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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why You Matter

There are so many cruel and overconfident people in power that we need all the humble, sensitive ones we can get.

[content warning: suicide]

One of the most tragic aspects of suicide is that those most inclined to take their own lives are often the people whose presence society benefits from the most. I do not mean this in a patronizing way, but in a very serious and real sense. A person inclined to take their own life often feels that they are not in any way important. If they felt that the fate of nations depended on their continuing to exist, it is less likely they would consider ending that existence. The likelihood that, say, Donald Trump, would contemplate removing himself from the world is very low. The same is not true of extremely humble people who are aware of their own insignificance and do not want to hurt other people. 

As a professional editor, I have noticed a phenomenon I call the Confidence Paradox: those who are the least confident in their own writing are the best writers and those who are the most confident in their own writing are the worst. It is not actually a paradox, since the explanation for it is quite obvious. To be a good writer, you have to be self-critical. You have to spend ages tweaking and refining your prose because you are unsatisfied with it. In fact, you have to be more critical of yourself than anyone else will be. On the other hand, if you are extremely confident in your writing, you will not hate your first drafts, even though first drafts are always bad. You will not scrutinize your arguments carefully to find their flaws. An editor will have to do that for you and convince you that what you are sure is purest gold is actually fecal matter.

The Paradox is not absolute but it is extremely common. I spend a lot of time trying to convince amazing writers that their work isn’t total dogshit and middling writers that they need to let us edit them. (This does not mean that if you find me trying to convince you to accept edits you are necessarily a middling writer—even great writers need editors—merely that if you were a middling writer it is more probable that this would happen.) You have probably seen it in other areas of life; the most brilliant people you know are also probably some of the most modest about their own contributions. 

There is a supposed psychological phenomenon that I have never really liked conceptually called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which says that people who are bad at something overestimate how good they are at it because they do not even know what it means to be good. I have always been uncomfortable with this, because I see it used to mean “stupid people are so stupid that they don’t know they’re stupid,” said by people who are dead certain that they are not members of the group at whom they are laughing. (In fact, there is a more important version of the Dunning-Kruger argument, which is that those most convinced of their own superior rationality, such as Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, make some of the least rational arguments of anyone. Their certainty that everyone else is illogical prevents them from seeing their own mistakes or understanding critiques.) 

However, what I do believe is true, and important, is that a great many people whose abilities are needed are not confident enough, because they are decent and modest human beings. This is one of the reasons why the people you know who would be the most trustworthy and competent in political office have never even thought about doing such a thing, because it seems so arrogant to put yourself forward like that. Whereas those who feign modesty but think they’re hot shit, and are certain that they were “born to be in it,” or those who think their last name makes a Senate seat their personal birthright, have never even had the question “What makes you special enough to hold power over others?” cross their minds.

    To ask that question of yourself means you are (1) more thoughtful and self-aware than the group who would never ask it and (2) more likely to answer the question correctly, by concluding that you are not special enough to hold power over others and that anyone who thinks this has dangerously arrogant delusions of grandeur. You can see how the problem arises in which the person most needed for the job is the person least likely to seek it. 

    In terms of getting qualified candidates for political office, there is a possible solution: instead of elections, just have people selected to serve like they do as jurors, so that you get a random mix of normal people rather than using a sorting mechanism that picks the most ambitious and least scrupulous. But the method is crude, as it involves simply roping people in against their will. At the same time, we have to find ways of convincing the people who least think they matter that they do in fact matter.

    All else equal, depressed people know more than people who have not been depressed. I do not mean that more intelligent people tend to be depressed. I mean simply that a person who is depressed has had an experience that a person who has not been depressed has not. They know the depths of human misery, and this is important, because it means they know that misery exists and what that means for a person. This does not automatically make a depressive more empathetic. But it does make them aware that all is not right with the world, that there is a terrible darkness in it. It helps them see through cheerful lies about how wonderful everything is and how we should all just appreciate it and be happy. 

A problem is that the people who think they matter the least are unlikely to think they have the capacity to do anything vital and important. (Unlike Trump, who thinks everything he does is vital and important.) But with so great a gap between human potential and the world we have actually made, every single human mind that can be put toward the project of improving the world needs to be. The brutal Social Darwinism embodied in Donald Trump will triumph unless the modest and compassionate assert themselves and believe in their importance. Every last person is needed for the mission of resisting the descent into cruelty; all forces that can be mobilized must be mobilized.

