“‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
I am reminded of this line Marley roars at Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol because a few days ago I received some very bad advice. Who wants to hear a student’s views on anything outside the Duke Bubble, someone insisted, when the Duke Bubble is the only thing students really know?
Here is my answer: because it does not matter whether anyone listens. What matters is that we care. What matters is that we develop a habit of caring and carry those cares into action. We owe more to the species than the satisfaction of our own concerns. Good people and bad people do not hatch at middle age: they become so over time. The next time you see some big problem, ask yourself this. Does the problem exist because the System just is that way, or does the problem exist because people like us never bothered to really try to fix it?
Consider sexism and elitism. There’s been a lot of talk about rush lately—do it and don’t do it, it’s problematic and it’s not. What is more likely: that the gods deigned to descend Olympus and punish our hubris with irreparable exclusivity and toxic genderedness, or that base people will misuse any system they find to achieve their base ends? Are these problems brute facts, or the result of collective failures—failures to push back against that one person who always makes crass jokes, to choose the high road over “fitting in?”
Consider exploitation. Consider the ubiquitous Nike Swoosh on your feet and on someone else’s back and on no small part of what Duke Athletics hands out. Do we not appreciate the very cruel irony of protesting the legacies of the historical exploitation of people of color, while possibly wearing kit produced by the present-day exploitation of people of color? Or is avoiding ethically dubious brands beyond my responsibility, because all I know is the Duke bubble?
Consider labor. We are rightly incensed when Duke’s staff are mistreated. But how often do we treat the people who keep our spaces livable like “the help,” passing by them in silence with eyes down? Is “Thank you” a word said in West Union that often? Are we so proud that we campaigned for a higher minimum wage, when we fail to give those earning it no more than minimum respect?
We gush about our liberal principles, but are time and time again unable or unwilling to put them into practice. These are but a few of our failings, the more conspicuous I can note. The list goes on.
If you want to see what the future will be, take one day and see how often we fail to live our beliefs. This is not to say that there are not many groups and individuals on this campus who are doing what is in their power to do to live out their beliefs for the good. This is not to say that some of us, for one reason or another, cannot do anything more than keep ourselves here. This is to say that there is still a wide gap between what we deeply believe and how we daily act. If we do not actively seek to improve our own house, how can we hope to be anything but incompetent in solving the more and worse problems that exist beyond our gothic paradise?
If you want to change the future, change what is here and change what is now. Find whatever problem you care about, be it sexism or exploitation or labor or anything at all. Find what you can do, here and now, to fix that problem. Train yourself to be the sort of person who can keep fixing that problem. Do you want to increase access to education? Join a club that does so. Do you want to increase food security? Worry less about who makes the best fry on campus, and more about what you can do to help local food banks servicing Durham’s food desert.
You will not change the world for the better if you cannot change yourself for the better. If you do not live your beliefs in the small things, you will not live your beliefs in the large things. Yes, The World seems far away. Yes, we seem very small actors on its stage. But the only way to being making change is to make change where we can and as we can.
I close with a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton. Our beliefs have, in the main, not been found wanting. They have been found difficult and not tried. How will we change the world, if we will not change something small?
Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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