Re: Survival Bias (Or: Can you be ‘woke’ and have hope?)


Dear Rebecca:

You’re right. 

You’re right that “finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors.” You’re right that “when we say ‘We survived worse,’ we’re engaging in survival bias.” You’re right about every awful example you use to back up that statement.

And I’m a little bit torn on how to respond.

Because I think hope is important. Because I don’t know how to fight for justice — as opposed to burrow in my bed — without at least a sliver of it. Because the alternative is despair, and despair robs us of our power.

On the other hand, I found this moment oddly embarrassing this week:

“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”

“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”

“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”

“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.

Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.

It was definitely a tone deaf moment on Colbert’s part – having all the appearance of a white guy seeking collective absolution from a smart black guy for all the bad things that have happened and are happening in this country. Yuck.

So maybe I’m every bit as tone deaf in finding solace in humanity’s collective ability to overcome the especially reactionary moments of our recent history.

But let me be clear:

I don’t think that victories are won without sacrifice. I think that too often, the people who make the sacrifice never get to see evidence that their pains bore any kind of positive fruit.

I don’t think we should treat our history as an ever-uplifting march toward progress.

I’m not sure the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I think our history – humanity’s history – is often one calamitous injustice after another.

I live on land effectively stolen from Native Americans. I wear clothes made by underpaid people. I drive a car that pollutes the air and contributes to climate processes that will take their heaviest toll on the people who can least afford it. All of this is horrible. There have been times in my life when I thought that knowledge could effectively paralyze me.

Is it unjust to leap from that knowledge to hope? Is it wrong to jump from a realization of your complicity in injustice to solace?

Maybe. Probably.

But I do think being alive means being complicit to some degree; it is not a condition we can shake through all the being “woke” in the world. Maybe we can minimize it. For me: The best I can do is to go through the world understanding that the world is broken, that I benefit from that brokenness, that I’m sometimes blind to all the ways that’s true … but also to hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get a little better and maybe, just maybe, I can have a small hand in that.

Collectively, politically, we have a related problem: Part of the Trumpian backlash is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who do not want to hear about their complicity, who rebel against the notion, and who will never, ever ally themselves with folks who tell them about it. Unfair? But politically, folks on the left have a reputation for being grim, joyless know-it-alls. It is difficult to hector humans into progress; some folks need to be inspired. I’m not sure we’re always great at that, because – for all the reasons you mention – it’s hard to be honest and inspirational when there’s so much crappy stuff happening in the world.

It’s possible that the more we embrace our righteousness, the more difficult we make it to achieve even a rough approximation of justice. Life is full of such paradoxes, of messy-ness.

So you’re right. It’s not fair to take solace from history. But I must, even if that solace is tempered, haunted by history’s ghosts. Otherwise, despair wins. And that makes justice that much more difficult to achieve.

Trying to be better than I am,


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