Weird story number 1: Last week I was in Los Angeles visiting family. Walking back from the beach there was a strong smell of burning plastic – on the steps of the overbridge was a young couple, apparently homeless, trying to barbecue pig trotters inside a plastic-coated supermarket trolley. I considered pointing out the carcinogenic properties of burning plastic, or offering some kind of assistance, but instead I said hello and meaninglessly commented on the beautiful weather. The woman ignored me, but the man smiled and spread his arms to the ocean. “The radiance” he said, eyes shining. And I looked again and saw that it was indeed a radiantly beautiful day.
Weird story number 2: At about the same time, the US President was meeting his Russian counterpart, apparently trusting the word of an ex-KGB intelligence officer instead of his own officials. But actually this is just one of many weird stories in current US politics, and, in my opinion, weirder still is that President Trump’s approval rating remains at around 42% – higher than this time last year.
The first story is personal – a glimpse of the sharp end of inequality – and my own inaction when face-to-face with it.
The second story is political – a glimpse of the bizarre power structure that helped shape this inequality – and our collective inaction when it is presented to us.
And let’s not pretend these stories only happen in the US. Here in Aotearoa NZ we see the consequences of inequality every time we walk down the main streets of our cities. The week before last, on a wintery Wellington day, a barefoot woman asks me for money. She tells me that she has found a good place for sleeping rough, but someone stole her shoes while she slept.
And on the plane back from Los Angeles I sit beside a Kiwi businessman who tells me how much he likes President Trump’s policies, and declares that the stories of Russian intervention in the US election are simply media fabrication.
So how did we get here? How did the gap between rich and poor get so wide in both the US and here in Aotearoa NZ? And why do we not act? Why do we not speak out more against the systems and politics which create and enable this inequality? I think there are a few factors in play:
- We are busy. Maybe it is a daily struggle to get by on low wages, pay back a student loan, save for a house or pay the mortgage. Or maybe we are simply immersed in a culture where being busy is a synonym for being successful.
- We are distracted by Netflix, social media and TV. The leisure time we do have is easily filled.
- We are disconnected. We spend less time socialising in person and more time with a screen in front of us (over 10 hours per day according to this 2016 report). And, both online and in the real world, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us.
- We are unsure what is true. The many media outlets and commentators provide many versions of the same story, and accusations of “fake news” can make all media seem suspect.
- We are diverted. If we are unhappy with our lot there are many ways to dull the pain – which can also divert us from taking action to change our situation. Perhaps we develop dependencies like alcohol, illicit drugs, pokies – or the more socially acceptable forms of dependency like consumerism (retail therapy) and obsessively checking our smartphones. Or perhaps our unhappiness is too quickly diagnosed as a mental health issue and we end up over-medicated. Brene Brown’s classic TED talk on vulnerability has useful insights here.
What do we do about this? How do we reclaim our agency? How do we best take action on the things we believe in?
- Make time for making change. Even a small reduction in time spent working, watching movies, on social media or checking our phones is helpful.
- Try the 1234Plus approach. It is useful to have a model for incorporating the different ways of making change into daily life. One possibility is the 1234Plus model I devised for just this – see my 1234Plus blog post for more detail. In summary, I suggest 1 or more good deeds (including civic actions) each day, 2 or more sustainability actions each week, 3 or more hours of volunteering each month and 4 percent or more of your income given away to good causes each year.
- Understand media credibility and bias. Here’s two different charts (from Knowledge Quest and Market Watch) mapping mainstream (mostly American) media on both journalistic quality / credibility and on their political bias.
- Talk to those in power. Governments and government policy are changed on the basis of public opinion, so we need to speak up. Sighing at the kitchen table and liking stuff on Facebook are not effective ways of making change, but here’s a useful list of ways for citizens to take action that are relevant to any democracy. And our own MPs in Aotearoa New Zealand are very accessible.
- Engage with others who think differently. It’s not easy to have conversations with people whose world views are very different to ours, but it is important to find ways to do so respectfully, as we all learn in the process.
In the spirit of this last suggestion, I got chatting to my fellow passenger on the flight from LA – the Trump-supporting Kiwi businessman. The somewhat awkward conversation ended with us both predicting what might happen in US in the next three years. My prediction was that sufficient evidence will be found for impeachment proceedings to be initiated and that international conflict is exacerbated by the US administration. My fellow passenger predicted that President Trump will easily win a second term.
Which of these three things will come to pass? And what will become of the homeless LA couple with their carcinogenic barbecue and the homeless Wellington woman, barefoot in the Southern hemisphere winter? How do these weird stories end?
It all depends on the sum total of the action – or inaction – of every one of us.