your concerns; by all means donate money and set up foundations to address your concerns. But don’t try to manage or assign numbers to other people’s concerns. It’s not needed. We’ve got this.
Note: The poster used to illustrate this op-ed was produced by The United Nations Population Fund for its “Marrying Too Young” report.