A Nonfiction Book by O.G. Rose
Belonging Again (Part 18)
Can activism provide us “rest?”
Could activism provide us Cosmopolitans with “belonging?” Could social justice? Concerns about social justice are growing, thankfully, as embodied in the movements like Black Lives Matters. Certainly, there is a time and place for activism; in fact, America was founded on a revolution, and some of its greatest moral evolutions have occurred thanks to activism. However, on the particular question of whether activism can provide “belonging,” the question seems to ultimately ask, “Can ‘purpose’ provide ‘belonging?’” (a question which will be addressed later), both of which I’m not sure about but will need to think through.
Activism exists precisely because there isn’t “rest,” and so any “rest” it might provide will be in a “restless” context. Though activism can provide people with purpose and help end injustices that restrict “rest,” it only exists so long as there are injustices which need to be righted: its existence is unstable. Activism needs a problem to solve, and if the problem is solved, so too will be effaced away any and all “rest.” Furthermore, activism is a manifestation of ‘the shift […] to the will (as a means of changing the world)’ that defines Modernity (according to Conyers), and it is exactly this shift ‘from the intellect (as a means of understanding the world)’ that has profoundly contributed to “unrest.”¹ In fact, by virtue of fighting injustice and hence believing injustice exists, activism holds a complex relationship with the society in which it occurs. On the one hand, the fact it tries to make the society “more just” (as defined by the activists, rightly or wrongly) is evidence that the activism cares about the civilization, but on the other hand, it’s “just rage” is precisely “toward” that same society. It’s a love/hate relationship, one that is likely to contribute to existential anxiety and tension, though perhaps ultimately for the better.
Yes, the Civil Rights movement was necessary so that minorities could find a place in the society, but when movements become identities, they might be kept alive longer than needed and search for new problems to justify their continual existence. If activism becomes how people attempt to establish for themselves identity and community — if it becomes a way of life — activism can ironically become a source of divisiveness and tension. Activism is best when “eternally vigilant” but not a characteristic of people’s identity (say as is a risk when people call themselves “activists”), when it results from a people feeling threatened or rightly angered by an injustice, versus feel they must protest to be themselves. Activism by definition needs a cause, and if people must always be activists to be themselves, they must always find and/or create a cause. They will never rest, nor will they let society. Activism must remind us that the world is broken.
If activism is a people, per se, even if the activism could give those people “belonging,” it could still threaten the society and contribute to a destabilization that would possibly undermine that very “quiet certainty.” This is because activism must necessarily always have a problem to solve, and those who defend or cause this problem are those who the activists must necessarily oppose. If for example an activist group believes racism is a problem, it must oppose those groups and organizations which it believes contributes to that racism. But what is “racism?” Does it only include active dismissal of someone because of their ethnicity, or does it also include subconscious dismissal? A problem of definition arises for the activist, and if the group the activist comes up against defines “racism” differently than do the activists, the opposed group may feel they are being unfairly accused of injustice. Hence, the activist must not only stop the racism of the group, but also convince that group it is in fact racist, and this is probably going to be experienced as oppressive to the group that the activists are opposing precisely to stop oppression, resulting in the Pluralistic tensions that define our restless age.
Since the definitions and goals of activism must be fluid and interpreted, it might be too “fluid” to prove “restful.” For this reason, activism could contribute to Pluralistic tensions (though certainly there are times when this is worth it), and for this reason, it is doubtful it can provide society people with ultimate “belonging.”² This is due for one because of how activism is experienced by those involved in it or impacted by it: phenomenologically, it causes tension. Activists will necessarily experience what they are doing as “extending justice,” while those whom the activists come up against may very well experience the activists as being “oppressive,” “totalitarian,” and “undemocratic.” This gets into the issue of how “undeniable” the injustice is, but that itself is a hermeneutical question (which perhaps favors the “injustice,” problematically), contributing to tension.
