This week, I have seen multiple examples where progressive leaders were being toasted for their career accomplishments. And in each case, the same topic was highlighted: the work they did for LGBT rights. I wasn’t surprised that that was the area where they were most successful. An argument can be made that here in the United States, the extension of equal rights to the LGBT community is the singular achievement of this generation, just as the extension of rights to women and minorities was the singular achievement of the previous generation. I’m not suggesting that complete equality has been achieved in those domains, but we’ve come a long way from the days when women were expected to avoid the workforce, African-Americans were forced to use different bathrooms, and gays could not publicly proclaim their undying love. It’s no wonder that people so often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. for the proposition that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In some respects, that is clearly the case. My concern, though, is that those respects are limited.
The ways in which we are growing morally tend to be confined to the domain of individuals’ rights. Yes, we want to extend opportunities to more and more groups of individuals. We hate to see anyone denied an opportunity to enjoy herself or use her talents simply on the basis of race, color, creed or sexual preference. But that largely stems from the fact that we are increasingly seeing ourselves as isolated individuals. We define ourselves less by our gender, race or creed, and more by our unique interests and aptitudes. Consequently, we are inclined to fight for our own rights and interests and to empathize with other individuals who are waging similar battles.
When, in the ’60s, Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock, I am an island,” he seemed to be ahead of his time. Today, each of us is an island, and we don’t want anyone messing with our island. So it stands to reason that we might not want other peoples’ islands being messed with either. Our compassion extends that far.
My question is, does it extend farther? To the extent there are large groups of people living in poverty, do we care to make the societal changes necessary to eradicate their poverty? To the extent our planet’s environment is being destroyed by global warming and other forms of climate change, do we care to make the sacrifices needed to reverse those trends? To the extent our society’s infrastructure is falling apart and fixing it will become increasingly expensive the longer we wait, do we care to make these fixes now while we can still afford them? To the extent our world is at war, and the soldiers are carrying around increasingly devastating weapons, do we care to fight for peace? Or in each of these cases, have we simply decided that there isn’t much an isolated, atomized individual can do to solve any of those problems, so we might as well just tend to our own gardens?
When I was a kid, Paul Simon wasn’t our only songwriter. We also had folks like Mick Jagger who sang: “Think the time is right for a palace revolution. But where I live the game to play is compromise solution. Well, then what can a poor boy do? Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band. 'Cause in sleepy London town. There's no place for a street fighting man.” Jagger was right. In the major industrialized nations (like his and mine), the time for palace revolutions is over. But at least back then, you had peaceful protests that mattered because folks flocked to the streets in droves, and there is power in numbers. Those protestors, for example, literally changed the course of the war in Vietnam.
These days, some people still protest, but they are fringe players, whose protests are generally met with disrespect and fear. Most of us feel every bit as powerless as Jagger did when it comes to making revolutionary progress, so we don’t bother to fight for social change. We eat like pigs, escape through TV shows and ballgames, and sit alone in front of our computers. Even when we’re in public, we spend much of our time looking down at a smart phone or an iPad. This is life in the 21st century – live and let live. And what we are “letting live” is poverty, climate change, rusting water and sewer systems, and seemingly-endless wars.
Generations back, our ancestors also had wars and poverty … and they had rampant bigotry too. But they also felt tied to their communities. And those communities gave them a source of belonging and hope, not to mention a mission in life. Was life better than it is now? Perhaps not. Technology has made us live longer and healthier lives – at least physically. Spiritually, though, I’m not sure that we’re any healthier now than before. And morally? We’re different, but I’m not sure we’re better.
King was certainly right that the arc of the moral universe is long. The jury is still out as to whether it bends toward justice. Speaking for myself, though, I don't want to sit back and wait for the jury to return. I want to help do my part in making King a prophet. What do say we all make that commitment? Let's be the ones who do the bending.