My inbox has been flooded with hordes of hollow buzzwords and claims of solidarity to form a vague “we.” Not to fight for, and stand with, our black brothers and sisters, but to strengthen the brand. To sell a product. Jarrett Lucas, Executive Director of the Stonewall Community Foundation, said it best: “Informed by doctrines of capitalism and white supremacy, [we] expect good leaders to set themselves aside, to offer an objective yet discernibly human voice when representing an organization.”
We claim to be empathizing. We claim to be “with the cause,” but so many of us are caught up in the petty nuances of protest that we fail to make space and let these voices be heard. We drown them out with our own desire to be seen as woke and progressive. This is not about you. Empathy is about making space for others to express their feelings, rather than violating their boundaries with your own.
Who defines what is right and what is wrong? On whose behalf? Are you comfortable with giving up that ability? Who has the power, the authority, the right, or duty to intervene on behalf of another’s life? Does anyone “have” the power, or is it always a means of asserting it, seizing it, or inventing it? These are the questions we must ask ourselves. We have held this power for too long. And we’re already too late. I’m devastated that it took seeing a man die on my iPhone to spark a national conversation about race and change. Where is that passion, that expertise, when we don’t have nationwide protests pleading for basic human rights?
The way we see the world is not working. John Cage famously said “I think the Golden Rule… is a mistake: ‘Do unto others as you would be done by.’” In this act you are eliminating the other person’s feelings entirely from your own decision-making process. You are giving yourself consent, as opposed to expressing the restraint and taking the briefest moment to contemplate how this person may be feeling, what they want, what they fear in this situation. Think of the other first. This concession is important. It allows for an exchange. It allows you to see yourself in action and reaction. There is information there.
Our privilege allows us the luxury to not notice that these issues, these daily horrors, exist. Our privilege provides us with clear benefits, be it socioeconomic networks, capital, safety, or environmental health. We are the constant beneficiaries of paternalism, that while destructive and oppressive to others, frees us from having to think about these issues, and gives us the mental space we need to focus on the rest of our lives.
Meanwhile, people are dying. This does not absolve us of the responsibility of educating people, improving our government systems and the powers that be. We owe everyone, our families and elders included, as clear an explanation as possible of why police reform is important and why these protestors care so much. But we must recognize information alone will not do the trick. This is just how things are. Action is required. Votes must be cast. Changes must be made. Systems do not change without disruption.
We were all shocked when we saw the video of George Floyd’s death. Appalled at the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Aubrey. We were all moved when we saw the outcry of the protests. Author Brian Evenson says, “I disturb nobody – I only give them an occasion for disturbing themselves… [My readers] have externalized their fears in me, but what they really fear is what they see of themselves in the stories.”
We see these things and are repulsed because they are so foreign to our lives. These are freedoms that life does not always grant. We are quick to condemn the perpetrator, however we refuse to admit that we may be part of the problem. We don’t want to change the system because we don’t see the need to. You experience a different species of freedom than our Black brothers and sisters. God help us if we would prefer a system that reduced our own choices, but this is exactly what we are doing to millions of our fellow citizens by not engaging in a constructive discourse in line with these protests.
We must allow space for these voices to be heard and these bodies to act. We cannot force them to act within this closed box of a system that has oppressed and persecuted them for so long. Hannah Arendt, philosopher and political theorist said: “The one essential prerequisite of all freedom… is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space.” If we don’t make space for these external experiences and feelings, all we see is a “new” set of problems. Problems that have existed for centuries, persist today, and will continue. False consciousness cannot prevail. The door has to stay open. I’m not sure which is worse: the excessive suffering I have witnessed, or the monotony of this struggle that has subsisted for my entire brief life.
One problem with rules is that they rely on social norms for enforcement. These norms change slowly, so there’s always the risk these rules are entirely out of sync with reality. As we’ve seen, this can result in tragic consequences. Protests remind us that while compliance and submission can be easier, when we take risks in the name of a greater good, we don’t have to manufacture consent. Maggie Nelson says in her work The Art of Cruelty: “Consent and warning are not acquiescences to arbitrary, repressive notions of decorum or authority. Rather, they are space-makers, and they allow for the very possibility of voluntary submission or emancipation.”
We must make space for this change to happen. We must not think of ourselves first when deciding how to treat others. What have we become to each other, if not what we have done to each other? Don’t piss on our shoulders and tell us it’s raining, and don’t systematically oppress millions and tell us it’s the American Dream. You can’t deliver freedom at gunpoint. These people’s voices need to be heard.
Healing is the only thing outside the binary of destruction and creation. This will not be easy, but it is the only way to make lasting change. We must embrace black leadership and trust them to move us closer to solutions. For better or worse, some trial and error is required. But that is the case for most worthwhile forms of knowledge.
To close, I’d like to share a passage from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son: “If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weaker and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.”
Don’t let death win.