As we know, Spiderman was told that with his great power came great responsibility. Uncle Ben was correct, but we can’t think that this only has relevance to those with great power. With even the smallest level of power comes great responsibility, because we have an absolute duty to use whatever powers we do possess. I generally try to refrain from telling people what they ought to do, or to shame them for not living up to their obligations unless it is very clearly obvious that they could easily do something useful and are deliberately choosing to do something harmful. Just to stay alive can be a struggle that consumes all of one’s energy, and I do not think it serves anyone to feel guilty about all the things you ought to be doing but simply can’t. 

Yet we all do possess power, whether infinitesimally small or colossal. The power to write a letter to a lonely person in an elder care facility is a power, and the small act of a single person can make a massive difference in another life. I am haunted constantly by the last words of a man who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, who said that if anyone smiled at him on the way from his house to the bridge, he would turn back. A tiny act of friendliness toward a stranger, of caring in an uncaring world, would have preserved a human life. This should show us very clearly that every single person’s choices can matter even if they do not seem to.

I’m sorry if I sound corny and as if I am lapsing into Mr. Rogers “You Are Special” territory. But Mr. Rogers’ message was extremely important, and there is a reason Fox News despised him and called him “evil.” Maintaining the existing power structure requires convincing people of their powerlessness. If they are told that their problems are their own fault, that they are losers and failures, they will be demoralized, especially since, as modest human beings, they would find it difficult to place their own judgment of their worth above the assessment of others. But things could start to happen if they are told that actually, there is no such thing as an insignificant person, only a person who has accepted what the idiotic bullies who run society would prefer them to think about themselves. 

The word “empowerment” is about the most vacuous imaginable term at this point. But here is one meaning: to give a person a full awareness of the extent of their capabilities. Personally, I have always been empowered in this sense, because I was fortunate enough to have parents who told me ceaselessly that I could do things that would matter, and, credulous child that I was, I believed them. This background level of confidence that I can have a life that matters has gotten me through bouts of depression. I have had to be professionally treated, but I have never truly approached the brink, because so many people were making it clear to me all the time that I meant something to them and my life had consequences. I have been very, very lucky in this respect.

Many people are not. Some, like the man who sought only a smile, are completely isolated. Nobody will rush to them if they are in danger. Nobody has noticed their pain, nobody has shown they are willing to fight for this person even though they do not know them. In such circumstances, how could you not feel you were insignificant and that your disappearance would be no loss? You would have what you took to be proof. It is, in fact, literally true that there are deaths that nobody has noticed, people who have been entirely alone during their last months or years.

Now, everyone who has the capacity to do so has a responsibility to help fix this situation. Because there is an error made by those who assume they do not matter simply because we live in an isolating society that tears us apart from each other and makes it hard to notice one another. They have within them a tremendous ability, because it does not take any special talent to be incredibly meaningful and helpful to other people in ways that transform their lives. The only way not to matter is to decline to use your vast powers.

I am not here saying that anyone can do anything. I am not talking about the American Dream. I am not saying that people who suffer a grinding miserable existence should feel differently than they do. I am not telling anyone their particular responsibilities, because your life may be extremely hard and you may be at your limits already, and you should not feel bad about that. I am making no comment on how your life is or trying to delegitimize anyone’s feelings. 

I am only making a very particular kind of point to those who lack a strong sense of self-worth and have low confidence. It is fine and justified to be sad because the world sucks shit and everything is going down the tubes. It is fine and justified to be unable to get out of bed and to focus on fixing your own life before you help other people fix theirs (although if yours is fixed, there are others who need you). I am pointing out that it is never true, under any circumstances, that your absence would be negligible. This is a mistake. It is hard to persuade someone of this who is convinced of their worthlessness. But we must be emphatic: the project of building a better world is going to be difficult. Every single person who can participate is needed. There are no exceptions. 

More In: Editor’s Notes

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Celebrating our Ninth Year of publication! Lots to stimulate your brain with in this issue: how to address the crisis of pedestrian deaths (hint: stop blaming cars!), the meaning of modern art, is political poetry any good?, and the colonial adventures of Tinin. Plus Karl Marx and the new Gorilla Diet!

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