Doing Small

Dear Reader,

Once upon a time, I thought that if I got sufficiently outraged on Facebook, this would make a difference. And maybe there is something to be said for trying to shift the Overton Window for the small group of people who used to read what I would write. (I say “used to” since I haven’t had an active Facebook account since sometime in 2015.) After all, we don’t dismiss columnists as pointless or not doing anything important, or at least not the whole class of them. Individual ones may be another story.

Anyway, part of my decision was the result of a certain hyperopia. I read a lot of history, and one of the common threads is that people are going to people, i.e. do terrible things for one another. Jumping from this to any kind of large-scale reform is difficult; it’s easy to assume, probably correctly, that no matter what brilliant scheme we come up with, someone else will come along and figure out a way to corrupt it. This seems to always be what happens. I’m not a reactionary, but I do understand the viewpoint that says that progress is a myth. It’s not, to be clear—I’d much rather be living here in the early 21st century than in any previous one, and even the poorest among us are not worse off now than they would’ve been 100, 200, or however-many years ago.

But it’s easy to fall into this trap of thinking that if every plan or attempt at progress is due to fail, what’s the point? At the least, I began to realize that I wasn’t going to come up with the silver bullet. Instead, it really comes down to individual action; I do a whole lot more good giving some money to my local food bank than I do having a hot take on Twitter. (Clearly I don’t think writing what I write is pointless, but I’m not going to pretend it’s some kind of grand project, either.) Cynicism about politics is de rigueur, and has been for some time, but that doesn’t answer the affirmative question of what to do, even if it gives a possible answer for what not to do.

Yet what is it that makes writing here feel so much more satisfying than writing a check to a food bank?

The obvious answer is that I can see what writing produces, whereas a charitable donation is much more abstract. That would explain why those “sponsor a child” charities used to emphasize that they’d send you a picture of the individual child you’re helping. The cynical answer, meanwhile, is that my writing has an audience, whereas no one sees me do the charitable donation. Or at least no one in a position to give significant feedback. I’d like to think it’s more the former than the latter, and I don’t feel like it’s just a cynical matter of no one seeing me do it. After all, I’ve made a couple references to the fact that charitable contribution is something I do, and I don’t feel any different about having done it.

When you have a Take on social media, then, you see both what you wrote and other people’s reactions to it. There’s the semblance of a conversation, and you can feel like you’ve done something. Interaction has taken place, and the part of our brains that needs to feel like we’re part of a community gets a dopamine fix or whatever. Then again, maybe the point of what we’re taught about charity—how it’s not about us—is implicated here as well. Regardless, I’m finding it really hard to train myself to feel as good about what little I do in terms of charity as I do about keeping a blog, even if intellectually I know which does more good in someone’s life.

It comes down a lot to the question of when “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” One of my big criticisms of the rationalism sphere is that it encourages coming up with as many variables as possible but frequently does a poor job of considering just how much is unknowable. This retrospective by Scott Alexander shows a good example of this. At one point, he says:

But under certain assumptions, the total suffering caused by Long COVID is worse than the suffering caused by the acute disease, including all the deaths!

This is exactly my point—so much of the answer to that depends on what assumptions you make, particularly in terms of quantifying “suffering” (something about which I remain extremely skeptical, as I’ve discussed in the past). To be clear, Scott in this post is pointing out just how hard answering a big question, in this case whether lockdowns were effective in addressing COVID, actually is. But even then, he goes on:

Maybe a more honest version of me would have rewritten the post to focus more on the emotional costs (the part which I made Conclusion 2). It really is a striking result that it's hard to justify the emotional costs of lockdown even given very optimistic assumptions about the number of lives saved / Long COVID cases prevented / etc.

This seems…extreme, in that it suggests that there’s some way to quantify the emotional costs of COVID lockdown in any meaningful way such that you can then weigh them against deaths or some other variable.  This seems ridiculous on its face.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing the general idea of “trying to figure out difficult questions,” but I think there’s a tendency to say that providing an answer, even if it’s a house of cards, is better than saying “there’s no possible way to know.” The latter is singularly less satisfying, even when compared to being knowingly wrong. But just because it’s the more satisfying approach doesn’t mean it’s the best one.

