Has this ever happened to you? You’re using a colored pencil to draw when all of a sudden…SNAP! The tip breaks off leaving you with a useless shard and an imprecise, blunt drawing instrument. You decide to sharpen the pencil, but it’s not working. The wood is too soft or the lead is too fragile, and the tip keeps breaking off before you can taper it as much as you desire. Eventually, you give up because continuing to sharpen it is not granting you the results that you want. I mean, what is the point?
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But now, on a more serious note…
Even though I write about creativity, compassion, and positivity, in real life, I am very much inclined to resign myself to futility. In fact, one could argue that the reason why I try to put such a positive, helpful spin on the articles that I write is to convince myself that altruism isn’t futile. I practice positive talk in my written words, hoping that I can incorporate more of it into my thoughts and the words I speak.
It’s hard sometimes.
It feels like the more you learn about any particular topic, the more you realize that change usually happens small and slow, without much impact coming from any single individual. Forget the Dunning-Kruger Effect with its “valley of despair.” Looking into any issue will at some point leave you in a valley of futility.
I had a brush with these negative thoughts last week shortly after I published my article A Self-Planned Education: What Would You Learn in a Decade?. I was nervous posting that article, but I quickly began to receive comments from people who enjoyed reading it and wanted to engage in interesting conversations about personally driven education. And then, just a few hours later, I received a notification that someone had linked to that blog post. This was not a share or a reblog. It was not someone who was inspired by my article and decided to write their own response to its fundamental question. Nor was it someone who disagreed with me who wanted to write about those differences. No, this was someone who had copied my work, changed a few of the words and phrases (many of which were changed so that they were no longer correct), and reposted it to their own website that was not in any way affiliated with WordPress. My copyright had been infringed.
I was frustrated, and that frustration prompted me to write this blog post, requesting advice. I wanted to take action.
I also knew that I should give myself a little while to actually consider what my next move should be. I always make kinder and overall better choices when I have given myself time to calm down from my initial emotions.
The next day, I did more digging into the website where my content was reuploaded, and found that this was the way that they get all their content. I couldn’t find a single article that was originally written for this website. I also couldn’t tell whether any of the people who post to this website hold the copyrights on any of the material.
In that moment, I felt a sense of futility. I could pump hours and hours into getting my post taken down and still not make a dent in the stolen material on the site. My efforts likely wouldn’t prevent the same website from stealing copyrighted content in the future. I don’t have the ability to take any sort of legal action right now, either, so the results of any action I could take would be small at best. What was the point of pouring my energy into this if the best-case scenario consequences would be so tiny?
Like I said, this feeling of futility is common-place for me. I presume that it’s very common for a lot of other people, too.
Here’s a different example: consider the low-waste movement. One person switching from single use paper coffee cups to bringing their own reusable cup to the coffee shop is not going to make a big difference. What’s the point if my individual actions only save a single tree from being cut down throughout my whole lifetime?
Dig into these ideas further and the perceived futility can even increase. For example, opting for single-use plastic grocery bags might actually have a smaller environmental impact than purchasing reusable cotton ones, even if you use those cotton ones possibly up to hundreds of times. And when you throw in the human element and attempt to make changes regarding issues like medicine, addiction, or education, the uselessness of individual changes seems greater.
To me, it seems counter-intuitive that digging into the research about social, animal, and environmental issues could have the effect of dissuading me from action rather than encouraging it, but that has been my experience. In our modern times, even well-intentioned actions can reap negative consequences because of how complicated and interconnected the world is. (No spoilers, but The Good Place explores this issue in a really fascinating and entertaining way. I highly recommend that show.) What’s the point of taking positive actions when they might have negative repercussions, anyway?
There are several points, but I’ll only speak about three of them. First of all, a lot of small actions can lead to much bigger changes. If large numbers of people each eliminated the need for a single tree to be chopped down for their paper use, that could add up to a whole forest-worth of trees that no longer need to be felled. If every content creator who had their work reposted on the same website as mine took action, we could cause the website to shut down or at least pivot to original content.
“You can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that you can do.“Shelbi from Shelbizleee on YouTube
Secondly, standing up for yourself and your values has its own intrinsic worth. I’ve noticed that when my actions align with my ideals, I feel better. I have more self-esteem.
Finally, people who see you taking positive actions in kind and relatable ways might be encouraged to take their own small steps. Most people want to do good in the world, but it’s hard to know how. Your example might be the thing that prompts them to action.
In a poem that I wrote for this blog but never ended up posting, I crafted the lines “I know that it’s not enough just to say these words./I know that my thoughts and prayers are just as empty/As those mouths that they promise to feed.” I constantly need to remind myself that good intentions are not enough. They must lead to good actions.
With my stolen content, saying that I am against copyright infringement is not enough. I must actively try to get the copyrighted material removed.
In the case of the website that reposted my copyrighted content, I don’t think that enough people will request their own take downs from them to make any real change. After all, most of the articles they steal come from big news sites that likely have much larger and more pressing legal issues to deal with. However, standing up for myself and getting my article removed sends them a message that I am not okay with them taking my content, and it tells me that I am willing to fight for my rights as a content creator. Leaving up the post that talks about my stolen article shows other people that they are not alone in having their content taken, that the WordPress community will support them in their efforts to stand up for their rights as copyright holders, and that standing up for yourself in this way will (hopefully) result in some actions from the people who stole the material.
A story that I read at the end of last week, “The Best of All Summers” by Bobby Stevenson, contains these words “‘Don’t you ever believe that what we did was in vain, son. Never think that…Nothing is in vain. Always, always remember that. Everything matters.'” (I highly recommend reading the whole story for the context.) Actions that align with your beliefs and values matter. They produce effects. Those effects might be smaller or different than what you want or expect, but they are present. All we can do is to keep taking these actions to become better people and make society better, monitoring the results of those actions, and changing our approach when it isn’t working. That is the point.