Those of us in the UK have had a little bit longer to think about the appropriate response when the world as you know it falls apart at the seams. We still haven’t figured it out, but we’ve at least started mulling it over. I’ve had a good think, and I’ve arrived at this.
It was yesterday my social media was flooded with outcry over Brexit. The shock, the disbelief, the pain we felt shared over and over and over and over and over again in endless magazine articles. Vitriol followed, Leave voters insisting that Remain voters suck it up, deal with it, accept the result. One-word statuses. 10,000-word statuses. Entire books of grief scribbled desperately into the pages of the web. We talked and talked and talked and talked about it until we were exhausted, cried out, or bored to tears. And we’re still talking about it, and we’re already sick of it. We’re already sick of the angst, the opinion pieces, the sleazy politicians who we can’t stand to look at or wake up hearing on the news in the morning. We’re sick of not knowing the future, of being scared, of feeling helpless.
It has begun, in recent weeks, to feel as though the decision was made, the result taken out of our hands by our politicians. There have been few immediate, tangible effects, and other than the constant barrage of news, things on a day to day level have effectively gone back to normal. It will probably stay that way for many white, middle-class voters, though not for everyone. It’s not easy to get away from the news, but it’s easy to ignore it, easy to hand things over to the politicians, as long as we keep sharing our indignation, our fury, our objections. As long as we keep talking about it at dinner parties and the pub and watching the news and posting on facebook and twitter and reading the Atlantic and the New Yorker and sharing articles and outrages because this shit matters and we have to speak out right RIGHT RIGHT?
We have been raised lazy. We have been raised complacent. We have seen only the world our parents began to build: the one in which a black man can be elected president, the one in which women and minorities have equal voting rights to white men, in which abortion and healthcare become civil liberties and we trade freely with the world and America defends the freedom of nations like Taiwan and Syria from oppression by China and Assad and nobody, nowhere, suffers the effects of war because we don’t see it. It can’t happen here.
We have been raised desensitised. We see photographs and footage of children and adults dying at sea, washing up on beaches, abandoned and homeless on the foreign streets to which they ran after being abandoned and made homeless in their own communities. And rather than raise ourselves off our desk chairs we share these images again and again. We show them to each other while we insist that they are devastating, that such atrocities cannot be allowed to continue, laid like so many feathers at the door of the right, of the nationalists, of the racists, the xenophobes, the fascists.
It is an echo chamber. And in it are buried the last of our liberal values. Not tolerance, peace, welfare funding, global cooperation, communication, caring for those in need. If the last two days are any indication, these have not yet died. Rather, suffocating in the placating vacuum of social media are action, resistance, mobilisation. As the Atlantic so fundamentally pointed out, ‘the machinery of government is machinery by metaphor only. In reality, it is collective human action, and it only operates if those humans decide to make it work.’
How then, to make it work? Rousseau proved himself prophetic in his realisation that ‘as soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the state is not far from its fall’ but many of us have, until this point, performed our civic responsibilities with the currency of social media. We have paid our dues and washed our hands. No more.
Make noise. Real, tangible , use-your-mouth noise. Rally, go out into the streets not in opposition to the cult-of-personality or the demagoguery but to the specific policies. Stand somewhere outside your home or office on a cold night with other people and make yourself heard. Do it tonight, or tomorrow night. But then do it again next week. Then next month, and the month after that. Block traffic (carefully). Spray paint public buildings, get arrested if you have to. Don’t fight, don’t burn, don’t break things, but do not appease.
Ask, and expect, things of each other. And give your time to each other, whether asked or not. We cannot be afraid to say to a friend ‘today, this protest is more important than your essay deadline’ or ‘that product on your shelf was made by a company that lobbies for fracking. Try this one instead.’ Ask your muslim friends, your latinx friends, your immigrant and mixed-race and gay friends of any and all backgrounds what they are experiencing, and whether it’s changing. Don’t wait for them to tell you, ask. What can you do to change their experience, to help? And then do it.
Give one weekend, one Saturday if that’s all you have, to helping people whom this will affect the most. Do it en masse. Bring friends with you. It doesn’t require leaving your town, but it will almost definitely require leaving your house. Americans, accompany vulnerable women to their local abortion centre, raise money for each other’s medical costs, film acts of hate you witness on your street (they are coming; we had them here). Britons, collect coats for the Syrians sleeping rough in France, pause when a woman shows you a piece of cardboard with ‘refugee’ written on it, peel an ‘immigrants go home’ sticker off a lamp post. Write to your MP, your senator, your congressman. Write write write write write write write write. If you have an opinion, share it, hash it out, educate yourself online, then drag it out of the dark, padded cell of the internet and into the light.
Artists amongst us, do your worst. Two years ago the unshakeable, Beloved Toni Morrison issued a call to arms: ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.’ We must heed it. Create, communicate, voice your anger however you know how but make it LOUD. Bring other people to it. Help them create.
We must, as The Nation puts it, ‘march in greater numbers, shout louder against injustice, summon and be prepared to sustain massive, nonviolent civil disobedience on a scale not seen in [the West] for decades. Not because we refuse to acknowledge the results of the election. But because…in the coming contests there are some in immediate peril, who need our help, our energy, and our solidarity.’
A very brief note of caution. ‘Civil disobedience’, pointed out Jane Jacobs in her letters to the New York Times Magazine in 1967, ‘is justified when… dissent, having been earnestly tried, has proved of no avail.’ Choosing your battles does not mean limiting them to a single cause, but civil disobedience requires mass mobilisation for efficacy. Our voices (audial as well as textual), our bodies, our presence is our most effective weapon of dissent but they must be used carefully, sacrificed only when necessary.
Start now. Unlike the shock value of civil disobedience, and despite the arguments of many economists wildly divorced from the reality of the human spirit, civic duty and social solidarity are skills to build, not finite resources. ‘Civic duty’ points out Michael Sandel in his seminal What Money Can’t Buy, ‘is built up, not spent down, by strenuous citizenship’. Practice practice practice. Vote in your local elections. Lobby your local and state legislatures to house refugees. For every online petition you sign, write a letter to your representative in government on the issue or make a marginalised voice louder in your community.
These things take time and they take energy but we must give them if we are to endure. No more laziness or complacency. We are living in a new world where our values are in as much peril as our friends and if we are to come out the other side (and, loved ones, there is another side) we must stay awake, stay angry, love, love, love, love, love, but also act.
Welcome to the fight.