I was thinking the other day that complaining about being a crime victim in San Francisco is an act of privilege.
I’m not talking about crime against other people that are struggling here.
I don’t say that to complain about it, but rather to marvel at it. It’s not that I think it shouldn’t be true—it’s just that I’m so surprised that it is.
Think about this: if you’re doing well in San Francisco, working in tech or finance or whatever, and someone grabs your wife’s iPhone while she’s walking down Market street, or busts out your car’s windows so they can sleep (and urinate) in it, how does your complaint not include a classist element to it?
If you’ve been stolen from, it means you have something to steal. And if someone is desperate enough to break into a car to sleep or urinate, then the amount they improved their life should have massively outweighed the amount it inconvenienced yours.
Speaking of that, San Francisco just adopted new language guidelines that require convicted felons to be referred to as “returning residents”, and other euphemisms, because calling them felons is damaging to their character.
This got me thinking more about this violent conflict of intuitions.
Let’s say someone is sleeping at home and gets woken up in the middle of the night. Someone barges into their bedroom, hits them in the head with a baseball bat, knocks them out, and when they wake up their cash, their jewelry, and their video game console has been stolen from their house.
In one world, the person who broke in and assaulted someone would be a criminal, and worthy of scorn from the community.
But in another world—which I do not deny is real—that person is what San Francisco might call, a “Recipient of Negative Privilege”. In short, bad things happen to them due to other peoples’ privilege.
- Why are they homeless? Because our government won’t educate and house people.
- Why are they on drugs? Because our government won’t provide good jobs and mental health care facilities.
- Why are they violent? Because we would rather build jails than schools.
These are all true things. The victim in this case is actually the attacker, because he’s the one with such a shit life that he has to break into peoples’ houses to get enough money to survive.
But at the same exact time—and equally true—we have the fact that personal responsibility (as illusory as it is at the level of biology and physics) must exist as a backstop for human civilization.
You can’t build a just society, where people treat each other well, if everyone believes that their choice to be a bad person can ultimately be blamed on someone else. It’s untenable.
This is the paradox that San Francisco—and the entire West—is stuck in today.
The world is unfair. Both advantages and disadvantages compound over time. And without extreme pressures (Piketty) such as war or disease, the results of those disparities will represent as growing education and wealth privileges over time.
Our challenge is to find a way to hold two opposing ideas in our collective minds simultaneously:
- The world is unfairly scripted by nature and nurture, and becomes more unequal over time
- For society to work, people must behave as if they have full moral responsibility for their actions
In the first case, we must be the external force that equalizes things—so that war and famine doesn’t have to. And in the second case, we have to maintain law and order so that the powerful, rich, and lucky don’t just build a wall between themselves and the Unfortunates.
As it turns out, it’s not just life that’s Absurd. It’s everything about our lives.
Our society is Absurd because Free Will is absurd.
The person who broke into your BMW to defecate could not—based on the laws of physics—have done otherwise—unless the universe were different at that exact moment. He had a bad set of variables, and you had a good set. Congratulations on picking your genes and your upbringing. And yet we must behave as if this guy had full control over the state of the universe.
The illusion is necessary.
Anyway, I think the approach by San Francisco is a mistake. For one, it’ll get Trump re-elected because it’ll force left-leaning people with cars full of poop to vote defensively. And second, the illusion of control is actual extremely empowering for people trying to improve themselves.
Because while it’s true that a given struggling person will either succeed at pulling out of their tailspin or not, we don’t know which it is. So we have to teach the illusion that it’s up to them to decide—that it’s all about personal responsibility and hard work—and then see if they can reach escape velocity.
That’s the only way out of any of this—for individuals, for cities, for countries, and for humanity in general.
We have to act as if it’s up to us to be better, and hold ourselves accountable.