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Two Words


Labels for political ideologies can be useful, to a point, but they often don’t communicate the underlying sentiment. Liberal. Conservative. Progressive. Socialist. One can have intellectual discussions of any or all of these. But what if it was simpler? What if you could describe it in just two words that, in and of themselves, express an understandable value system?

This is a post I’ve wanted to make for a while. I’ve thought about it for quite some time. When I started this blog, I wanted to make a statement about what I believe–about what informs my approach to social and political issues. I could explain them at length, but summaries were difficult without employing specifically political labels, which in American culture are loaded with all kinds of baggage that may not relate to what I truly mean.

So, I’ve got it boiled down to two words. What are my politics? What so I stand for? What do I want?

Alleviate suffering.

That’s all.

How this plays out in terms of social behavior and political policy can manifest in complex ways, of course. But alleviating suffering is the bottom line. When and where people are suffering and don’t need to be, we should do something about it. And many people are indeed suffering, both here and around the world. It can be easy to fall into judgment, to offer harsh words and cynicism rather than empathy and aid. There are people we write off as lost causes, on whom we believe help would be wasted. There are people we consider too evil to bother reaching out to. But apathy begets apathy and cruelty begets cruelty. The example we set becomes the world we make.

And the world I want to make is one in which people don’t suffer needlessly.

I’m not a naive idealist; I know all suffering can’t be eliminated. Everyone experiences suffering. Pain and hardship are universal human experiences. And yet, there is much that could be avoided. No one on this Earth, much less in this country, needs to starve. Starvation occurs in this era not because food is short but because withholding it is an effective political weapon. In the US, people don’t go without medical care because we lack the resources, but because profits are put above human needs. Our incarceration rates are also exceptionally high, not because we have a high proportion of criminals, but because there is money to be made from criminalizing people. People don’t live in poverty because there isn’t enough money to go around, but because we’ve demonized the mechanisms that would reduce that poverty, trading them in for a fantasy that capitalism somehow trends toward equality of its own volition.

There are too many instances in which retribution is employed rather than rapprochement. This is a common issue in international relations, in which grudges frequently die hard, when they die at all. Some enmities stretch back generations, even centuries. Is peace too distant a prospect too consider? Are the bridges too burnt to be rebuilt?

This sort of thing is easy to dismiss as unrealistic. What if people want to kill you? You shouldn’t just sit idly and let them do it, right? But this doesn’t mean the only option is to pick up a weapon yourself and kill them first. In fact, this hunger for alternatives is part of what has driven so many of the refugees from Syria and elsewhere–the desire not to fight, to not give in to conflict. It’s easy to romanticize warfare. There are few things Americans idolize more than the righteous warrior defending his values with deadly force. We are reminded all the time that the price of our freedom is a willingness to kill to defend it, but this is itself a distortion of the history. Peace isn’t made through mass killing. The death and destruction are side effects. Peace is made at the bargaining table, where parties in conflict agree to end their bloodshed. Sometimes it takes a horrific level of bloodletting–a loss of humanity–to remind us what being human really means. But why should it?

I know that armed conflict isn’t always avoidable, and it’s not as if anyone reading this is likely to be in a position to take action on such a matter, but I think it helps to examine why we act the way we do. As human beings, we often react for the sake of reacting rather than consider the possible consequences of our reactions. On a macro level, we can see this in events such as the American response to the 911 attacks. Making war across the globe, torturing people, spying on our allies, and nurturing fear throughout our culture hasn’t made us safer. It’s made us cruel, distrustful, and easily led. Instead of thinking through our response–which would have required thinking through why the attacks occurred in the first place–we reacted out of hurt, anger, and fear. The results speak for themselves.

On a more micro, personal level, revenge is easy, too. Getting back at someone who wronged you is tempting and even feels good, in the moment. But all it ultimately does is multiply suffering. All are diminished by it.

It’s also possible to take too reductive a view here, and treat all suffering equally. In an environment rife with bigotry, the objects of that bigotry suffer. When that bigotry becomes socially taboo, bigoted individuals now suffer mental anguish over seeing their preferences ignored and their beliefs derided and mocked. Is that not suffering, as well? In both cases, people are feeling pain and deprivation that could, under different circumstances, be avoided. There are different forms of suffering, with different causes and effects. What I favor is, to the extent possible, evidence-based investigation of the causes, effects, and possible solutions to various kinds of suffering. Bigotry, for instance, apart from the way it promotes suffering in others, is also a kind of self-inflicted suffering–it’s nurturing hatred within yourself, and fundamentally unhealthy as a result.

Suffering isn’t the only concern–I don’t mean to suggest that it is–only that identifying and reducing it is, at least, a good guiding principle to use in conjunction with other values like freedom and self-determination. Individuals could be materially provided for. You could give each person a home, food, medical care, while at the same time stripping away their ability to make decisions about their own life. After all, those decisions might cause the person to suffer unduly! They could feel anguish or disappointment. They could fail. Wouldn’t it be wise to prevent that?

In truth, we may be able to prevent and alleviate a lot of suffering, but we can’t eliminate all of it without resorting to draconian–even inhumane–measures. Deprivation of freedom is suffering, too, and so is taking away an individual’s right to make their own decisions. These concerns must all be balanced and I’m under no illusions that this is easy to do. But when making a decision that affects others, it’s always wise to ask, “Will this help people, or hurt them? If it helps, is it sufficient? If it hurts, is there really no other way?” There are times when, for instance, it makes sense to take from someone who has plenty to give to someone who has little or none. This is a harm to the person having something taken–it could be straightforwardly described as a kind of suffering–but it is also a boon to the recipient. Does this make sense? Is it worth it?

This means there aren’t easy answers. Sometimes, people are going to suffer no matter what you do. But if you can, within reason, prevent or reduce it, why not? And if you are considering a course of action that might inflict suffering on others–or even yourself–isn’t it reasonable to ask whether the results are worthwhile?