Most people are trying to carve out a positive impact on their world. In our world of 7 billion people, most of them are not going to be pushing in every direction. We exist in pursuit of what we choose to prioritize. There is no place where this is more evident than a college campus. No one is perfect, but most of us are striving to be better.
It is perfectly normal for someone who is focusing deeply on their passion to begin to develop tunnel vision. If a person is in law school, chances are that they do not spend much time thinking about the effect of microplastics on the life cycle of the albatross. Similarly, a biologist may not know the ins and outs of the wage models for reparations for slavery, but both of these people are pushing toward making their world better.
That said, there is a positive impact left by most pursuits in the real world. A truck driver may not have a need to offer their pronouns when they go to work, because it is not something that has come up in their workplace. That same trucker may donate some of their income to non-profits that help LGBTQ+ youth.
There are also people who, whether they mean to, make the world worse. Looking at our history, there have been people who have pushed toward a more negative world. There are people today who are very obviously intolerant, and they have an active hand in the cruelty that we see. There is, though, a difference between people who neglect to pay attention to some causes and people who operate in bad faith.
There is no need for everyone to know everything about everything. As we find new ways to develop the world that we want, it is up to us to inform our communities. That said, the standards are changing quickly now. Our society has a number of issues, some of them are political, some are economic, some are racial, some are ecological and some are psychological.
The people who are working on each of these avenues may ignore the progress being made on others, and so, they are ignorant of the rules that have been formed along the way.
New rules are instituted constantly, it is what we owe to each other: It is the social contract. The rules change as our world shifts because these rules have to govern people that also continuously change. It is a good thing that we are trying to put together rules that are meant to really help people, and it is a great thing that the rules we decide on are meant to enforce and ensure progress.
Along the way, we sometimes forget to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Until we work to understand someone, we can not judge whether they are working in good faith or bad faith. If a person is working in good faith, they are trying to make progress honestly. A person working in bad faith is genuinely against a world that is kinder, healthier or more open.
The idea of being woke is that we are paying attention. We can see what the system is doing to us. We can see how it robs us of the humanity of our day-to-day lives. Yet, the idea of wokeness splits people into two categories: the awake and the asleep.
And that is not a fair categorization. We all live on a spectrum of awareness. We will meet people who work in good faith and others who act in bad faith. We can only hope to understand them properly, to help and appreciate people who want to better their world. No one is fully aware of everything all the time. The idea of being “awake” to the evils of the world and our own internalized faults can become an excuse to slow or stop growth.
There is no definitive point at which we switch from unconsciousness to consciousness. What we do is wake up every morning and work on what we care about, since there is always more work to do. There is always more changes to make. The issue with calling a person woke is that it designates them as a person whose journey is complete, it is to say that they have reached the mountaintop. In reality, that perfection just is not something we can ever reach.
There are no wolves, there are no sheep, but the words we use to describe ourselves in the short term are the words that define our era. No one is truly woke. No one is truly and completely asleep. There are mainly just people who are trying to make their world a better place.
Mustafa Sheikh is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior majoring in public health and minoring in biology. His column, "From the Mountaintop," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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