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It’s a simple question. Who stole value away from other streets, and gave it to my street?
Answered with another question, one that has itself been previously answered:
Who put my street there?
So what, now it’s my fault? But I didn’t do anything—how can it be my fault?
How could I have stolen value when I never set out to do so, when I never took any action to steal? How could I have stolen value when there are still other houses in my neighborhood much more valuable than mine, and other neighborhoods in which all the houses are much more valuable? How could I have stolen value for my house when I personally contribute so much of my time and energy to make sure that my house stays nice and retains its value?
Value was stolen? No. I reject the entire concept.
Value was stolen? Yes—but too long ago to do anything about it.
Value was stolen? Maybe—but really it’s just divisive to talk about. The real problem these days are people who still bring it up. Look at me֫—I don’t still bring it up, and I’m fine.
Or, maybe …
Value was stolen? Maybe. Sure. Yes. Observably so. But one thing has to be recognized, before any other: I didn’t intend that. That has nothing to do with me.
How dare you.
I didn’t intend that. That has nothing to do with me.
Two sentences, often expressed as one thought. A neat trick.
So, I had no intention to steal. And neither did you.
Good job, both of us!
Good job, our intentions!
It’s good to not be a thief with intention to steal. To be an intentional thief is a bad thing to be. I'm glad you're not one, and I'm glad I'm not one, either. I want to get that out there.
But: we all know there are thieves with intention. For example, we all know that about a dozen years ago, powerful men conspired to steal trillions of dollars of value from all of our homes, and none of them were prosecuted, and for a while we configured our society’s laws to make it harder for them to abuse the system in that way.
They stole value from my house and yours, and ran away with it. They got away. The city decided to let them get away with it, in the name of healing, in the name of looking forward, not backward.
They’ll do it again if they can—and they can.
Who got all that loot? Well … my street did, to give one example. It certainly got some. And streets with corporations large enough to buy influence—those streets got a lot.
If you aren’t like me, maybe none of it came to you. Maybe for you, it was an experience of loss.
Some of it will come to me. Some of it will go to you, if you are like me.
Most of it will go to them.
The city will decide to let them.
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And you and I, people of bountiful good intention but limited curiosity, we’ll pocket whatever bonuses come our way as they loot the safe of public good. Thieves of intent will allow us to benefit, not out of largesse, but simply as part of the cost of doing business. They intend to get it back from us eventually, anyway. And when they decide to take it from us, how easy will it be? As easy as it was to take from those they robbed before. Easier, in fact, because now our natural human system—which has a momentum as regards intention—has become even more perfectly optimized for theft, and our incuriosity about the benefit we receive from it will have become so habitual, we’ll find it hard to understand how or why we’re being devoured.
A city built on treating people as consumable for profit will eventually consume you.
A city built on theft will eventually rob you.
Yes, and when your day comes, the city, built on practiced indifference, will exhibit as practiced an indifference to your fate as you yourself practiced, when it was not you but only your neighbor, who suffered the injustices of an unjust system.
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Do you still think it’s got nothing to do with you?
Say this: Say I’m driving along and I hit an old lady with my car.
Or say this: Say I discover 12 million dollars deposited into my bank account, and I don’t know why.
There’s what I intend to do. And then there’s what happens.
Or: There’s what I’d like to think is true about me. And then there’s what is true about me.
Sometimes, when we’re lucky, those two things are even the same. But sometimes they’re different—there’s a gap. Reality carries us away from our intentions, in ways we can’t control—but control is the thing we all want to have at all times. It’s scary to have no control. And so, when things happen to us that are beyond our control—as they do for all of us—we like to disassociate from it.
A lot of people like to think that, no matter what actually happens, they can live only in the territory they can control; that they can stay exclusively on the side of the gap where their intentions live, and never visit the territory of what actually happens.
People have intentions, it’s true, and those intentions matter, from a moral perspective, a practical perspective, a legal perspective. It makes a difference if I ran down the old lady with my car because it malfunctioned, or because I was distracted checking my texts, or because I am the beneficiary of her will and decided it would be better to have her money sooner rather than later, or because I just like the sound my car makes when it hits old ladies. It makes a difference in how the law thinks about you, and it makes a difference in how I think about you, too.
What you intend matters. Hear me: it matters.
It’s just not all that matters.
Whatever I intended, the old lady has been run down, and it was my car that ran her down. And I have knowledge of it.
Whatever I intended, the money is in my account. And I have knowledge of it.
My intentions matter, yes, but what would we all think of me if I said I had nothing to do with getting it, simply because I didn’t intend for it to come to me, and, deliberately incurious, quietly moved it over to an offshore account?
