Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.
Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.
EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.
Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.
When someone says the word intersectionality, do human rights come to mind? Maybe but probably not. For some people, intersectionality is a just buzzword used by protest movements or the liberal media, while for others is a means of social identification. It is okay if you have never heard of it or do not understand it or know how to define it, you are not alone. Although it is an identifier and has mainstream vernacular usage, scholars like sociologist Patricia Hill Collins acknowledge that intersectionality is challenging to define, and only slightly easier to identify when recognized. Hill Collins asserts that “scholars and practitioners think they know intersectionality when they see it. More importantly, they conceptualize intersectionality in dramatically different ways when they use it.” Thus, an essential aspect of societal understanding and identification of intersectionality is our knowledge of its dependent relationship to power and inequity. Intersectionality must have a subject (a person or group of people) that experiences inequality (subjugation/oppression) because of its/their relation to power (the dominant with the hierarchical structure).
Intersectionality relies heavily on social constructions like race or gender, but not as a singular point of inequality. The term “intersection” demands another point—an interlocking point–of inequality. For example, intersectionality must critically examine the subjugation experienced by a person with blindness who is a Hispanic trans woman as well as a teenage girl who is Arab and a wheelchair user, respectively. Both are members of marginalized populations: ethnicity – Hispanic and Arab, gender/sexuality – a trans woman and teenage girl, and disability – blindness and wheelchair user; therefore, the intersectional analysis must include at least two points of oppression. The andmakes the difference. For this to occur effectively, individuals must determine how they will employ intersectionality as a definition, in addition to a research tool.
In her essay, Hill Collins sheds light on three possible frameworks for intersectionality: a field of study that examines both content and themes that might be characteristic, an analytical strategy reliant upon intersectional frameworks to explain the social world, and a form of critical praxis connected to social justice practice via scholarship. Intersectionality has increased in popularity as society becomes more aware of the work of critical race theorist, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, and with the rise of protest movements. Many people identify Crenshaw as the creator of the term intersectionality, but Black feminist scholars point to Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective, among others as describing the concept in their works years and centuries before Crenshaw.
First, as a field of study, intersectionality has positives and negatives. The positives lay in its complementary adaptability with other disciplines and areas of study, yet, it is here that many of the negatives exist as well. Citing Edward Said, Hill Collins notes that “theories can lose their originality and critical stance as they travel from one domain to another” (6). This travel can result in the misrepresentation of the original intent and the exclusion of some scholarship as has happened over time in fields of study like Black feminism.
Second, as an analytical framework, intersectionality must “rethink” constructs, not only as concepts of work and family but violence and identity, and in direct relation to “underutilized” categories of analysis like class and age. It is at this juncture that disability rights activists and scholars demand an increased inclusion. Using Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation, Hill Collins questions how it is possible for two sets of ideas, the expressed and unexpressed, to create the necessary knowledge needed for an intersectional canon (15). Hill Collins questioning aligns with Ellen Samuels’ assertion that disability remains underrecognized as a “legitimate or relevant position from which to address broad subjects” and Michael Berube’s pronouncement that disability must continually battle against gender, race, and sexuality in various areas. Historically, there has been an imbalanced pattern of research due to the heavy focus on the intersections of race and gender; yet, when considering that one in five human beings live with a disability, multiple constraints apply and extend beyond gender and race.
Lastly, as a praxis, intersectionality can contribute perspective by elucidating areas of social inequality as activists and scholars increase their political engagement. Sociologists Hae Yeon Choo and Myra Marx Ferree observe three ways that intersectionality is/can become practiced: group-centered, process-centered, and system-centered. They caution that even in practice, neglect occurs in facets of the intersectional analysis despite best efforts to adequately include, analyze, and identify because as Crenshaw notes, sometimes conflicting political agendas detract from the areas of oppression.
The Intersection of Disability and Everything Else
In many societies today, disability, like most categories of marginalization, boxes members as differing from the norm or as the needy and helpless Other. In many ways, disability has become a fetishized difference and a source of ‘inspiration porn’ when foregrounded in the mainstream via social media, television, and movies. What if activists and scholars began to utilize the constellation of knowledge as outlined by Hill Collins and Choo and Ferree through the employment of an analysis of the intersection of disability and everything else? Persons with disabilities are the global majority when accounting for the entire spectrum of disability; thus, we as individuals who make up the collective, have a chance to bring those surviving on the margins into the center of analysis and discussion.
