Hope and complicity.

South Africa is a hard place to feel hopeful.

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few months and years about the survivability of progressive and radical politics. How do you remain motivated and politically engaged in a world that is so horrifying on so many levels? I wonder is part of the moderation of people’s politics as they get older a kind of burn out, rather than just a self-serving shift to the right to protect newly accumulated wealth. Perhaps it’s Paris, but I don’t know how people can remain sane in the face of a lot of what happens in the world.

I spoke with a friend this weekend about the deep, intractable political divisions here, and about how impossible it seems for him to have productive political discussions with white South Africans. I don’t know how people don’t go insane here. The white people in the BMWs drive around pretending not to see the black people begging at the traffic lights. The black people begging at the traffic lights somehow, somehow, smile at me through the windshield.

Complicity is toxic. A huge part, the main part, of why I couldn’t live here is the extent of the complicity I would feel. It’s also why living in Australia is so difficult. How do you avoid feeling complicit when you are so comprehensively outnumbered that you can’t hope to effect any structural change, and so any good you might do is bounded by an unjust system?

What would happen if my neighbour with his two BMWs seriously morally confronted the wealth inequality here? How would he live with himself? It’s the same problem with veganism and climate change. Confronting the scale of the problem and the extent of your complicity in it, and your powerlessness to stop it, threatens your sanity. It seems impossible – how could the world be so limitlessly unjust? How are we to live in such a world?

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One thought on “Hope and complicity.

  1. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer mindless brutality of some people and regimes. After 40+ years of mild activism, I do feel a bit burnt out too. However, I make a point of reminding myself regularly that the vast majority of people are good-natured (just somewhat apathetic).

    Friends of the Earth have always said ‘think globablly, act locally’. This little slogan has helped me to believe that whilst I can’t solve the world’s problems, I can make a small difference. When you think about movements for good, like civil rights in the US, India and South Africa; the suffragettes; free education; free healthcare; vaccination programs; anti nuclear, recycling and clean energy campaigns, they all began small. Maybe we can’t be like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Emmeline Pankhurst, but we can all do something! Structural change is possible! It’s often very slow, but it is possible. Slavery ended in the US, apartheid ended in South Africa, the British got kicked out of India, voting rights are celebrated in many countries, free education and healthcare is widespread. Although these movements are not universal, and are frequently under threat, this doesn’t mean their achievements are nullified. And the fact that these things have been achieved in some places, surely must give hope to those people being oppressed in other places.

    I would much rather chip away at things that need changing, instead of ignoring them because it’s all too hard. At the same time, we are so bombarded by depressing things, that I have become selective about what I read. I feel somewhat guilty if I’m not informed, but if I’m “too well informed”, I feel overwhelmed. We all have to find the balance that works for us (and preferably this is not to do nothing)!

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