It is hard for me to deny that I’ve punched a man in the face when there are physical bruises and blood on my hand, but when I’ve subconsciously denied him a job because of his race, I lack evidence to myself that I could understand as meaning “I am acting racist.” Perhaps it is true that I am subconsciously biased, but this can seem difficult if not impossible to falsify to me, and the point is that in this situation I will likely interpret any activism against me as forcing on me a certain view about myself that simultaneously justifies the activism against me. This is a large pill to shallow, and it is doubtful the majority will do so without sociopolitical backlash (like we’ve seen in Trump and Brexit); for many, whether true or not, especially when applied to them, the entire theory of “intersectionality” will strike them as a conspiracy theory. Yes, perhaps this is necessary for justice’s sake, but this fight will all the same entail destabilizing, even if it does eventually lead to increased justice (and hence increased possibility of “rest”) — a price worth paying. Considering this, though I see how activism can lead to “belonging,” I don’t believe it can provide belonging in of itself, and furthermore believe it should be as temporary as possible: the longer it lasts, the higher the likelihood of destabilization. Activism is a necessary medicine, but even vital medicines can make us sick if we swallow them when we are well.
If the described, paradoxical situation is necessary to stop injustice, then hopefully it arises — please do not mistake me as saying activism never has a place — my point is that activism is prone to be combative for all the right reasons. Activism is likely to be a force of “just destabilization” than a source of “belonging” in of itself, precisely because activists by definition must believe their society is unjust and precisely that in which they shouldn’t “rest” — that would contribute to the problem. Similarly, as described by Conyers, the doctrine of tolerance is more likely to cause a loss of belonging, even though the doctrine is supposed to bring about a peace in which acceptance, community, and rest would be more likely. Problematically though not necessarily, activism can become manifestations of the doctrine of “tolerance” (versus “humility,” as has already been described), and like tolerance, activism can make people “toward” the State in a manner that undermines communal authority and power, precisely because activism tends to change the communities, institutions, etc. that it views as “unjust” by appealing to the State. If this occurs, activists become agents of the State, and so contribute to the weakening of local authorities and communities (for good and for bad).
The doctrine and value of “equality” tends to be a drive of modern activism and social justice, and “equality” can be identical in its consequences to the doctrine of tolerance about which Conyers warned (as can be “diversity,” though not necessarily). Generally, to demand equality is to demand all people should be treated the same way for the same activity, whatever that activity might be: if a white man receives ten dollars an hour doing x, for example, then everyone should receive ten dollars an hour for doing x; if a white man receives a year in prison for doing y, then everyone should receive a year in prison for doing y; and so on. “Treatment” and “tolerance” are deeply linked in how the authority and power of communities formulate. If I believe Christians fail to treat LGBTs equally by refusing to let them marry, then I believe justice compels me to force Christians to change their beliefs about LGBT marriage (whether by “neoreading,” law, or the like). And perhaps I should make this very effort — justice could easily be on my side — but like tolerance, the point is that this could weaken the meaning of Christian communities and their authority (especially if the State helps me in my effort, help I might be encouraged by my sense of justice to seek). All this could undermine a community in which people can “rest,” making people increasingly “toward” the State, both in me using the State and in people desiring totalitarianism to regain existential stability.
But surely if people achieve their “quiet certainty” thanks to an institution that excludes and discriminates, that “quiet certainty” is an injustice and way those who act unjustly perpetuate injustice — should it not be stopped? First, it should be noted that a “quiet certainty” which causes injustice is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”; as has already been pointed out, to seek and desire “belonging” is to want the conditions which make possible the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. Considering this, activists of social justice are justified to be skeptical and even hostile to “restful” communities, and as has already been discussed, perhaps the loss of character and belonging are worth it to eliminate the possibility and/or likelihood of “the banality of evil.” This question is hard to answer, and here we continue to explore if there are ways for Cosmopolitans to belong without ceasing to be Cosmopolitan, though ultimately there may not be (we may just have to settle with being less Cosmopolitan, which, unless Globalization is reversible, is increasingly difficult).