Humanity must begin to see the inclusion of disability as a prerequisite for the dismantling of structural violence and social injustice. Black feminist and lesbian Lorde, in her comments to a New York conference audience, protested that “survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all of our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices” (112-3). If disability replaced either racism or homophobia in Lorde’s quote, how does the level of analysis and research begin to change the conversation surrounding our social understanding of these areas of oppression and subjugation? Intersectionality forces humanity to come to terms with the lack of knowledge about difference while confronting the terror and loathing of difference which lurks inside us as barriers and outside of us as social institutions and societal norms. In whatever form intersectionality finds usage, it is imperative that it remains a tool that dismantles injustice at the personal and political level.
**Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Two things, seemingly unrelated, have the ability to impact and reshape people’s lives.
Toni Shapiro-Phim worked at a refugee camp in Indonesia and Thailand, where a lot of people came from Vietnam and Cambodia. In Vietnam, many went through a horrific journey to arrive in Indonesia, while in Cambodia they were fleeing genocide. Something that connects these two countries is the ability to enlist in the arts as a way of survival and endurance. Many were drawing, painting, creating poetry, and dancing. You may ask yourself, what do the arts have to do with social justice? In regards to Cambodians, dance has to do with the “spirits of the land”; it is a way to connect to the “earth of Cambodia”. Dance is able to coexist during hardships and violence. They chose to find something beautiful amidst the chaos. Dance is a way to connect individuals with their community, create conversations, provide resources, and, most of all, create a sanctuary.
In Chile, there was a dictator by the name of Pinochet who managed to make people who were “enemies of the state” disappear. Women would go into the streets and dance the cueca sola, the country’s national dance as determined by Pinochet. The dance is traditionally known as a couple’s dance. However, the women altered the meaning of this dance by dancing alone. On their clothes, they had pictures of their loved ones that had disappeared. This bold statement led way to the end of the Pinochet regime. Dance has the ability to make a change and speak in a way where words are not needed.
In some countries, dancing is believed to be too influential and as a result, has been banned. Some of these countries include Japan, Sweden, and Germany. Many people are surprised to hear that Sweden has a dancing ban. You are not allowed to spontaneously dance. Bars and pubs have to get a license in order for people to dance. Japan had a similar ban which forbade dancing unless the venue had a license up until midnight. However, the ban was recently repealed. Dancing on Good Friday is forbidden in 13 of the 16 states in Germany. The dancing ban is called “Tanzverbot”. Although, in the three states where it is not illegal, there is still a ban until 9 pm on Good Friday. People found dancing will be fined. Specifically, in Baden-Württemberg, dancing is banned from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday at 3 am. Dancing is also banned from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day at 3 am.
FLEXN Evolution is an improvised dance performance that addresses racial equality and social justice. Their production, called “bone breaking”, focuses on being broken physically or emotionally and rebuilding yourself. Not only do these dancers use dance to express their pain, but they also use dialogue and photography. Before every performance, they have an event with a panel consisting of Common Justice (an organization that works with racial equality and crime survivors), scholars, and community leaders to hold conversations on the issue they are trying to advocate. In addition to the performance, there is a photo series of portraits of all the dancers. The purpose of these photos is to show people what it feels like to be in America – the good and the bad.
A topic that often comes up in the news is climate change. Here are three choreographers and their inspiring story on how they integrated dance with climate change.
Davalois Fearon choreographed a piece on water scarcity. Something that set her apart from other choreographers was how she used dance as a way to interact with the audience. Two dancers hand out cups randomly to some audience members, while a third dancer pours water in some of the cups. Fearon’s goal is to give the audience members an idea of what it feels like to be “denied a resource, overlooked and ignored.” The message doesn’t stop with the performance but continues on with a discussion. The discussion is meant to create a safe environment where people can talk about the issue and try to understand it.
The next artist, Jill Sigman, created a piece on disposability called the Hut Project. Her project focuses on creating hut that is made out of scavenged materials. She wants to go against societal norms of prizing things that are new and shiny and tossing out things that are old. By creating huts from materials deemed as old and useless, she shows people that there is beauty in things that we deem as disposable. She tells you to not be so quick to throw out things simply because they are old and goes on to reveal how things we discard have a story and are complex. Additionally, she hosts a conversation after the performance to talk more about the issue.
The third choreographer, Rulan Tangen, also uses dance as a platform to raise awareness about disposability. She creates discourse on how climate change is a symptom of injustice and people not respecting all forms of life. Currently, she is creating a piece on renewable energy from different perspectives such as cultural and practical. She even goes on to discuss the sustainability for the design of her dance production.
