A case against (only) watching cat videos
One of my students in my class said one day, "We watch cat videos because the world is difficult to watch." Heads around the room nodded in agreement and I realised how helpless and even dejected my students feel, a group that I had always thought to be idealistic and full of excitement to change the world. It made me wonder how I should go about giving them hope, only to tell myself that the sooner they realise what the real world is like, the sooner they can be a part of the solution. But as social workers, my students knew how they could have individual-level impact on the populations that they work with, but found themselves struggling to find a way to work within a system that creates divisions, 'us and them'.
So, the single broad question that emerged throughout the semester was: What can be done to stymie the production of "marginalised groups"? "Revolution!" someone said, only to be reminded by another student that (and I paraphrase): in the individualistic world order we are all in it for ourselves, our lives consist of individual decisions made to further our individual goals, we are kept worried with student loans, made to dream about home ownership and children, all of which, when actualised, create further debt and bindings that keep us from organising, because a day of protests, for example, would mean a subtraction from our paychecks that would in turn make it difficult to pay off our debt.
And all the social problems that they see and want to fix? That's where cat videos come in. As it turns out, on most days they feel like they really can't make a difference on a macro level, which means, as someone said, "We're doomed – we will just self-destruct our way through the world."
The dejection that I see is perhaps warranted, given the insidious nature of the social problems around us – particularly because on the surface many problems have purportedly been solved. For example, many of my students talk about how they were taught in school about the end of racism when slavery ended, only to realise that racism is thriving. Some talk about migrants taking unwarranted risks to further their individual careers, when most migrants are products of war and poverty – the most recent example being the displaced people of Syria seeking refuge. What is clear is that to shake off what you learn as children and re-view the world with a critical lens as adults is not an easy task. Indeed, a large part of the work that we do as teachers is help others open their eyes and understand what they see, see what they don't see, and learn to delineate the problems and unravel the enigma that is hidden in plain sight. And once those eyes are opened, it is understandable that people would feel dejected.
But from dejection comes creativity, I imagine, because while we witness a world of war, plight, hunger, displacement, we also witness the steps that people have taken to address some of these problems, steps that researchers have taken to understand these problems better. And solutions come from these steps. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement sheds light on the issues of police violence/brutality and mass incarceration of people of colour; the Occupy movement made people aware of the stark inequality between the haves and the have nots; the Arab Spring made it clear that despotic governments can't rule forever; closer to home in Bangladesh, the Shahbag movement made it possible for people to start talking about justice for war crimes, breaking a silence of decades. These are steps towards change. We all need to be a part of these moments of change, we all need to be a part of creating such moments of change, and hopefully galvanise these moments into movements that actually bring about change, and then start all over again. These are small steps, but one day they will become strides towards a world that demands equality, fairness, and justice; a world where divisions and isolation are not inevitable.
And while we are at it, we have to model the right behaviours to our children, so that when they grow up and find themselves in positions of power – they do what is good – just – for people. In a recent study that Navine Murshid and I conducted, we found that children who witness violence are more likely to mimic that act in situations they deem appropriate as violence becomes normalised. The same principle applies to other issues: corruption, murder, lying, ill-treatment of people. Let us not be those parents that teach children that it is acceptable to be corrupt, lying, violent, through words and action. Individually, this may seem like a drop in the proverbial ocean, but if all parents could do this for their children, we would have more and more people resorting to constructive, instead of destructive, behaviours as a mechanism of conflict resolution. And if the system could be changed where race, class, social status (and so forth) did not matter anymore, perhaps the impetus for corruption, murder, and violence would cease to exist as well. Utopia? Sure, but there has to be a destination ahead of us, and what better than the best even if we never reach there. The least we can do is keep walking in that general direction.
The writer is Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, University at Buffalo.