Fundamentals: Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted

Been a while since I’ve done one of these, huh? If you’re not familiar, Fundamentals is a series where I discuss what I regard as fundamental ideas which underpin what I talk about on this site. These are the basic assumptions, How I Approach the World 101, written primarily so that I can point to them and say “go here” instead of having to periodically reiterate them. 

There’s an old maxim in journalism, which occasionally shows up in other fields: “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” Its meaning, in journalism at least, is fairly straightforward: avoid running stories in ways that make things worse for people in pain (for example, don’t publish the names of crime victims unless they want you to), and actively seek out stories that help people in trouble (for example, covering the negative impact of oppressive policies) or make life more difficult for people in positions of power (for example, uncovering a political scandal).

But I regard this as more than just a standard of journalistic ethics. It is a fundamental moral principle that underpins a lot of what I do, and so it’s worth unpacking a bit.

That “comfort the afflicted” is an important moral principle should go without saying. When people need help, you offer to help. (Helping, not saving, of course, but I’ve covered that elsewhere.) But why is it necessary to afflict the comfortable?

The answer is simple: communal responsibility. We are each of us responsible for bettering our own communities and cultures, which necessarily means subjecting them to scrutiny and change. This necessarily means that the members of our community who are comfortable with things as they are must be shaken up–if we are not disturbing them, then we are not improving our communities.

And this has wide-reaching implications. The common adage to “punch up, not kick down” is just a restatement of this principle. It’s why “reverse racism,” “men’s rights,” and “class war against the rich” are prima facie nonsensical, because whiteness, manhood, and wealth are excessively comfortable, safe positions in our society, and so puncturing their bubble of comfort is a necessary exercise in communal responsibility. That changes in our society are being perceived as afflictions by the comfortable serve as evidence that these changes are a good idea–or, to put it another way, the comments thread on any post about feminism demonstrates the necessity of feminism.

It is simply not enough to just help people who need help. Fundamental social change is required, and to achieve that will necessarily mean making people uncomfortable.

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