In Los Angeles, street dance activism is on the rise. In 2014, Ezell Ford, a black man with mental illness was shot by the police. Activist, Shamell Bell, camped out by the police department for days to request that the officers involved in the shooting be fired. She invited her friend Dashawn Blanks, a noted street dancer, to instruct social dances that were generated in black communities. Protestors, while there for an important cause, were also able to be cheerful while dancing because they were dancing for a cause but also for themselves. Another example is in 2012 when Trayvon Martin’s killer was found not guilty where people headed to Leimert Park to express themselves through dance. Eventually, the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter was produced and, in the following years, there have been numerous fatal shootings so Bell would orchestrate dance as a way to show a different way to protest. She also went on to form a group, called the Balance Collective, of both dancers and artists who fight “racism, police brutality, sexism, and homophobia”. “I teach because it’s not about me. I wish I could fade into the background,” Bell says. “This work is about us using art as a platform to save ourselves so we can save others.”
Dance is where people can use movement to portray inequities. Different social justice issues ranging from the environment to racial inequality can be addressed through dance. Never underestimate how powerful dance can be.
When someone close to me questioned the importance of my marching with White Birminghamians For Black Lives, I wrote this poem as a response. I proudly carry a sign, “White Silence Breeds Injustice,” every Friday from 4:30-6:30 at Kelly Ingram Park. Everyone is welcome.
“WHITE SILENCE BREEDS INJUSTICE,”
Words I hold in my hands
For those whose hands are shackled
Or too full with work
And growing healthy babies.
Can our voices speak as theirs
Or do we dilute their words?
Can I ally with Dreamers,
Insulated by my birthright?
Can I represent the poor
With no balance on my Visa?
Can I fight for women’s rights
And parent three white males?
What makes a marcher relevant?
What deems a march impactful?
Pussy hats and Trump attacks
And “Free Melania” placards?
If I echo, “Me Too,” and state,
“No Hate, No Fear,”
Are these the stuff of change?
If we few insist on marching,
Does our weekly selfie morph
Into a media laughingstock?
Distractors, subtractors from the core?
Interlopers, intruders on could-be passion?
Or just subnormative?
Can we convey, “Black Lives Matter”
As a smattering of whites?
Are we a joke gone viral
In our efforts to protest
For those we cannot protect?
Can we sense Black pain
Enough to hail its power
Over all Americans?
When two or three are gathered
In the name of Social Justice,
Do we frustrate the huddled masses
Or does good emanate from the act?
“Yes,” I say ground is gained
By our meager footsteps.
Our rallying imprimatur leaves
Permanence in its wake,
For white silence breeds injustice.
Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life. She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe. Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership. She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.
Most of us have been told at some point to respect our elders. Opening doors, assisting in street transit, carrying groceries — all of these social niceties are expected to be paid specifically to older members of society. Respect for elders seems to occur universally as a cultural norm. Korean culture joyfully celebrates the one’s sixtieth birthday as the passage into old age, while honorific suffixes such as “-ji” in Hindi and “mzee” in Swahili indicate longstanding cultural respect for one’s elders. Some Ecuadorian cultures believe that their elder shamans, or mengatoi, become powerfully magical as they age (Jacobs). China even made it illegal to neglect one’s parents, outlining the legal duties of adult children to include frequent visitation and “occasional greetings” (Wong). Older people in America engage in vigorous self-advocacy, making the AARP one of the largest interest groups in the nation at nearly forty million members.
So why then does society reflect the exact opposite of these norms? Old people are treated as feeble, unfortunate beings who are shown courtesy in public and yet face widespread discrimination. Both pernicious and insidious, ageism is defined as “the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; [forms of ageism can include] prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs” (World Health Organization). Ageism is an “ism” that is just as socially impactful as other forms of discrimination, yet the topic is rarely addressed and often disregarded. Despite lack of discursive engagement, ageism is a unique type of social discrimination in that it can transcend all other human identities. The process of aging affects every human being regardless of one’s sexuality, race, and political ideology. Most of us will eventually pass the cursed line that society demarcates between youth and old age and must suffer from the hostile, deeply discriminatory system that we ourselves once benefited from in our youth — and what a pervasive system it is. Surveys show that a whopping 80% of people over sixty have experienced some form of ageism (Dittman). Tad Friend supplies this neatly unpacked explanation in an article published by the New Yorker:
“Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.”
In just two years, it is predicted that more people will be over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five for the first time in Earth’s history (United States Census Bureau). In fact, according to the United Nations, the number of older persons is increasing more rapidly than other age group. This phenomenon is known as the “graying” of a population, and constitutes an urgent issue for affected countries. As people age, they become less able to physically care for themselves and usually exit the workforce at some point to retire for the latter part of their lives. As health conditions do generally worsen with age, the demand for medical and/or personal support services grows as older people continue to age and retire.
