Nobody Really Cares About Social Justice (And Here’s Why)

Suzanne Tucker /
Suzanne Tucker /

Empathy is a resource, and like any resource it is limited. If you don’t believe me, feel free to attempt the following thought experiment—picture everybody from your 8th-grade math class at school—that’s, what, 30-40 people, right? Now, in spite of the fact that you probably couldn’t stand half of them, try to hope that they’re all doing OK in life and that none of them is now dead or addicted to drugs. It’s not that hard to do, so let’s make things a little more difficult: Try picturing everyone in your entire grade, and search deep inside of yourself for some compassion and concern regarding their collective well-being. Once you’ve done that, I want you to picture everybody at the whole school at once and honestly try to give a shit about all of them with that image in mind. You can’t do it, and if you claim otherwise then you’re simply being dishonest. The reason is simple and scientifically verified to boot.

The number of people with whom we can have meaningful relationships at any given time is approximately 150. It is called Dunbar’s number, named after Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary anthropologist who devised the theory behind it. Put simply, our primitive ancestors limited the populations of their tribes to 150 members because through natural selection, that turned out to be the average optimal number for their continued existence. Various animal species, such as bonobo chimps, mirror our selective empathetic abilities in this regard, and you can find countless nature documentaries depicting the furry little bastards exiling the slowest and weakest among them to assure the proper conservation of shelter and food. As much as we laugh at monkeys for their poo-hurling, flea-picking antics, we are much the same where caring is concerned.

This evolutionary setback is attributed as being a major factor in many of our ongoing social problems. Look at the kidnapped Nigerian girls, for example. If there had been 150 of them taken instead of nearly 300, they might have already been saved by now. It sounds ridiculous, but then again we humans are ridiculous creatures. Maybe someday in the future we will have the scope of empathy required to care about everybody at once—certain sects of Buddhist monks are already well on their way—but it’s unlikely to be anytime soon. It is for this reason that so much egalitarian rhetoric falls flat on the ears of the unconverted. Expecting people to care about vast swaths of society all at the same time, let alone repenting for one’s privilege to ensure their betterment, is not only difficult; it simply can’t be done.

Of course, people don’t want to hear this—especially those who preach about the virtues of social justice and proselytize against the evils of competitive living and self-preservation—but facts is facts and can’t be reversed through wishful thinking alone. When you chide somebody for not caring about your oppression of choice, and particularly when you do so over their lack of contact with said victims of oppression, you neglect to consider that they may well be doing their best to care about the maximum number of people that is already humanly possible.

Telling them that they’re caring about the wrong people because you disagree with their values is, ironically, selfish. The problem with cultural Marxism is that it acknowledges that there just ain’t enough love to go around while failing to offer any solutions. Case in point: If you’re a gay-rights activist, why aren’t you helping the fat-pride community as well? If you’re worried about crack babies, then surely meth babies should be deserving of your attention, too. You could argue that the cause you claim to fight for is objectively more in need of your focus in the present moment, but why does that mean that you can’t at least try to extend your concern to everybody who clearly deserves it on some level or another? Are you honestly spending every waking hour doing your absolute best to help every human being in need and devoting the entirety of your thought to the world’s various marginalized groups?

Of course you aren’t, and of course you can’t, because we humans are ridiculous creatures. We may not always be, but until such a time passes that we’re not, you’d be better off caring about people as you meet them instead of trying to worry about the struggles of millions of people at once. Anything less will just burn you out and there are enough sociopaths out there who are fully prepared to hand you a pre-packaged social crusade to engage in simply because they know that it makes you feel noble to fight for something, however futile the fight may be. And of course, those people only care about themselves. Do yourself a favor and start caring less; we’ll all be better off for your efforts. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


More From Thought Catalog