It is a common scene in movies and television shows that the protagonist is down on their luck and everything is going wrong for them, and then they or their side kick utter the phrase, “It could always be worse,” which is then followed usually by a torrential downfall of rain. We’ve seen this time and time again, and we usually laugh at the ridiculousness of the scenario. Is, however, this really that ridiculous?
All of my life I have been told this line by many people – parents, teachers, friends, myself – yet I did not hear it nearly as much as I have since becoming more involved in feminism and transgender rights issues. Now I hear some version of this line on a near daily basis, and I have to say I’m pretty fed up with it.
In recent times I have heard the line used in regards to the protests and police brutality going on in various parts of the United States such as Ferguson and more recently Baltimore. “Oh, well, at least black people aren’t being treated as badly now as they were 50 years ago. Progress!” “The cops were just killing ‘thugs’ at least they weren’t killing innocent people.” (Debatable in some of these cases, and a non violent criminal act does not justify murder at the hands of the law in any case.) “Who cares that a few people of color were killed by cops, more white people are killed by cops.” (The latter is true, but the claim is misrepresented as even though more white people are killed by cops in total, far more black people are killed by cops per capita.) But, it doesn’t stop there. I’ve heard the line applied to LGBT people multiple times, most recently, “Gay people aren’t persecuted in the United States by not being granted rights, you should see the countries where people get put to death for being gay.” And even when it comes to women’s treatment and rights, “Women have no more issues to face in the Western world, feminism should only concentrate on the third world where women have less rights.” (I don’t completely disagree, at least I do agree feminism should focus more on the third world. However, it is naive and foolish to say that there are not still a ton of gender inequality issues in the first world, and nay-Sayers usually ignore the fact that most of us don’t have the money to travel to other countries to help directly, rather we have to rely on electronic support which is limited).
All of these cases are people (usually opponents or critics of the group or cause) taking a separate situation and comparing it to the situation at hand to make it seem that the current situation is not important. This however, is in itself a fallacy. Just because one thing is important does not mean something else is not. Just because there are countries where queer people can be publicly hanged and executed for their sexual orientation, does not mean that we should just be happy with being second class citizens in a country where we can not be legally killed for it. It’s utterly ridiculous how many cases this excuse is applied to, and even more ridiculous how many of the people oppressed by this line of reasoning cling on to it as true.
Now, I’m not saying that there is absolutely no merit to saying that it could be worse. Sure, that’s probably true on an ultimate level in all cases (just take about any situation and set anyone on fire), but it is not true many times in a practical sense. Yes, we, as a people, do need to prioritize in some cases. Thus why the hashtag #blacklivesmatter instead of #alllivesmatter, when both statements are equally true. However, it is not all groups that are equally being oppressed or harmed, thus we do need to prioritize some to focus and heal on areas that need it most. That is not to say that it should come at the expense of everyone else, but in most cases it really does not.
Let’s take a look back at my first example of the ongoing police brutality and murder of people of color. As I stated before, some will point out that numbers wise more white people are killed by cops. They say this as a way to downplay people of color being killed by cops, when really they should use this as more fuel to the fire to help change things. If a lot of white people are being killed by cops, why is that a reason to stop fighting police brutality? If anything this statistic should unite people of all race’s against a system which gives the police far too much power and far too little accountability. Yet, instead of uniting people, people use this statistic to point out how it could be worse (once again mistakenly if going by numbers per capita which is more important) and fight each other instead of uniting against a common oppressor.
This excuse has to stop. Who are we really helping by saying it could be worse? Are we making things better for ourselves or for the people we are comparing our situation to? No, not at all. Instead by making this excuse we are sitting around ignoring all that is going on because, “It could be worse.” Yes, it could always be worse, and we must always be grateful for and aware of the advantages and privileges that we do have. But, that is not to say that we need to settle for mud because we could have shit. We should still strive for gold over mud, that is why today things are better in much of the world than they ever have been. Because our ancestors did strive for more because they saw where things could be worse, but they also saw where they could be better, and instead for settling for what they had, they aimed for the better. We could still have better though, and I personally will strive for that better instead of being content things aren’t worse.
Perhaps the phrase it could be worse does have some application when teaching a child to be grateful for what they have or when things are not going in one’s favor, but when it comes to changing the world, truly, “It could always be worse.” is an excuse that could not be worse.