This becomes an issue when the size of a country’s workforce becomes insufficient to fill the demands of service-dependant older people. In nations with large workforces, the opposite issue — lack of opportunity for employment — still disproportionately harms older people. Many industries, particularly in America, push out older applicants and terminate veteran employees in favor of younger options. As industry culture has begun to tilt in favor of youth, older people have experienced a massive amount of workplace ageism. Nearly 65% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 60 had either seen or experienced age-based discrimination in the workplace (AARP). This may seem like a trivial issue, but unemployment is a dangerous state to endure at advanced ages. Worsening health conditions go hand in hand with both lower income and increased age; the combination of these factors can be fatal.
So why does ageism even exist? Princeton researchers found that most ageist arguments stem from issues with consumption (old people already consume too many scarce resources), identity (old people try to act younger than they are), or succession (old people had their turn, now they should move out of the workforce/society to make space for the new generation). All of these issues — consumption, identity, and succession — frame humanity in a way that associates one’s value with their usefulness to society. However, human beings should not be defined by their utility. Simply put, old people exist. They form one of the largest populations on the planet, and are rapidly growing. We cannot deny older people the dignity that we (supposedly) award to all else simply because they are perceived as “useless” to society. Human rights cannot and should not be applied conditionally.
This unfortunate phenomenon is surrounded by the related topic of disability. According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, 35.4% of Americans over the age of 65 had a disability, which is over three times higher than the rate of working-age (18-64) Americans at 10.4%. Like advanced age, disability is also perceived as a barrier to social utility. Age and disability together form a potent one-two punch of compound discrimination, making older people with disabilities extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Elder abuse, as it is termed, is widespread but often under-reported. National rates are reported to be around 10%, though researchers at the prominent New York Elder Prevention Society found self-reported rates of elder abuse to be up to 24 times higher than the documented rate. Only 3% of older people in New York officially reported any form of elder abuse, though nearly three-quarters self-reported that they have experienced neglect or financial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. This number may be inflated by the instances where individuals experience multiple types of abuse, making exact numbers more difficult to isolate. The most common forms of elder abuse are financial and physical/sexual abuse, which can occur concurrently.
Nursing homes, meant to protect and nurture their patients, are actually one of the most dangerous environments for vulnerable older persons with disabilities. The Nursing Home Abuse Center reports a nursing home abuse rate of about 44%, and a neglect rate of nearly 95%. Elder abusers are rarely prosecuted due to stigma, social isolation of the victim, lack of support services, inaccessible reporting, and proximity of abusers. Relatives constitute about 90% of elder abuse perpetrators, which often makes the victim reluctant to prosecute their own spouses, adult children, or other relatives.
Direct abuse and neglect of the elderly is widely sustained by the deeply pervasive public attitude of hostility towards aging. Beauty products are regularly marketed as “anti-aging,” covering up the crows’ feet, varicose veins, liver spots and silver hairs that inevitably accompany a well-lived life. Most of the stigma is inevitably directed at aging women, as femininity carries the heavy burden of visual appeal. The cosmetic surgery industry is booming as women are pressured to appear as veritable supermodels long after the glow of youth has faded. Social media surrounds us with visuals of gorgeous, toned, smooth-skinned women who never seem to age a day, while the rest of us have to keep up with whatever products, surgeries or diets we can find.
Gone are the days where women past a certain age could relax into frumpy mom jeans and orthopedic tennis shoes without fearing judgment. Modern grandmothers now face the strenuous expectation to maintain a Helen Mirren-esque figure with the style and poise of Meryl Streep. Notably, these two women are some of the very few well-known older actresses; both have had to work tirelessly to achieve that notoriety, considering Streep’s record-breaking two-dozen Academy Award nominations and Mirren’s prestigious Triple Crown of Acting that has only ever been awarded to 23 people. It’s undeniable that Hollywood has a major problem with representation of women over thirty. Men in the acting industry get a few extra decades of “silver fox” stardom while women face rejection at first wrinkle.
Ageism sometimes feels like an inescapable facet of society, but it shouldn’t have to be. Encouraging and celebrating old age will eventually serve to benefit everyone, as positive attitudes towards aging have been shown to increase lifespan by nearly eight years. Elderly people have had autonomy and dignity systematically stolen from them through attitudes of derision and pity– they are constantly viewed as either cantankerous burdens to society or doddering, wretched old fools. One’s social contribution or lack thereof should not be a determinant in preserving human dignity. After all, human rights are for all humans, right?