What would we think of me, if after I hit the old lady because my car malfunctioned, I drove away, as quickly as I could, hoping I hadn’t been seen?
Because after all, I hadn’t meant to run the old lady over. I was just getting groceries.
I hadn’t intended to take any money that didn’t belong to me; it just came to me.
I didn’t personally intend to cause harm, or to gain wealth.
It has nothing to do with me at all.
It’s a metaphor, of course. And it’s one with an easy answer, because it still deals with personal actions, personal decisions—right? It’s me who did the hit and run or who took the money, not some ancestor or even some unrelated party who only shares with me only geography. It doesn’t mean that a societal ill like (say) systemic racial theft is my fault. Somebody else stole that value, not me.
But notice what the personal decision in this hypothetical is. It isn’t the accident or the theft, which was in no way tied to your intention, but which nevertheless happened. It’s whether, with knowledge of it, I remain in that knowledge or flee from it. It’s whether I, in knowledge of my part in what is, take the responsibility, which I never sought, but which nevertheless is mine; the responsibility that I inherited, in the same way as I inherited the opportunity.
What if I discover that it was my father facing that choice, taking millions, which I then inherited? Does it still have nothing to do with me? What if I discover my father was unaware that his wealth was pilfered, but now I have been made aware. Does it still have nothing to do with me?
Or say this: Say I inherited that money from a fantastically wealthy great-uncle I’ve never met, and then years later I discover that he was not only a cocoa plantation owner, but a slaver—that I have a slaver’s money, and have over the years learned to depend on all the wonderful things that money can do for me—and not just me, but everyone in my community, too. Does it still have nothing to do with me?
Or what if I don’t even remember hitting the lady, but weeks later detectives finally bring the proof to my doorstep, proof which lines up suspiciously well to my memories of the night of blackout drinking, the dented car in the morning, the desperate hope it was caused by a deer, the equally desperate and until-now successful attempt to forget the entire incident? Does it still have nothing to do with me?
It’s not the particulars of the crime, but the knowledge of it.
I think you’d agree that my decision to flee the scene of the accident, or keep money that isn’t mine, are personal decisions carrying moral implications, revealing a deeper selfish intention. Let’s consider why.
I have recently-acquired knowledge of harm, of loss. The harm and loss are realities. My association with this harm and loss are realities. They are realities. They aren’t less real simply because my knowledge of the association is new. They aren’t made less real if I didn’t intend the association, or if I had no control over the association. I am associated with this harm, this loss.
That association is going to cost me something if I accept the association, while if I avoid the association, it will provide me an opportunity to keep an unearned reward, or avoid a deserved consequence.
If I were not associated with this harm and loss, I could avoid paying that cost, and I could gain the reward. And so there rises in me a desire, understandable if not particularly honorable, to not be associated with this harm and loss.
My personal decision is not whether or not the harm has been done, nor is my personal decision whether or not it has anything to do with me. It did, and it does, and my intentions toward those realities don’t matter a bit to those questions. My personal decision is first, whether or not to accept the reality my association with harm and loss, and then to decide whether or not I’m going to accept the consequences of that reality.
And that decision reveals my actual deeper intentions—the ones that matter.If I don’t want to accept this reality, then I am going to want everyone to focus exclusively on my intentions as regards the harm and loss, and deny the fact that my decision to ignore the reality of my association with harm and loss is itself a personal choice that betrays my deeper intentions.
And there might be people who would benefit from my disassociation from the harm and loss, whose lives might be complicated by my association with a crime, who would not want to see me pay the cost, wo might want to see me keep the unearned reward.
And perhaps, those who would also benefit, might also focus exclusively on my intentions.
And perhaps, if the crime were not personal, but rather societal, you might find an entire society that has decided to focus all moral calculation on personal intentions to the exclusion of all else, as a way of avoiding any association with knowledge of the reality of their own association with harm and loss.
It may be that such a society, founded on harm and loss, would focus on the individual to the exclusion of all else. It might be that such a society would heap scorn on even the idea that we share an interconnected life together, even though it’s clear we do—because to acknowledge we share an interconnected life leads us inexorably back to the responsibility we desperately and pathologically wish to avoid.
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Nor will any in such a society want to notice that the collective decision to disassociate from this reality is itself a personal decision revealing a deeper selfish intention. For a society caught in the desire to avoid the reality of association with harm and loss, any rationale forgiving the association would be popular and almost reflexively accepted, while any reminder of that association would be offensive and almost reflexively rejected.
