The Worthwhile Problems Part II: “That Shit Isn’t As Bad As THIS Shit”


Jeremiah Traeger

Last week I wrote a piece about the importance of giving a damn about yourself and your local problems. The purpose was to comfort those in times of loss and struggle, even though the problems of the world seem like much bigger and much more important problems. It’s advice even I struggle to listen to. That being said, it’s not that hard to arrive at that conclusion logically: we won’t be able to make the world better if we ourselves are not in a position to do that effectively in the first place. Usually the only people who are going to solve your individual struggles are you and the people close to you, so you might as well work on the problem if you’re one of the people who can fix it. This does not, however, only apply to immediate problems within our local everyday lives; this philosophy extends to much larger collective movements and many struggles that we fight against.

Many times when we advocate for a cause, we are met with pushback with the transparent purpose of derailing our fight because we aren’t solving “the real problems”. When last week’s murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers prompted justified outrage, status quo defenders came out of the woodwork to say, “Black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem. Why aren’t you focusing on that?” The atheist community in America often gets backlash from conservative apologists, who will chide us by stating, “Atheists have it pretty easy in America, why don’t you care about the ones in the Middle-East that are killed?” A similar tactic is used to dismiss feminist causes, since any injustices that women face in America are not nearly bad as honor killings and female genital mutilation that appear in certain countries as a result of religious hegemony.

I already brought up the quote by Richard Feynman in the aforementioned piece, but since I find it such an immensely useful quote, I will bring it back up as an example of wonderful advice from one of history’s most rational minds.

“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

The problems we focus on are the ones we choose because we can do something about it. Let us not delude ourselves that every cause will be equally fruitful with the same amount of effort we put in. Furthermore, since we are finite beings with finite energy and finite time without an omnipotent force on our side, we will always have to pick our battles. As such, there is no shame in using our finite resources on apparently small potatoes, as long as we get some fruits out of our labor.

Black-on-black crime is absolutely a problem. So is white-on-white crime, since crime overwhelmingly tends to be intraracial, especially due to housing patterns where people of similar color will gravitate towards the same neighborhoods. White-on-white crime is the same problem as black-on-black crime, which is violent culture. This is a pretty hefty problem in a country that worships guns and the military. I’m absolutely not saying that it’s an impossible or unworthy problem to solve; changing hearts and minds is something many of us work on everyday as atheists and secularists. However, solving this problem is a large and abstract task. Racial justice advocates have very concrete plans that can be written into laws and justice system policies for police reform, and how to educate and advocate for these causes . Don’t get me wrong, this will hardly be an easy battle to fight, but we have a much more direct course of action with clear ways of achieving our goals than just attacking “violence” in general.

The same goes for any societal hurdles that atheists and women face at the hands of religious hegemony. Groups like the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are known for filing lawsuits against seemingly frivolous offenses such as prayers at public school graduations, exclusively Christian representation in government meetings, or religious symbols on public property. There are certainly more harmful offenses being committed at the hands of religion such as religious-based workplace discrimination, public school indoctrination such as the teaching of creationism, and fucking Hobby Lobby. However, the aforementioned groups certainly seem to spend a lot of time focusing on apparently smaller issues. Certainly America is a great place for religious freedom already! We have no blasphemy laws. We have no rules against apostasy, unlike a variety of middle-eastern countries. We have no Raif Badawi over here. Why are we so focused on things as harmless as a mere cross in a park when ISIS still exists? Why are women so focused on silly and relatively benign gender roles in the United States when women in Saudia Arabia get lashes for being raped? These are BIG problems, why are we focusing on the small ones?

Simply put, because we can win them. I’m obviously firmly against the laws against religious freedom in the Middle East. While there are organizations that can help, we can only be so effective overseas. In comparison, FFRF clearly wins battles. If you give right-wing evangelcals an inch, they will try and take a mile, and we are far from having true religious equality in the United States as it is.

We should protest and speak out against laws in Saudi Arabia that prevent women from driving or walking around without a chaperone, but it will be difficult to make that change from here. By contrast, challenging traditional gender roles in the west is one of modern feminism’s best endeavors (in my opinion). When you begin to challenge people on things women cannot do compared to men, the arguments get pretty silly. Just look at some of the things said against Mad Max: Fury Road or having a woman president (not just against Hillary, women in general). I’m not saying that it’s a guaranteed win; fighting some of these battles can be just as fruitless as arguing against certain religious apologists. At the same time, our society is slowly becoming more egalitarian over time, and that’s a result of our efforts in these conversations.

Consider, then, that whenever you want someone to focus on a “bigger” problem that you come across as tone policing. Everyone fights their battles in their own way. Unless someone appears to be actively causing harm, I tend not to police people’s way of changing the world. It’s worth talking about why someone would choose to fight in one way and not another, and maybe both people involved in the conversation can learn from each other. But by being dismissive of a cause you are diverting the conversation away from where solutions are being developed. You are actively putting your energy into preventing problems from being solved, whether or not that is your intention.

Some reading this may protest, stating, “It’s only logical and reasonable that we focus on big problems? Why should we waste time on ones that aren’t as important?” I have to mention that you are also committing an informal logical fallacy when you make this appeal. The dismissal of certain concerns due to the presence of more pressing concerns is known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation. If we can’t care about prayers at board meetings because Saudi Arabia beheads people for blasphemy, then there are a lot of problems we can’t solve here anyway. We aren’t allowed to get food for our family because children are starving around the globe, we can’t care about violence in America because there are still bombings in the Middle East, and we can’t care about whooping cough while there are still AIDS epidemics in Africa. If you think this is a valid conclusion, I’m no longer concerned with your opinions because I think they are ludicrous.

There are pragmatic reasons to focus on the small issues. For one thing, change tends to  be more effective the more local the problem is. Not only will there be fewer institutional and legislative hurdles to overcome at the local political level, but we are far more motivated to be involved with problems that affect us directly. This doesn’t only apply to issues that hit close to home geographically, but also ones that directly affect our identities and the people close to us. If a trans person faces discrimination or they can’t even pee where they work, you bet your ass they are going to have a much stronger fire lit under them to affect change in that area compared to other problems. If they’re going to be effective at changing one particular thing for the better, why would you ask them to focus on something “way worse”, such as gays being thrown off of buildings in Iraq? If you are interested in diverting their focus, you are acting like the parents who want to force their child to be an engineer when they have no math skills or interest in that type of field. It’s simply not going to work.

And ultimately, there’s nothing preventing us from caring about multiple causes. While we have finite resources, we are capable of caring about crosses at public parks as well as blasphemy laws. Both are important causes. Both are worth discussing and doing something about. You may only have the resources to focus on one, or enough to focus on both, or neither, and all options are ok. Join FFRF or The International Humanist and Ethical Union if either seem like good causes to you. I’ve only put money into one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the other. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t really up to anyone to decide what cause is important for anyone else (unless that cause is actively doing harm). I am always willing to “sell” why what I care about is important, but I think dismissing someone else for focusing on something I’m not as personally motivated for is misplaced. I have no good reason to say X is bad because Y is better.

So please do not police causes you see as pointless or useless. Chances are, they are serving a purpose. After all, if a problem can be solved, the important thing is that it can be solved. Someone will have to do it, even if it means taking time away from your favorite cause. That’s ok, because the best problems worth solving are the ones that can be solved, however small.



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