The Struggle is Real: How our Changing Environment can Turn Friends into Enemies

I've been thinking a lot about how a change in environment, whether physical or social, can cause people who might otherwise work together toward common goals to be at odds with one another. Sometimes these changes are caused by things beyond our control such as a natural disaster, but sometimes they are by design in order to keep us distracted from larger goals. 

One of the most interesting courses I took in college was an anthropology class on ancient civilization. We learned about Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, both part of what was known as the Fertile Crescent. What struck me was how these societies, despite their proximity to one another, evolved so differently. How was it that the Egyptians lived in relative peace for so long while Mesopotamia had so many warring tribes and no real semblance of unity? The difference, it is thought, has a lot to do with the rivers of the region.

The Nile, on the one hand, has always been pretty predictable in its course. Ancient Egyptians built their civilization upon its predictability, and because they were able to rely on it to irrigate their crops and provide water for basic needs, they built one of the greatest civilizations in history. Their society certainly was not without its problems, but it was relatively stable because the river’s course stayed true, and the region prospered for it. Economic wealth was certainly funneled up the chain of command, but people were generally able to provide for their livelihoods. On the other hand, the Tigris and Euphrates were not so reliable, and civilization there evolved very differently. These rivers have changed their courses many times over the millennia, and this fact had major impacts on the people of Mesopotamia. 

Imagine trying to farm alongside a river that periodically changed its course. In an arid region, irrigation is essential, so if you suddenly weren’t able to grow crops for your family, or if your community became extremely food insecure, it’s easy to imagine the stress this would cause. These periodic shifts in the courses of the rivers caused a lot of strife and wars to break out between different groups of people who fought for access to the waters. Although today the region’s problems are incredibly complex, there are some anthropologists who even argue that these rivers played such an important role in the region that their irregular courses and the strife this caused centuries ago laid the groundwork for the culture of conflict that exists in the Middle East to this day.

This may seem like a big leap, but I think the situation above is relatable to our modern lives and the political climate we are currently experiencing. Most of us in the U.S. may not have to worry so much about war, genocide, or a river shifting its course on us. At least not in a literal sense. But millions of Americans struggle with poverty and economic hardship within a quickly changing system that is very much the equivalent to a those shifting rivers in ancient times. It frightens me to think about our social safety net dissolving, and the resulting chaos that could ensue. What's sad is that I feel like sometimes, because of my privilege (perceived or real), that people view me as an enemy instead of an ally. I am a white male who is approaching middle age and I live a comfortable lifestyle. But that doesn't mean that I don't have something to contribute to the betterment of society. 

As an adult, I didn't have what I would consider a middle class life until I was about 30, but I did have a social safety net. I had a family who backed me up, provided support when they could, and I had many luxuries by the very virtue of that sturdy ground my family relationships provided. I was lucky, even before I account for the privileges my race and gender afford me. I know that even the fact that I was able to go to school, fail, and go back again (twice if you count my master's degree) was an enormous privilege. As hard as it was to succeed at times, I know countless people did not have the same opportunities that I did, and I'm grateful for those I did have. Yet for someone as reflective and socially minded as I am (if I do say so myself), I struggle at times with accepting my privilege.

Sometimes it's hard to admit how good I really had it. Sometimes I get angry when people assume that I had everything handed to me or that I didn’t have to work for what I have. Like my hard work wasn't really work at all because of my privilege. I have to try hard to keep myself calm and not get personally offended when people assume I didn’t struggle because of my race or gender. 

Sometimes I fail miserably and lose sight of the larger goals of social justice in the face of defending my personal circumstances. I fail at times in formulating my ideas and in communicating my feelings with others. But I do take people's opinions to heart and try to understand their perspectives and hardships. I recognize my own shortcomings, for the most part, and know I still need to work on them. But, in my experience, the social justice warriors certainly don't make it easy to be on their team, either. 

I think what bothers me most is the condescending tone from many people who are social justice-oriented. It bothers me a lot, despite me believing in and supporting many of the ideas they espouse and the policies they support. It feels bad to have my motives questioned when I share a differing opinion, like my actions are worth less than my words despite having worked 10 years in the affordable housing industry, for instance. To have my character questioned and my perspectives minimized simply because of my privilege does not feel good. 

Make no mistake: I believe that all people should have similar footing and predictable ground on which to build a life and not be damned at birth by whatever station they were born into, or by their race or gender or sexual preference or anything else for that matter. Everyone should have a place where they have an opportunity to thrive and provide for themselves and their families. Furthermore, I think sometimes the only means we have in capitalism to provide those opportunities is through social programs. 

I am angered and scared and saddened by the current administration and the potential for its policies to reek havoc on disadvantaged people from all walks of life. I’m scared for the people I serve at my job and what the future holds for some of them. I feel the swell of emotions and the fear is palpable. But my biggest fear of all is that the alienating language of social justice advocates to the ears of the majority will be counterproductive to the cause and we won’t get anything done. 

I don't pretend to have a solution, and I don't mean to minimize the rage of the oppressed and less fortunate. Hell, if you're NOT angry, then you're not paying attention. But I feel like most people won't listen if they feel alienated. Would you? This is anecdotal, but I feel like the last election was indicative of that. There were other things at play, not least of which was misogyny. But I know a lot of progressive people who felt alienated by the Democratic campaign because it felt like a war was being waged against them because of their privilege. 

We have to do better and that starts with, at very least, acknowledging those who are on our own team, and then having more productive and respectful conversations with each other. Let’s not allow these assholes to change the course of the river in order to divide and conquer. If we do, we'll have a lot more to deal with than just having a Cheeto-faced clown for another four years. We’ll have another swamp to drain.