After I dropped a cup of ice on the floor, my grandma looked at me and whispered, “kick it under the fridge.” It felt slightly transgressive, but then again, hasn’t everyone done it? We know it’s wrong to cover up small mistakes instead of correcting them, but it’s easy. In fact, the ceremonial kicking of the ice cube under the fridge is representative of a much deeper problem with how Americans solve problems. The actions we choose to take are extremely expedient. In other words, we are willing to sacrifice morals at the expense of convenience. However, as the Ancient Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger so critically stated, “Expediency often silences justice.” We know kicking the ice underneath the fridge is wrong, but we keep doing it because it’s so much easier than picking it up. And although the worst result of kicking an ice cube under the fridge is a puddle of water, my concern is that our expedient problem solving processes can have more dire results than a cup of melted ice. Thus, it is essential that we learn to recognise why we make decisions so we can make more educated judgments.
Not only does my grandmother give me morally questionable advice, but my grandfather too. As a kid, when eating dinner at their house, my grandpa would tell me and my sisters to just brush the crumbs off of our hands and onto the floor. His advice made me think that when we want to dispose of something, we can throw it in the trash, or brush it off our hands, and it disappears forever. Gone. But does it really disappear?
Almost everything we own was made to be thrown away. The trashcan is the graveyard of every object’s journey. Beginning in the 1950s the U.S. entered an era of throwaway life – or in better words, the expedient life that has ceased to end. Plastic companies sold the U.S. public on the concept of one-time use, disposable products. After all, it’s easier to buy a pack of plastic plates than it is to wash our own dishes. Rather than working with slightly slower tech in order to use it until it is no longer useful, it’s easier to buy the new iPhone and trash the old one. Landfills, e-waste, plastic utensils, and plastic plates. Our society has become disposable without feeling the consequences. Our neglect for the environment is a prime example of our expediency: let the land rot now because we won’t have to deal with the consequences in our lifetime. But as the Dalai Lama expressed, “If we continue to approach problems from the perspective of temporary expediency, future generations will face tremendous difficulties.” It is essential we internalize that normalizing expediency does not excuse its moral implications. Our expediency has the potential to cost us our existence.
I have five cousins, and one of our favourite pastimes is sharing stories about our grandfather, Thomas Thomas. Some more interesting advice from my grandparents is that when sifting through garage sales, always buy an item if you don’t know what it is. Our last reunion consisted of exploring why he sent us all the same picture of an egg shaped object, and asked what we thought it was. If you’ve never seen a playboy vintage condom holder, I strongly encourage looking it up. And while my grandpa apparently collects condom holders, my grandma collects history books. Following her recommendation to read more history books, I found myself doing random shelf picks in the history section at Barnes and Noble, and one day I grabbed Mein Kampf off the shelf. While I didn’t read a page of the book, its existence pre-WWII is critical.
In 1945, the Western World claimed ignorance of Hitler’s crimes, but in my hand was the exposition for WWII. As Abraham Foxman, former Director of the Anti-Defamation League expresses, “Mein Kampf’s existence denies the free world the excuse of ignorance.” In 1925 Hitler published an ugly dream, then became Chancellor of Germany, and began consolidating power and invading neighboring countries while the nations of the world stood still. Today, Iran pushes the boundaries of peace, but no one acts. China imprisons over a million Uyghurs, but no one speaks. Climate researchers issue warnings, but no one listens. For far too long, those with the power to act have done what is easy, rather than what is right. Being expedient is not just trashing the recycling. Being expedient is having power yet acting as a bystander when a situation demands action. The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, yet for years it has been the pioneer of expedient action. The U.S. has the power to end wars and to create hope and equality, but we’d rather have oil over justice. Screenwriter Samuel Fuller summed up this criticism perfectly when he stated, “We’ll build a democracy here, even if it’s with Nazi bricks.” The U.S. willingly engages in arm sales with Saudi Arabia, despite their repetitive bombing of hospitals in Yemen. Despite their ruthless assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Despite their hundreds of human rights violations. America is complicit in crimes so long as we profit.
To be fair, my grandparents are not the only strange ones in my family. I thrive through making people uncomfortable. I love having deep conversations with people I have recently met. It can make the other person uncomfortable, but it’s a great way to get to know someone. While attempting to have a conversation about systemic racism with my friend Elmo, he told me that he doesn’t see color. Really, Elmo? How can that phrase still be used in 2021? Well, according to a 2018 poll from the Pew Research Center, it turns out 58% of Americans believe racism is still a major problem. If such a big portion of the population sees racism as a major problem, why is discourse such a challenge? It’s because ignoring difficult topics is easy – it’s expedient. After all, it’s easier to say “I don’t see color” than talk about the depth, pain, and complexity of racism. Although initially it may be easier to not talk about a difficult topic, when we deny ourselves true discourse, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to find solutions. Pretending problems don’t exist when we know they do is only prolonging their effects. The effects of racism are dire: police brutality, senseless death, a disproportionate number of black communities dying from COVID-19, and mass incarceration.
Expedient problem solving is not something that is going to be solved in a single article, or perhaps not even a lifetime. But this should not discourage us from starting. Maya Angelou understood the importance of taking the time to do things the right way. Her words can lead us in the right direction. “Just do right. Right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul.” Doing what is right rather than what is comfortable is not easy. However, many times the right choices are also the most profitable choices long term. We must change our perspective to see that the right choice will save us, and the expedient one will lead to our demise. While it may be convenient today to trash the recycling, in the near future it will be much more convenient that we don’t have an ocean full of trash and a land full of rotting plastic that can’t degrade. Instead of making easy choices now, we need to consider the long term effects and shift our thinking to the future. We must be proactive, not reactive. Oftentimes doing what is right means dealing with confrontation, being uncomfortable, and being in situations we would rather avoid. However, it will pay off in the end.
So the next time you find yourself in the kitchen with ice on the floor, take a second to pick it up. The next time you walk by a piece of litter on campus, take a second to pick it up. It takes all of us. While picking up ice may seem miniscule, each and every action adds up to create habit. If we could all be a little better each day, the world will be a much better place. Just do right.