One of the things I did while in Boston in July was take a lazy couple of hours and watch some television, just for entertainment’s sake. I often watch documentaries, usually without knowing much about them, and I caught hold of one called The Internet’s Own Boy, about the activism and untimely death of Aaron Swartz. Most people are aware of him in some sense; he was a child prodigy, programmer, and political strategist who was instrumental in helping defeat SOPA and PIPA, and he was harried down by the grinding machinery of US federal law enforcement for his hand in it.
The documentary is extremely well done, and while it’s clearly not without bias, it’s an informative retrospective of what was (what still is, really; Aaron committed suicide in 2013, at the age of 26) a very confusing time in terms of digital rights and the conflict between big business and personal freedom. It’s not without its triggers; it deals very heavily with suicide and survivorhood in a way that offers a pretty deep emotional impact. But it’s a good piece of film.
Regardless of all this, what stood out for me was the use and re-use of the phrase “make the world a better place”. It’s used at least three times in the documentary, first by Aaron himself as a young teen in his blog.
It struck me as I was watching it that it’s one of those phrases that has become a word, in the sense that we don’t often deconstruct the phrase into its component parts. “Maketheworldabetterplace” is a word, really, that implies an idealistic, apolitical, vague desire to do something that is unimpeachably good. It may carry connotations of global aspiration, but it’s not something we ever really examine too closely. Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place? Even people who spend their entire lives doing things that make the world a materially worse place can express the desire to make it a better one. Wanting to, in some sense, means never having to act on the want.
And it’s not that I think Aaron Swartz didn’t want to, or that he didn’t. He very visibly did make the world a better place. But in the twelve years since he wrote that, he modified the philosophy of it; at the age of twenty-six, at least according to his friends, what he wanted was for everyone to think about what they could be doing to improve things, and then do it. General to specific, and who wouldn’t expect general from an ultra-bright but still young teenager. It interested me that the people who said it about him — “He wanted to make the world a better place” — were often his elders by many years, and while most of them are activists themselves, they didn’t deconstruct the phrase either. It’s a tidy nip of faint praise, easily spoken.
It’s really the phrase-word that interests me. It’s such a passive first step; it doesn’t require any other action. “I will make the world a better place” demands an additional “and here’s how” on the end of it. “Here’s how” often demands attention paid to various things that nobody really wants to deal with and rightly so, because they’re exhausting: what material goods (money, office space, computers) are required to accomplish it, whether the “how” is morally and ethically correct, and if so, whose morals and ethics; who is hurt by the achievement of the how. The French Revolution is heralded as conceptually good, but was mainly accomplished by the middle class throwing the peasantry at the system until it broke under the weight of their bodies. Privileged advocates of various civil rights often sacrifice intersectionality when it becomes inconvenient. Making the world a better place isn’t a staircase; it’s an obstacle course where if you fall off the balance beam you might take a significant part of the world you were trying to improve with you.
Very few people who want world peace can name all the conflicts we’d have to end in order to achieve it. Lord knows, I can’t. That’s all right; while I want world peace, the creation of it isn’t the activism I’ve chosen to pursue. It’s all right not to be all things to all causes, even if “make the world a better place” seems to imply the opposite.
There is power in phrases and the more common they are, the more powerful they can sometimes be, because that power becomes invisible. Things become strings of syllables, shorthand (or rather, overly-long-hand) for wider philosophies that are the background white noise of our discourse.
The older I get, the more careful I am to choose not just words but phrases with care.