From here, we have to do better on a global scale. Any success in reducing ageism requires confrontation of our own internal prejudices, since youth are the major perpetrators of age-based discrimination. The efforts we make today in reducing oppression for older individuals will directly impact our future experiences. Psychologists have found three major components essential to active engagement in fighting ageism:
Often, elderly individuals are unable to fully participate in society due to social hostility and lack of accessibility. Many of us have not been educated on topics relating to older people, and some even may find engaging with the elderly to feel uncomfortable. Fuller integration into society would foster respect for the aged community, as increased public presence of older individuals would promote culture of tolerance.
Reduce cultural shame
Current media culture is incredibly toxic towards older people, and portrays the elderly in a negative light far too frequently. Advertisements should attempt to portray older people with respect to their human dignity, rather than the foolish, bumbling representations that are far too common in current media.
Accept aging as a fact of life
Ageism often stems from personal fears of death and dying. This fear is incredibly common but damaging to both society at large and to individuals who hold them– ironically, negative attitudes towards aging have been shown to decrease lifespans. To combat this, old age should be normalized and celebrated.
Clearly, ageism is not something that can be eradicated at all once. It requires active change on both an institutional and personal level, as age-based discrimination is deeply ingrained in cultural attitudes and everyday interactions. Monumental as it may seem, ageism is still an issue that we must tackle if we ourselves are to experience old age with the dignity that all humans deserve. So remember to always respect your elders, whether out of regard for human dignity, self-preservation, or both.
*** In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we will repost the blogs from August in which writers looked at his legacy and words to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today.
Spiritual power is real. When confronted with the imminent threat of violence during his (and many others’) campaign for equal civil rights for black Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unequivocally stated, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul-force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.” (Ansbro, 1982). How does an indomitable ethic of nonviolence like King’s develop? How did his tactics inspire his followers in the pursuit of equal rights? In addition, how does nonviolence fit in a modern strategy for social change? This post explores these questions.
The Existentialism of King: An Agent’s Choice to Fight for Freedom
King’s personal existential philosophy, interpretation of agape, and radical devotion to the teachings of Christ all paint a clear picture of a personal belief system impelled to fight for freedom and equality. Underlying these three central tenets to King’s moral code, the teachings of existentialist thought is particularly fascinating and underappreciated to laypersons with a vested interest in the teachings of King. While research for King’s devotion to the Christian church is extensive, his critique and praise of existentialist philosophers as far back as his doctoral dissertation at Boston University’s School of Theology has not received nearly as much attention. When considering his theory of nonviolence, the moral and philosophical building blocks upon which he constructed his tactics and theory of civil resistance find their intellectual seeds in the writings of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and other existential philosophers. This intellectual genealogy is especially apparent in his definition of freedom, his emphasis on an agent’s choice to actively pursue freedom, and the inter- and intrapersonal benefits to be gained from the pursuit of freedom in an agent’s lifetime. Instead of ‘person’, ‘individual’, etc., the term ‘agent’ is used in this section to denote the verbiage used in existential philosophy, though King often used the term ‘man’, ‘mankind’, and the like. ‘Agent’ specifically relates to the role of freewill / agency, a cornerstone of existentialist philosophy.
King understood the intrinsic link between individualism (the concept of self-differentiation from a social group, order, and / or hierarchy) and the pursuit of freedom. This a fundamental part of King’s theory of nonviolence: the mere act of speaking out and / or behaviorally resisting structures of power meant to suppress an agent’s rights and liberties is a declaration of an agent’s individuality against a collective’s power. Although the existentialists proposed oftentimes contradictory viewpoints on the role of religion and God in this endeavor (e.g. Nietzsche and his rejection of any form of higher power, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on an agent’s commitment to God, etc.), King obviously drew philosophical inspiration from his theological studies and unwavering commitment to the Christian doctrine of faith. Throughout the Christian Bible, true followers of Christ are described as making a deeply personal and individual choice to commit their lives (both spiritual and physical lives- this dualism is characteristic of Christian theology as well) to the teachings of Christ. King believed (as the existentialists before him) an agent must individually choose to pursue freedom without interference from an external influence. In this sense, freedom is not ‘given’; it is earned. This bold separation from and then condemnation of unfair power structures (such as institutional racism) is a testament to the power of an agent’s choice- rebuking social influence (this rebuke Nietzsche proclaims is the ‘highest form of individualism’).
King reiterated the stakes of the pursuit, specifically once an agent makes the choice to pursue freedom actively, famously stating:
“I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit- but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”
This awareness of and commitment to the ultimate price for the pursuit of freedom, death, is reminiscent of Heidegger’s proposed relationship between a moral agent and death in The Courage To Be. According to Heidegger, death arising from conflict between an agent and the world around him or her is an achievement of authentic existence. Authenticity is another cornerstone of existential philosophy. King, alongside Heidegger, believed death arising from the pursuit of freedom is one of the greatest forms of meaning an agent can achieve. This orientation towards death frees an agent to pursue the cause of freedom from repression without fear of losing his or her life in the process. The unshackling of fear (the fear of death and suffering) arising from this dedication to the cause of nonviolent resistance is, in many ways, a direct metaphor for the very shackles eschewed by King’s followers during the civil rights movement.