Activism is justified to be skeptical of communities and should correct “banalities of evil,” but in carrying out this proper function, unless the activism itself ironically comes to entail the conditions which make possible “the banality of evil” in itself, it is unlikely activism can be a source of belonging, only purpose. Activism is a corrective force of communities more so than a community itself, and if it does become a community, it becomes its own system of morals, normative actions, and practices, perhaps similar to a church or culture. It then becomes another option among Pluralism, one that’s authority is also inflated by Taylor’s “Nova Effect” and ultimately beholden to the State (even though the activism may help empower the State). It ceases to be activism and more so becomes a community that accepts the principles of the activism as its “first principles,” thus finding itself in the same situation that all communities find themselves in our Pluralistic Age. The activism may not think or feel it is because the State may (indirectly) approve of it, the community being more aligned with the State’s “tolerance,” but activism will be just as weak to provide “quiet certainty” as will all other communities (except perhaps by convincing its members not to think about it, as can be a temptation for the religious regarding doctrine).
Lastly, though perhaps a spreader of the State’s “tolerance,” it should be noted that activism can still end up destabilizing the State internally (like Pluralism itself), perhaps even risking conflict that we might foolishly assume is “too bad to happen.” This is not only because the State grows as activism makes people increasingly “toward” it, but also because paradoxically activism can upset communities in Pluralism in a manner that leads to internal conflict. To resolve this, the State may grow over its citizenship, increasing the scale of WWIII if war were to happen (though the conflict’s sheer magnitude may function as a deterrent, lowering its likelihood). Alternatively, the State may engage in conflicts with outside countries to prove to its own citizenship that it isn’t as weak as its internal destabilizations may lead people to believe, contributing to unification. This “self-deception” is arguably what Russia is currently engaged in as of 2016–2017: as the oil markets fall and Russia becomes weaker, it acts more aggressive in Ukraine and Syria precisely to convince its own people of its own strength (strength which it could use on its own citizens, do note). Granted, if an injustice occurs, the risks of activism can be worth taking, but we must never forget that there are risks.
Activism can contribute to the loss of the communities and cultures we require to be “rooted,” but in doing so it can also reduce the likelihood that we fall into another “banality of evil,” even though it may indirectly increase the likelihood WWIII could occur. In many ways, activism is like Cosmopolitanism itself: a Greek tragedy. For this reason, activism should be something a community does more than be: the latter is a possibly endless act that destabilizes, while the former has the possibility to rest after its labors. One may argue there is no such thing as a community that is activism, and that might be true, but I am still of the opinion that people today are trying to make activism one. Still, I do think the main purpose of a community can become activism to the point where practically its activism eclipses its community, making it as if the community doesn’t practically exist. The same can happen with a community’s purpose in general — rather it be the art eclipsing the community of a creative group or the evangelism of a church eclipsing the cultivation of the congregation — but that said, I don’t want to claim here that purpose isn’t necessary for a community to be a community, even if purpose cannot be the whole of it (like the heart is necessary for the body to live but not the whole of the body). Similarly, I don’t want to say activism cannot be a necessary component of a community nor that activism in general is a force that necessarily worsens Pluralistic tensions. It depends.
To summarize, activism seems best when more an action than a state, an action which should arise when there is injustice. Once that injustice is addressed though, activism should return to inaction until it needs to be stirred awake again to correct a problem. As “action” occurs, the possibility of a “state” providing rest wanes, as should be the case if injustice is present. For these reasons, activism seems to be “necessary action,” but in of itself seems unable to completely solve “the problem of belonging” (like rationality described in the last section.).
Justice is necessary for belonging and rest just as is the State (we cannot feel rest where we feel a victim of injustice), and where there is injustice, it must be corrected. However, my point is that the legitimate activism that corrects injustice can overreach, undermining its accomplishments, and that it is especially likely to do this if it becomes a people’s identity. Activism should be something a community does versus what constitutes a community. Again, the same can be said about purpose, but that must be discussed later.
¹Conyers, A.J. The Long Truce. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001: 173.
²It is also suggested that activism alone is inadequate to provide “belonging” precisely by the fact that numerous Millennials and Cosmopolitans are hungry for community while regular activists.