This essay was originally published online in 2014, but it is no longer available. A reader recently requested a link, and I thought I’d re-share it. If you like this essay, I developed this theme in my book Becoming a Barbarian, which I personally believe is best in audiobook form.
(I’m not sure exactly what the Shoshana bit is all about. If I remember correctly, it was about some feminist walking around New York City complaining that men thought she was attractive, and said so. I used to comment on things like that. Now I try not to pay attention to the “hot topic” of the week. Because I really don’t care.)
I. Don’t. Care.
These three magic words could end so many arguments.
Most appeals in the name of social justice rely on an underlying assumption of universal altruism. They assume that you care if something bad happens to anyone, anywhere, and advise you to take some sort of action to ease or prevent their suffering.
People react by questioning whether or not that stranger, somewhere, is really suffering, or if they are suffering any more than anyone else. They examine the circumstances of the alleged suffering and the motives of the people bringing the alleged suffering to light.
They argue about the details and the proportion of the suffering and point out their own allegedly comparable suffering or the suffering of some person or people who are allegedly suffering more.
Once you’re arguing, they’ve already got you.
Once you’re arguing, you’ve agreed that you could care, or would care — that you should theoretically care — given satisfactory evidence and argumentation.
But what would they say if you stopped pretending to care at all?
There would be no point in arguing about the details.
Of course, as normal humans, we can always imagine ourselves in another humans position. We can empathize with others — that’s what makes movies and novels work. But we can’t really care about the suffering of every single man and woman on the planet. The idea that we should is insane and inhuman. So much of what people say they care about is just emotional pornography that can springboard them into an acrobatic display of moral and political posturing.
I see all of this propaganda online telling me what is NOT OK, and how I am supposed to feel about strangers and other groups of people. If they get me to agree that I care about these strangers and their unhappiness, Im supposed to accept responsibility for that unhappiness and do whatever I can to alleviate it.
This is all manipulation — a political plucking of one bit of human suffering out of an unimaginable expanse of human suffering, all to serve this agenda or that one.
Some kid in Africa probably got his head sawed off with a butter knife while some chick named Shoshana experienced the nightmare of catcalling in New York City. No one cared, because they werent told to care. Given their perceivable social class and sex, the guys who were expressing their admiration for Shoshana have probably experienced far more brutality than being propositioned for sex. And no one cared when it happened. Shoshana is just the squeaky wheel who wants to be lubricated with your tears.
If we really cared about everyone, we would never even register feelings or microaggressions or First World problems because our brains would be blown out from watching Third World ultraviolence. We’d be watching and liking and sharing nonstop videos of prison rapes and basement executions and reading stories about sex slavery and child prostitution. We’d be OUTRAGED at the injustice of it all, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Those things are happening right now and they have more or less been happening at varying levels for all of human history.
(If violence is actually decreasing worldwide, as Steven Pinker suggests, then it is probably in part because due to high incarceration rates and widespread fear of sanctioned violence threatened by increasingly omnipotent surveillance and police states in the First World. And omnipotent surveillance states are NOT OK.)
The reason that people care about the same thing at the same time — whatever todays outrage or viral video is — is that we have all have to pick and choose. We decide, if not consciously then by our choices, that one persons suffering is more important than another. Who we — or maybe you, because I’m not talking about me here — decide to care about is almost completely arbitrary. Whatever human tragedy passes our eyes or ears.
I don’t care what happens to everyone, everywhere.
I don’t care what happens to strangers.
It’s an admission that sounds barbaric and unspeakably taboo.
It’s taboo because people have been conned into believing that they are supposed to do something they can NEVER do — care equally about everyone, all around the world.
I care about what happens to my friends and my family and my tribe. I care, and even at this point I am using care very loosely, about the kind of people I generally like, respect or support. People who are like me, or who are like the people I like.
When someone registers an opinion or tells me I am supposed to care about something, if I am even thinking about caring, I look them up. I ask myself if I would be interested in what this person had to say if they were sitting in the same room with me.
Sometimes, I would. Usually, I would not. I probably wouldn’t even have a drink with them, or give them a single moment of my time.
If they’re telling me that something bad happened to them, I have to admit that in most cases I probably don’t care. Why should I care about the suffering of this stranger instead of that one?
If they’re telling me that I should change, I ask, “why?,” and if the only answer is to theoretically prevent the alleged and future suffering of some other group of people I dont know or care about…then…my answer is: “why bother?”
I’ll change to some extent to gain honor in the eyes of men I respect, personally or in the abstract, but why would I change to prevent the unhappiness of some stranger?
This idea that we are all each other’s shepherds, that we are all responsible for the happiness of all humankind, is paralyzing nonsense. At best, it keeps men busy arguing about things over which they have almost no control. At worst it makes men vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation by people who have already decided that they are disposable rubes — like naive retirees giving away their savings to charity grifters or high-living evangelists. Men end up giving away everything worth having to people who are ideologically incapable of even acknowledging their sacrifice.
I’m not encouraging people to stop caring about anyone, I’m encouraging them to stop trying to care about everyone. If you say you love everyone, you don’t really love anyone. Love is a choice, a discriminatory act.
If you don’t pick your team — if you aren’t willing to draw a line between who you care about and who you don’t, between “us” and “them” — then you’ll be like all of these other suckers who care about whoever and whatever they click on every morning.
Care passionately, but discriminately.
And if you don’t really care, then say it.
“I don’t care.”
It’s simple, but powerful.
It’s liberating, but also dangerous and heretical.
The idea that we are all in this together and are working in good faith to solve the world’s problems is an illusion that traps us in a crisscrossed, impenetrable web of synthetic yarn. If you pull that fuzzy pink string — that completely unwarranted assumption of universal good will — civil society collapses into a Hobbesian war of all against all where no one trusts anyone.
When, free from our attachments to everyone, everywhere, we find ourselves adrift in a staggering, confused mass of drooling and covetous humanity, we can make sense of it all and find our bearings only when we form discriminatory alliances and new tribes built on trust, common interests and mutual admiration — instead of being bound by the great lie of love for all neighbors.