The Futility of Violence for the World & for the Self
The quote “[h]e who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”, (in)famously uttered by Nietzsche, conveniently links King’s existential philosophy with his ardent rejection of violent resistance throughout the struggle for equal rights. To ensure sustainable, ethical, and transformative social change, he proclaimed, his followers and the agents of other prosocial movements must understand the utter impracticality of violent resistance. The real meat of his theory and practice of nonviolent protest, again built on his existential philosophy and Christian beliefs, lies in his interpretation of the amorality of violence and is dressed in the observation of violence as, albeit shocking and ionizing, a tactically inferior method to institutionalize long-lasting, meaningful equality in any given culture.
Before exploring King’s refutations of violent protest, an operational definition of his nonviolent civil resistance is necessary. When King constructed his theory of nonviolent civil resistance, he first drew inspiration from the Greek form of love, agape. This is a general goodwill towards all men (similar to Kant’s categorical imperative), and in the words of King himself: “…affirms the other unconditionally. It is agape that suffers and forgives. It seeks the personal fulfillment of the other.” (Ansbro, 1982). Using this love-force as a fundamental building block, King espoused civil resistance and protest must seek to benefit society as a whole, not merely one faction or group. He believed racism perverted the soul of a racist person just as it led to violence against a victim; in this way, the eradication of racism (and racist policies) would benefit society as a whole, not just the subjugated race. Nonviolent protest grew from a form of love (agape), and required the user to respect the fundamental personhood of their ‘enemies’ (in the case of civil rights, the enemy is a racist people). This absolute respect of personhood forbade the protester from willfully engaging in violent behavior. Violence committed against a counter-protester is violence committed to all of humanity.
Taking his cue from Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” concept, King believed a revolutionary movement, such as the pursuit of ethnic / racial equality in the United States and beyond, could not base itself on the permission of its fighters to act violently. Concerning the larger world outside his resistance, King writes violence has no place in the movement for four reasons:
Violent resistance would inspire an annihilating response from the “well-armed white majority”;
Violent riots have historically not warranted an increase in funding for anti-poverty efforts (which he claimed is central to the eradication of racial injustice);
Like Nietzsche’s foreboding warning, protesters become the very monster they aim to undermine and destroy should they commit acts of physical violence against structural violence;
Violence cannot appeal to the conscious of the majority holding power over the repressed minority.
The use of violence is inherently contradictory to the message of equal rights, as messages of equality presume a social / legal system capable of handling internal conflict without need for force or domination. From a macro perspective, the use of violent force in the civil rights movement lead by King (and a clear differentiation from others’ movements, such as Malcolm X and Garvey) is a self-defeating paradox that would threaten to destroy the fight for equality both from within and without. Any attempt to solicit sympathy (an emotional response) or deconstruct the unjust power structures repressing black Americans (a practical or behavior-based response) would immediately disintegrate upon the awareness of the use of violence by Kingian civil rights activists. Again, violence is a self-defeating gambit.
On the individual level, King warned of the moral cost of violent behavior. Violence, which King believed was an aberration of God’s intended natural design, would easily desensitize the user to other acts of violence (this is the ‘best case’ scenario) or utterly corrupt the user and impel future acts of violence (this is the ‘worst case’ scenario). The destructive power of violence assaults the very spiritual self of the user, driving him or her further from the Creator (the Christian God), and twists his or her capacities of moral judgement. To King, violence was not only physical but also psychological.
A Modern Struggle for Social Equality
Taking the lessons from King’s theory,–notably the moral and tactical arguments in favor of nonviolent social change–how can peacemakers in 2017 and beyond utilize nonviolence for prosocial ends? The answer may lie in an invention of modernity, namely the evolution of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Prior to the universal dissemination and usage of ICTs, the theaters for nonviolent protests were limited to select spaces in the public sphere. The public sphere, defined as a space where persons can freely engage in the share of information and critique of social issues, has expanded far beyond its scope in the 1960s. Nonviolent protests are no longer limited to physical locales such as restaurant counters, bus stops, or streets; now, there is access to online forums. The transfer of information through technology has empowered proponents of nonviolent prosocial movements to communicate through social platforms with audiences from thousands, to millions, and even billions. Today, the directionality and power of a message anchored in nonviolent resistance and protest receives magnification whereas thorny issues continue to plague the relationship between ICTs, social movements, and the ICT users themselves.