So too with my original question about charity and good works generally. Maybe it’s exactly the “unsexy” stuff that needs the most attention, something that seems intuitively correct at the least. By the same token, trying to do something is rarely worse than doing nothing, even if we don’t find the ideal “something.” Meanwhile, it’s easy to let this feeling of being overwhelmed by variables and possibilities become an excuse to do nothing. I know I use this as an excuse all the time in my own life—I’ll avoid making a difficult decision by saying I don’t have enough information, even when I really do but just don’t want to come to a decision about how I want to weigh the factors involved for whatever reason.

It’s also easy to let this “big picture” view blind us to the areas where a small difference is possible—the hyperopia I mentioned previously. The internet really tends to do this; it makes the world feel more connected, but sometimes in a way that makes us overestimate our own influence. My thinking that I can convince someone who didn’t already agree with me of something on Facebook is a symptom of this, especially when it assumes that any meaningful change in that person will be the result. Meanwhile, the food bank needs money. There’s a temptation to assume that just because I can put my words out to anyone that they’ll be widely read, which just isn’t realistic. So again, I’m better off doing something small that has a real, tangible effect even if that doesn’t stroke my ego in the same way.

Is there a place in this framework for signal-boosting? I think there is; someone with a large readership can really help a given cause. Just look at all those GoFundMe campaigns that made five times their goal once someone famous talked about them. But that doesn’t mean that this is my role, or within my power to do. I’ve been surprised at this in the past; when I participated in Child’s Play one year, I think I quadrupled or quintupled my goal just by posting to Facebook and e-mailing some relatives. That was valuable, and led to me raising more money for a good cause than if I’d been wholly silent.

Getting people to donate money is one thing, especially when the cause is an uncontroversial one that people would be likely to support regardless. Convincing someone that they’re wrong about a political belief, which may as well be a religious one at this point, is a whole different matter. Maybe it’s overly cynical of me to think that change in this area is impossible, and I wouldn’t actually go that far. The question is instead whether it’s worth my time to try. I’m not particularly credentialed, and we resist listening to experts all the time anyway. There’s so much research about how badly pushing back on someone actually works that it’s difficult to think that this is a meaningful use of my time. Maybe if I enjoyed it I could write it off as entertainment time, but I don’t so I can’t.

All this has led me to the unavoidable conclusion that politics is simply not as important as we make it out to be. The smaller fights make a whole lot more difference, especially in the aggregate. I mean, vote in regular elections; I’m not advocating for complete apathy. But let’s not pretend that those campaigns are more than what they are. You’ll do a whole lot more good volunteering at a soup kitchen once a month than a single vote for a major party politician who doesn’t really care about poor people very much (or who lacks the power to make any meaningful change). Having opinions and sharing them is great, they just aren’t a replacement for actually doing something.

As an aside, I would put protesting firmly into the former category of sharing an opinion rather than meaningful action. Maybe this is too cynical, but I don’t see much evidence that protests have significant effects anymore. There were massive protests on immigration and women’s issues at the beginning of the Trump administration, and they did roughly nothing from what I can tell. Look how quickly BLM was co-opted to be an easy way for corporations to show their woke bona fides without actually having to do anything. Even places that said they were going to change (like Milwaukee) haven’t. Meanwhile, the most recent COVID relief bill includes billions more for police departments. Some Confederate monuments have been taken down, which is a net positive, but that’s about all that was accomplished. Compare this with trying to be nicer to someone in your life just once; which is really making the bigger difference?

I do recognize that this starts to run into the quantification problem that I discussed (and criticized) earlier. My argument isn’t for complete moral relativism; we have to find some way of judging relative strengths. I just think we have to be careful trying to put numbers on things, or at least pretending like we are. Helping one person a little bit versus attending a protest: which one will actually change someone’s life? One more person at a protest whose aims aren’t met versus one small kindness? At the end of the day, we can only do what we can do, and we shouldn’t let pretending otherwise get in the way.