Tag Archives: strangers

The Secret Happiness of Strangers

Or: Why People (Don’t) Steal, and how many slaves work for you.

Today I lost my phone. Clean, shiny, heavy with photos and text messages (and all their attendant memories) barely four months old. I realised its absence only when leaving the cafe, patting my back pocket only to feel that familiar cold nausea spread across my skin. Half walking, half running down two blocks to State Library, that most beloved, trampled intersection of paths, we swept our eyes over the bench and surrounding concrete, quite hopeless.

Minutes later a young man approached us, and asked what we were searching for. Is it a phone? Tell me what it looks like. What colour is the case? What is the wallpaper? Pretty soon you know it’s a test. Nope… not blue. No, sorry, that’s not correct. But his eyes are laughing! He’s having fun, but this isn’t fun. Not quite. What’s going on… PLEASE….! I’M DESPERATE.

He motioned for me to follow him to the entrance of the library, where he withdrew my phone from his bag. Indeed, the case is blue. (Of course it is, I’m the one who bought it.) I collapse into happy, inarticulate, nervy gratitude, the sort that shakes and is generally unattractive. His name is Asif and he is a Hazara from Afghanistan. We talked some more, and I learn some interesting facts, like how his grandmother is from Mongolia and he liked my wallpaper (stick-figure girl next to a poem in curly Arabic writing).

As D and I leave, savouring the delicious feeling of escape from some feared, certain outcome, one thing we cannot stop reflecting on out loud is how unbelievably LUCKY we were. That a stranger would pick up my phone, safeguard it from other random strangers, and watch over the space for hours. Unbelievable, right?

And this all makes me think…

…What makes us do things for others – what possibly makes us care about the happiness of strangers?

Is it for recognition, for some potential reward, or merely for the warm glow from acting kindly?

As some person once said, it is easy to empathise when your friend hits failure or sorrow – it is far more difficult to be happy when he succeeds…

But with strangers – somebody whose emotional wellbeing you have no personal stake in – what makes us go, ‘yes I’ll wait’ or ‘no I’ll steal it’? Given the choice to either absolutely contribute more happiness or more sadness to the world – who would say no? And yet people do, time and time again so that it is the norm – the norm to expect never to see a mislaid coat in a dodgy restaurant again as someone has ‘most likely taken it’. It is also institutionalised, in our policies, our politics, our calculi of efficiencies.

It must depend on variations in family upbringing, socialisation, but also this: how involved you are in the situation – relative or absolute.

Where you absolutely stand to gain from selling a phone on the black market and making a few $000s, self-interest and competition may drive ‘finders keepers’ behaviour. Rational self-interest is so to-be expected it bores me. As you can tell I’m more interested in the other situation.

When we are relatively (never absolutely) removed from any gain in either outcome of a choice, are we naturally primed to act to make strangers happy? Or the alternative – apathetic? Most of us will at some point find ourselves playing small to hugely instrumental roles in shaping strangers’ lives, and making such choices on a day to day basis. Actively. Deliberately. Lazily. Rejecting loans. Screening transfer/job/visa/marriage/asylum seeking applications. Ruling on child custody/appeal/life sentences.

And more often that not, these choices WILL remain insignificant to us, one ‘task’ out of a hundred others; periphery to our own busy, individual lives. But sometimes they do not.

I think it largely comes down to a theory of abstraction. The higher the degrees of separation between you (or often your computer screen) and your object of action, the more legitimately excused you are of empathy. From sitting in a stuffy office – to consuming as an innocent (in all other interpretations of the word) consumer in a rich country. Or so it seems. When are we ever truly innocent?

Consumerism and its ethical consequences is THE greatest moral challenge of our time. Slavery Footprint, an interactive tool that calculates how many slaves work for you – yes you dear reader – provides a somewhat forceful nudge back to this fact.

It also offers up casual, terrible facts such as these:

How do I look in this dirt?

Every day tens of thousands of American women buy makeup. Every day tens of thousands of Indian children mine mica, which is the little sparklies in the makeup.

Shrimp Cocktail, Anyone?

Bonded labor is used for much of Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, which supplies more shrimp to the U.S. than any other country. Laborers work up to 20-hour days to peel 40 pounds of shrimp. Those who attempt to escape are under constant threat of violence or sexual assault.

Dig Out. Plug In.

Coltan is an effective capacitor found in electronics. A U.S. State Department official was interviewed about Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, “The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.”

School’s out for cotton.

1.4 million children have been forced to work in Uzbek cotton fields. There are fewer children in the entire New York City public school system.

This wonderful interactive methodology combines facts with a plan for action – nothing much here to critique – but the one thing I do have beef with is this.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.23 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.40 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.50 AM

Is this line of comfort supposed to feel genuine?

After all – when are we ever truly innocent?

Individually, maybe yes. Collectively, historically though – no way. Guiltily gilded guilt. But here’s the thing. What counts as collective, and what counts as individual? Are consumers a shapeless, irreducible group or is each consumer directly accountable to the consequences of his/her own consumption?

I think our need for innocence, for assurances of non-guilt which naturally graduates into a sense if entitlement, both intellectually and materially – is the greatest toy the Politician can have. All of them – I say the Politician to represent multinationals, the Establishment, anyone who stands to gain more than the average Joe from the status quo. And boy is it working – because it always has. Until now.

The ironic, despairing truth is that the existence of each of us is, to varying degrees, a configuration of guilt, shame and complicity. Advertising – glitzy, soothing, indulgent and always affirmative – dulls this reality.

But the rapidly expanding, dizzying freedom of information that is flowing in from exploited corners of the world – anarchical and held down by no one – pierces through all this bullshit. In broadcasting photos of bloody, fuming carnage from Syria, or breaking down the average number of slaves that work for you, we are no longer allowed to lounge around in a fog of comfortable ignorance. And hallelujah.

Miller said that ‘in this age of information, ignorance is a choice.’

This declaration that I hope, no I am sure, will become increasingly less true as information pervades every millimetre of our social consciousness.



*Just as an elucidator: My number was 52.

photo (19)

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