Information overload likely threatens the point of impact of a particular movement. The inundation of internet and its users with blips and soundbites, e-signing petitions, event invitations, podcasts, and the like, the original power of prosocial movements may dilute beyond the original critical mass, that is, the potency of a message to inspire behavioral change in the receiver of the message. There is no doubt King’s nonviolent movement hit the critical mass for change; King’s role in the normalization of equal rights for black Americans is without real dispute. However, a new threat arises and threatens to subvert the power of prosocial change. The threat today is apathy. This apathy arises from too many texts, DM’s, and tweets for a reader to devote moral and cognitive energy towards every message he or she receives. Extreme diffusion of a person’s identity, characteristic of a society far too ‘plugged in’ than it knows how to handle, is an insidious problem. A user may feel morally vindicated after retweeting a ‘social justice’ message, share a Facebook post, or caption an Instagram photo, and this vindication is misplaced. What behavioral change occurs after making a post? Do tweets inspire policy change at the highest level of government? Can a Facebook status provide justice and catharsis in the same capacity King’s Freedom March did? Perhaps with enough users speaking in solidarity, utilizing true spiritual power for the betterment of their fellow man and woman. Without a physical commitment to mitigate injustice, such as the sit-ins, marches, and boycotts reminiscent of King’s movement, social justice messages may just be that: messages floating in the ether.
References: Ansbro, J. J. (1982). Martin Luther King, Jr.:Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change. Lanham, MD: Madison
When we talk about our understanding of justice, many of us will most likely have to look to our upbringing for clues. For me, this is certainly true – the trajectory my life took to where I am today, standing before you as the Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, begins with my childhood in Switzerland. I’d like to share two defining moments from my life that have influenced who I have become. Growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s, my family was fairly traditional. My dad worked outside the house as the main provider, my mom was for the most part a stay at home mom. When I was a teenager, my mom decided that she would like to run for public office. She ended up the first female mayor of the town I grew up in, and I admire her greatly. She has been a true role model in my life, showing that women can achieve whatever they want. I must say a word though about my dad. When my mom ran for public office, my dad, who had a very successful career at one of Switzerland’s major banks, supported this endeavor. At the time, he had a job that required a lot of travel, but he decided to switch internally to a position that would enable him to be home more, realizing that my mom’s commitments would often happen at night and that we, his kids, would need him (even though as teenagers we might not have communicated that very clearly). I would say my dad is a true feminist, even though he would probably cringe to hear me say that. He never gave me the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do anything I wanted because I am a girl and he supported my sister and myself (and my brother, too) in any endeavor we were looking to engage in. My parents – through their achievements and by supporting one another – instilled in us a true sense of equality and I will always be very grateful for that early lesson. I am lucky to have found a husband who agrees with this model – I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today here in Birmingham without his support and encouragement. I think this is why Maya Angelou’s poem really resonated with me, even though it was obviously written in a completely different context. Equality, for ourselves and in the way we treat others is the basis for social justice and the basis for one of the most important principles for human rights, which is non-discrimination.
The second defining moment came when my mom was elected to the social affairs council of our town. This was in the early nineties and the wars in the Balkans had just started. Switzerland was overrun by refugees, mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia. It used to be the case that refugees were processed and housed in the large urban centers in Switzerland, but because of the sheer numbers of new arrivals, mid-size and smaller towns had to start taking refugees as well. My mom found herself in a position that all of a sudden, she was responsible for finding ways to accommodate asylum seekers in our town that was completely unprepared. I will always remember waiting at the train station for the first family to arrive. We went in person (again, there wasn’t anything in place) to pick them up and bring them to temporary housing that was put up on an empty lot. I remember them when they arrived, mother, father, and two boys, thin, with haunted eyes, and nothing but their clothes on their backs. I remember sharing our toys and other personal things with them because they had nothing.
Ever since, I have been interested in the why and how does it happen that people fight and kill each other and commit the worst imaginable atrocities. I realized relatively quickly though that what interested me was not only the why, but also what to do about it. This is how I came to the topic of human rights and peace. I’m interested in what we can do to combat human rights violations, empower those who are suppressed, and frankly, how we can make the world a better place. You might have guessed it – I’m an idealist at heart.
