Someone Else’s Problem

The science fiction author Douglas Adams wrote about an advance he called a “Somebody Else’s Problem field.” How it works is based on this principle:

“An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem… The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch by surprise out of the corner of your eye. ” Life, the Universe and Everything

It goes on to describe how a “Somebody Else’s Problem field” works.

“The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind bogglingly complex that 999, 999, 999 times out of 1 billion it simpler just to take the thing away and do  without it… The ‘Somebody Else’s Problem field’ is much simpler, more effective, and can be run for over 100 years on a single torch battery.

“This is because it relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to,  weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

In the action of this series of novels, SEP fields mean things can be hidden in plain sight, people are able to fly, and the universe can be safely traversed by arguing over a restaurant bill. The disturbing aspect of this principle is that people try to use it in real life.

Suppose you have an extreme problem with the number of homeless people in Kansas City. You don’t have a lot of interest in trying to change the causes of homelessness, or even providing services to help keep them alive. So for a one-time expense, you buy them one way bus tickets to St. Louis. Homelessness in Kansas City has become Somebody Else’s Problem. Easy, right? Not so. The problem is gone and out of sight, but there’s no guarantee others won’t become homeless, or the homeless people you exported won’t find a way back. If the people in St. Louis figure out what you’ve done, they surely  won’t trust you or work with you on anything significant. Heaven help you if someone goes over the edge and decides to come back and take it out on those who shipped them off, or any random individual they can find.

In the story we’re uncovering about the Central American exodus, part of the bad situation in Honduras was created by gang members being deported back there from Los Angeles, members of gangs who function in both LA and Central America. The very people who are creating the hostile climate which the poor are trying to flee are people we decided to make Someone Else’s Problem. Since the governments of Central America are incapable of controlling their gangs, our “solution” comes back to haunt us.

This syndrome doesn’t only work in larger contexts. It’s a frequent temptation to push our problems off on other people, preferably people we don’t know or don’t like. It’s cathartic, it’s easy, it makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something when we really haven’t. It also doesn’t let us reflect on our own shortcomings or look at how the world we inhabit may be flawed in ways we can mend.

The problem with “Someone Else’s Problem” is it’s self-destructive behavior in the long run. It’s like avoiding a sink full of dirty dishes: the dishes are going to stay there, stay dirty, and eventually create problems we can’t get away from easily. It also destroys any kind of communal effort, whether it be a family, a business, or government. There are times when something legitimately is not our responsibility, and we do have a right to enforce our boundaries. However, unless were incapable to affect a problem for the good in any way shape or form, it’s usually in our best interests to do something, both in maintaining positive relationships and avoiding bigger problems in the future.

The other extreme of making other people’s problems when they clearly aren’t ours is just as dangerous. A conservative would probably call this a typical liberal thing to do and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Trying to help someone when you don’t have anything significant to add other than your ego is a bad strategy. If there was a time in my life this happened, it would be the latter half of the ’70s. The “Politically  Correct” language movement and its drive to absurd levels is probably a good example of that: it can be hard to say anything if you have to pick your way through a minefield of infinite personal sensitivities. Adding inalienable rights without responsibilities or apparent need, inventing problems to impose policies is equally as bad: Missouri did this at the last election when it made gun ownership an “inalienable right” (yes, we have to protect that right until someone proves themselves criminally insane, such as by shooting someone who doesn’t have a gun.)

Of course, the best way to deal with “Someone Else’s Problem” is to help with problems it if it’s in our capability and compassion indicates we should. That would seem to be not only reasonable thing to do, but a charitable one as well. Making something “Someone Else’s Problem” doesn’t seem to fit with “love one another as I have loved you.”

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