Lately, I have come across a lot of people suffering from It-Could-Be-Worse (ICBW) Syndrome. Symptoms include:
- Dismissing socio-political concerns due to the fact that worse problems exist somewhere in the world
- Putting issues on a hierarchy based on what “deserves” attention and what doesn’t
- Belonging to single-issue causes only
- Denying the larger socio-political and historical contexts of issues
For example, according to some (mostly white) pro-Palestinians, the regular murder of Black people in the USA should not even be considered a problem, due to the fact that people in Gaza are being killed at a faster rate. They actually argued against Palestinians showing solidarity towards Ferguson because of this. I don’t think they went far enough. Wait! No, forget Gaza, because millions of people worldwide starve to death every year. But forget starving people! Because climate change will soon wipe us all off the earth, killing billions! It’s exhausting, and always comes to one inevitable conclusion: Only the worst of the worst problem in the world deserves any attention by anybody, and there is of course a clear hierarchy based on number of dead bodies/value of the lives taken/etc.
The argument can be used against people with mental illness too, and it is especially personal then. “Get off your ass and stop being depressed; there are starving kids in Africa” is one that I’ve heard and read so many permutations of, it’s hard to count. Note the reference to the entire, diverse, second-largest continent in the world as a homogeneous “country.” Africa is a favourite scapegoat of people with ICBW Syndrome. Mental illness is perhaps the most poorly understood category of illness, and even the most aware of individuals can succumb to ICBW Syndrome when mental health is being addressed.
I was recently talking to a guy about the elections in New Zealand, discussing the recently exposed corruption of our current government, which has now made world-wide press. He said it didn’t matter, because things in Iraq were much worse. People killed to be in political power there! He then went on to say how spoiled New Zealanders were because we have a benefit system and public healthcare (which has, ironically, been cut significantly by the current government).
This is, of course, ignoring the larger problem: In this case, that corruption exists at all, and infiltrates even the most “stable” democracies. But another problem with socio-economic and historical context was revealed by that conversation: That even in the countries in the world with stronger social protections in place, poverty is still a problem. By claiming that Kiwis are spoiled, this guy was blaming the poor for their poverty in New Zealand, because they couldn’t cope even in a system that wasn’t as horrific as what some have experienced in Iraq.
This argument is one I see more from well-off people who are from wealthier countries, especially those who have visited poorer countries. They insist that the poor here need to suck it up because at least it’s nothing like [insert poorer country here]. Instead of acknowledging that things are bad here too, it’s an either/or kind of logic. People with this syndrome cannot connect issues across borders, and therefore it is impossible to understand how a global system like capitalism or imperialism could be a causal factor. They cannot see how liberal reforms act as Band-Aids that mask some, but not all, problems with capitalism in wealthier countries.
ICBW Syndrome is a very dangerous disease. It causes not only apathy, but actual victim-blaming and brings sometimes otherwise liberal people to adopt surprisingly conservative ideologies. Initial acknowledgement of the insidiousness of capital is an effective treatment and can stave off the worst symptomes, but it is not a cure, as even socialists aren’t immune. Only a constant, critical analysis of the interconnected effects of capitalism, racism, and imperialism can protect an individual from the antisocial verbal vomit associated with ICBW Syndrome.