Ever get pissed off while standing in
line? You know the scene — you’ve been waiting 20
minutes to pay for your groceries, and suddenly a new lane opens up
and all the latecomers end up checking out before you do.
You’re not the only disgruntled one. People naturally get
riled up when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly, and
there’s nothing like getting hosed at the supermarket to
bring out that sense of social injustice.
It’s common knowledge that when two strangers are waiting
in line, the one that came second has a responsibility to let the
other person go first. That duty-owed practice is accepted
nationwide — which is strange, because as Americans most of
us are used to thinking we don’t owe anybody a damn
Our arrogance stems from a variety of origins. I blame
corporations and politicians for appropriating and then defiling
well-intentioned words like “charity” and
“philanthropy.” It’s no surprise that a language
that loses the vocabulary to define good acts belongs to a people
that perform few.
The blame game also goes a long way in explaining our stubborn
refusal to accept responsibility. It’s not my fault that guy
on State Street is homeless, so I have no obligation to help him.
And if I do spare a few dollars, then he owes me a thank you in
return, at least.
Then there’s our favorite excuse — “the
system.” It’s “the system” that perpetuates
these social injustices, not the little people. There’s no
point in getting stressed out over poverty or prejudice because
it’s ridiculous to expect one person to overhaul this crazy
These thoughts created our superiority complex, but there are
other factors working hard to sustain this tragic mentality.
Distractions, for instance. Hollywood, television, magazines
framing what’s important, what we should be concerned about
— namely, ourselves. Buying stuff that promises happiness and
self-fulfillment. Pursuing relationships that will add meaning to
our lives, and then being disappointed when everything sours
because we were counting on the other person to tell us who we are.
Defining our self-worth through vocation, feeling as if we lost
everything if we have nothing to say when someone asks, so what do
you do for a living?
It gets far more serious when we consider social problems on a
grand scale, like the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Most information
that comes to us about such calamities accurately portrays the
utter desperation of the situation, but leaves us with little more
than a sense of helplessness. If there’s no hope, why should
there be empathy, or any desire to face such a daunting challenge?
Why bother, we think, when there’s nothing we can do?
And besides, we’ve got all these other things to busy
ourselves with: the American dream, life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness. We’ve got every right to pursue these things,
but that in no way excuses our lackadaisical attitude. Because if
we’re talking rights, then suffering people have those, too.
And I know you agree with me, because why else would you get mad
waiting in line?
That has to count for something, that injustice still irks us.
Let’s deconstruct the origins of our arrogance. Ok, so
commercialism’s spin on altruism has left a bad taste in our
mouths. But, so what? Does it matter that we believe none of this
is our fault? I submit that the most important thing is social
problems exist, and this simple reality should be enough to twist
our hearts and mobilize our legs.
Picking the cause is up to you, and I assure you, there are
plenty to choose from. From my own experiences, I’d have to
say that inspiration strikes us all in the funniest ways. My
parents are Indian immigrants, for example, but I’ve only
been to the motherland twice in the past 21 years. And as much as I
enjoy the colorful clothes and the long, song-filled movies, I
admit I’ve never held any particular allegiance to India. But
in February 2002, Gujarat riots and angry mobs burning innocent
people — the senseless violence really got to me, and evoked
a feeling of obligation toward India that I had never held before.
I felt like I owed it to the people over there to educate the
people over here, in hopes of — at the very least validating
all the suffering, and at the most — of horrifying people
into vowing never to repeat such a tragedy.
My point is our sense of justice is inherent, and that too many
elements are causing us to ignore the fact that the balance is all
off. We’re simultaneously inheriting and perpetuating social
injustices, and we’re too busy to notice that our refusal to
contribute is screwing over our futures. Change is borne out of
necessity, and until we realize that we have to change our
mentality, I’m afraid we’ve got nothing. Chew on that
the next time you’re fuming over a long line, and at least
the time will pass semi-productively.
Khatri can be reached at