When you’re in a natural human system that is founded on harm and loss, there are always going to be things that are very very very important to not know—and it’s going to be very very very important for everyone else to not know them, either. And if the knowledge becomes undeniable, then it’s going to be very very important to focus only on past manifestations of it, framed in such a way that suggests they are pluperfectly solved. And a good way of doing that is to focus exclusively on what everyone’s personal intentions are.
What are people’s intentions? Easy: whatever each person says they are.
Suddenly it would be impossible for me to ever be racist, or sexist, or otherwise captured by bigotry, for the simple fact that my stated intentions are good. I think: “racism is bad,” therefore I cannot possibly ever do anything racist, or benefit in any way from racism—now let’s all stop talking about it.
It would be impossible to say that someone else is racist, or sexist, or otherwise captured by bigotry, no matter what they say or do, because it’s impossible to ever truly know their intentions, so, since it can’t be addressed, let’s not address it—now let’s all stop talking about it.
It would be impossible for my family member or friend or loved one to be aligned with it, because they are so nice, so good, so generous, so kind, to me, and to others. Their personal intentions are so pure, and yes of course the world has its injustices, and yes of course those are bad we should work to fix them, but the people in my life didn’t intend it, so what can it have to do with them?
In a society founded on harm and loss, acknowledgement of association with harm and loss will be seen as condemnation. Statements of fact will begin to be received as personal insults.
Yes, but that has nothing to do with me. Didn’t I just say I thought injustice was bad?
How will I ever convince them of the truth if all I do is condemn them?
These aren’t irredeemable monsters, you know. I’d rather appeal to their better angels.
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If I am a person of good intent in such a society, I’d go on giving these defenses, because deep down I’d know: When we don’t want to talk about something, it’s those talking about it that are seen as the problem. I do not want to be the problem. I’d rather be part of the solution, which, in a natural human system founded on harm and loss, is a comfortable silence.
You might even find people who recognize a racist statement, but save their real discomfort for calling somebody who said it racist— as if the project were not opposing racism, but rehabilitation of the racist; as if there were a tacit agreement that the racist is the protagonist in the story of racism; as if the racist is the true and only victim of their own racism.
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If I were a person of "good intent" in such a society, I’d decide to not know that I benefit from harm and loss. Or, if I couldn’t make myself know that, at least I make sure it’s clear there’s nothing I could have done about it; it’s all too long ago; fixing it would be far too impractical politically and economically; and anyway it’s nothing to do with me.
And that decision would reveal my actual deeper intentions—the ones that matter.
If our society were as I propose, we might find it common for people within it to suggest that the real racists are the people who always “scream” about racism. That the real sexists are the people who always “scream” about sexism. When somebody blows a whistle on systemic abuses, we might find it common to find powerful people who want to know who the whistleblower is, while demonstrating almost complete incuriosity about the particulars of the abuse. Yes, an audit of the personal intentions of the person bringing knowledge of harm and loss might be very common, and any evidence that those intentions were impure might be widely published and amplified, a reason to ignore the very real abuses uncovered when the whistle blew.
A whistle screams, you know, if a whistleblower blows into it. We don’t like screamers. We abhor the incivility of it. We rarely consider who and what is making the screamer scream, or why.
But imagine a society with enough injustice in it to make people scream. Imagine a people within that society who diagnosed the problem, not as “injustice,” but as “screams.”
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For such a people, intentions (which, let’s remember, do matter) become not just an important thing, but everything, everything, everything—not because they are knowable, but precisely because they are so usefully unknowable. They become a blanket that covers whatever you want covered.
I didn’t mean for that to happen. It has nothing to do with me.
Two separate statements, one true, the other false, and presented as one thought, so that the true statement might lend its truth to the false one.
Do you see how it all works?
Do you see how foundational this lie is?
Do you see how the first step to correcting any of the effects of this lie might be to recognize the lie, and the second might be to stop acting as if the lie were true?
The value for my street is intrinsic, and inextricable, and inherited … and stolen. Unnaturally stolen. This has nothing to do with my intentions. It has nothing to do with whether I was alive when the value was accrued. And I can’t separate myself from the theft, any more than I can separate myself from the value.
Within natural human systems, culpability travels the same streets as opportunity, as theft, as knowledge.
As individuals, we don't decide whether it happens—it does. What we decide is what to do with a very simple question.
Here's the question:
What does this have to do with me?
Yes, and who put my street there, anyway?
Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; David 'Dee' Delgado—Getty Images
A.R. Moxon is a writer. His novel The Revisionaries, is available now, with the paperback edition releasing December 1, 2020.