Reflection: Social Consciousness in Babel

This is a reflection, where a recently reviewed book inspires an essay on the writing craft, or, that little thing we call life. This is the latter. Similar posts inspired by The Obelisk Gate, Miss Percy, and Spirits of Vengeance.

This is an essay about questions, not answers. This will be a winding trail of thought, but I hope I can post enough signs you can follow along.

I have been thinking off and on lately about how many of my daily choices, are influenced by decisions made by other people, great and small. My morning breakfast was determined by the groceries my partner chose to buy, which were influenced by the pricing and placement decisions of store employees, which followed from local market forces which reacted to the weather, other economic factors, all the way up to geopolitics.

You deserve some humor for sticking through this. by Alex Norris.

I ponder these connections over a steaming hot bowl of cheesy scrambled eggs. At the end of the day, it’s just breakfast. In five to seven hours, I’ll be hungry again, and life goes on, and on, and on. Most of these interactions – these butterfly effects, these sliding-doors moments – are fairly neutral. I’d be just as happy with toast and apple butter. The wider we broaden our perspective, however, the more wide-ranging influences of a different sort enter the picture. If we travel not only in space, but back through time, my innocuous breakfast experience as a white European protestant sitting in North America in 2023, eating eggs, drinking coffee, preparing to drive my internal-combustion engine to work across town where I will rearrange pixels on a screen of glass – is the culmination of uncountable historical influences, some of which are far, far from neutral. They are, dare I say, bad.

As always with a reflection, it’s time for a mild (very mild, this time) spoiler warning. Skip down if I haven’t already scared you off.

In Babel, Robin Swift and his fellow Oxford institute of translation scholars are mostly immigrants to England from colonized countries. They are the exception for their demographic. Their role as royal translators affords them luxury, prestige, and purpose. They not only perpetuate, they strengthen the oppressive systems which keep their friends, family, and countrymen at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. For most of the book, they manage to ignore this realty. They assuage their guilt with small acts of resistance. They distract themselves with their studies. They become experts at noticing only what they want to notice.

They find they cannot live in two worlds. Robin’s cohort must choose between a life they are genuinely passionate about, and their conscience. I found myself imagining what I would choose in their situation. Then, I realize, in many ways I am in their situation.

<<< Ok, no more spoilers >>>

I owe my life in this city, in this year, with what often feels like a lower-middle income level relative to my peers but is exorbitant wealth compared to most people around the world, to centuries of exploitation. That’s not a political opinion. That is an undeniable historical fact. We Europeans conquered America with guns, lies, disease, and the racist assumption that God himself wanted us to spread from sea to shining sea. Manifest Destiny, indeed. We built our economy first with chattel slavery, then with exploitative unregulated capitalism paired with racist public policy. In recent history, we have propped ourselves up globally by going to war for oil, dragging our feet addressing climate change, and taking advantage of unjust working arrangements around the world. It’s fine, so long as its not in our back yard, right? by Alex Norris.

I am here to say I an no smarter, more industrious, or creative than most. I have not earned a position in the top 10% of global wealth. I am the fortunate beneficiary of my place in space and timeā€¦ and, unfortunately, much of the history that lead me to this moment is pretty dark. I understand the temptation to despair.

“But Josh!” you may say. “You’re cherry-picking the negative! What about all the good movements in history?” We’ll get to that.

Like Robin’s cohort in Babel, the good moments, the historical highlights, come from moments of conscious resistance. Abolition. Women’s suffrage. Labor rights. Civil rights. Modern social justice movements yet to be named. These bright moments in history didn’t just happen. They occurred when individuals chose to notice the problems in their society, and do something about it, even at great personal cost. Because the power behind oppression doesn’t willingly surrender. by Alex Norris.

So then, what is the correct response to reality? How should we feel? What should we do? I have observed that certain white people find idea of feeling any modicum of guilt appalling. They would rather ban books by diverse authors and use the power of the government to punish schools and corporations than consider the ways the past continues to affect our present. While there is no point in wallowing, even my faith tells me that sorrow with a purpose is a good thing (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). Guilt for the right reasons, like righteous anger over injustice, should lead to action. by Alex Norris.

What sort of action? That’s up to you. What problems grind your gears? What resources are at your disposal? What can you do about it? I’m preaching to myself in this essay. I know I could do better.

I’d like to leave you, dear reader, with a quote:

“I firmly believe that hope is the correct response to consciousness. Throughout history, despair has held us backwards and hope has led us forward.”

John Green (Author of the Fault in Our Stars and The Anthropocene Review) on Doomerism vs the Necessity of Hope, Offline with Jon Favreau podcast, 4/16/23

Happy living, folks.

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