This is how I approached the establishment of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. The Institute was approved in 2014, but didn’t officially start until my arrival in February of last year. I started off as a one woman show, but now have a diverse team of researchers who work with me. The Institute has three areas of focus: education, research, and outreach. Our educational mission focuses mainly on UAB students, but also includes community training. We’re in the process of developing a minor in human rights and are an integral part of the new MA degree in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. We offer internships for undergraduate students to learn about human rights, advocacy, and to perfect their writing skills. A big part of our educational mission that goes beyond UAB is our blog and I encourage you to take a look. We cover as diverse topics as the chemical attack in Syria, LGBTQ rights in the United States, the intersection of HIV and human rights, and the issue of child marriage around the world. As an institute at an academic institution, research is a core part of what we do. My own interests focus on empowering marginalized voices in global governance. I’m interested in the patterns of marginalization and suppression and what people have done to be heard and break out of their suppressive situation. I’ve focused on ethnic conflict resolution, international law, and human rights approaches to some of the world’s most deeply rooted conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the tensions in Northern Ireland. In addition, I am an expert and advocate for rights of persons with disabilities and a lot of the work we do today focuses on empowering persons with disabilities and talking about rights of persons with disabilities on a global scale. The last part of our mission is outreach. We do community training on human rights, are in the process of developing a curriculum for elementary students, and engage in solidarity efforts. You might have heard about our public speaker program, which is an important part of our work. We bring speakers to town to discuss global human rights topics and organize panel discussions on the world’s most pressing topics. Past speakers included Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and Ambassadors from Kosovo and Syria, Tibetan monks, and professors from other universities. I often speak about human rights and human rights violations myself, too, especially as it concerns refugees, persons with disabilities, and human rights education.
The question I get asked the most is “what can I do?” and this is what I want to talk to you about briefly. You need to ask yourselves is two questions: first, what is my passion? And two, what am I good at? When Leymah Gbowee was in town last September, she gave a lecture to our students at UAB. In her talk, she spoke about how she became the leader of the women’s movement that ended the Liberian civil war and enabled the election of the first female head of state in Africa. She said that for us to become active in the field of human rights, social justice, and peace, we have to “find our fire”. This is what I encourage you to do. Look for the defining moments in your life, just as I had mine. You might find that what really captures you is ending the wage gap, focusing on ending economic inequality, battling institutional racism, advocacy on behalf of refugees, which I know is a passion for some of you in this congregation, or advocacy on behalf of children. This is a very individual process and I encourage you to think deeply and reflect. Only if you find your own passion and your “true fire”, you will be able to be an agent of change and social justice.
Obviously, not all of us will be Martin Luther Kings, Leymah Gbowees, Ghandis, or Mother Theresas. What we have to realize though is that none of these social justice leaders would have been able to achieve what they achieved without the support of others. Just like my mom wouldn’t have been able to become mayor without the support of my dad or I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you if it weren’t for the support of my husband. We might not remember their names, but let me tell you, their support is just as important as the one of the leaders. This brings me to the second question – what are you good at? Even if you think you have nothing you can contribute, let me tell you this is not true. Everyone of us has something we are good at. Maybe your strength is to build relationships – why don’t you reach out and connect people who have similar interests? Maybe you like to knit or sew – you can contact a shelter and see what kind of needs there are. You can sew clothes for little babies who were born too early. Knit sweaters for the homeless. Maybe you have great writing skills – why not volunteer your time for an underfunded public school to write grant applications? You see where I am going with this.
When we want to inspire social change, we need to first start with ourselves and then with our communities. Unless we become UN Secretary General, US President, or any other highly visible position, we won’t be to tackle the big problems of the world. I know it is easy to give up when looking at the many issues we face today. Famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria. Dying children in Syria. Refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies. Decaying neighborhoods. Members of the LGBTQ community beaten and put in concentration camps in Russia. How can you not resign, throw up your hands and say, what can I do in the face of all this suffering? Let me tell you, there is so much you can do. Social change starts small – in our neighborhood, in our group of friends, in our community. Just because you can’t personally solve the Syrian crisis doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of social justice. So – ask yourself: what am I good at? And how can I use this power or skill to change my community? Personally, I realized pretty quickly that my calling is not to be a community organizer, but that my strength is to be an educator. This is why I am professor and the director of the Institute for Human Rights today, because my “fire” is to educate others, to give them the tools that they need to change their own communities.
Let me end with a word of caution. Some of you know that I am the mothers of two little boys. When I see what they watch on TV, I can distinguish two narratives. One is that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys, and the other is that we have to help and rescue people. I’m not going to say much about the first assertion besides that human nature is not absolute but relative, and so much depends on the context. The world is a complex place with lots of shades of grey. It is the second point though that I find important in the context of human rights and social justice. This idea that we have to rescue others seems deeply ingrained in the American culture and – please forgive my bluntness – related to white privilege. It’s good to care for others, but personally, I think the approach of rescue is wrong. What unites marginalized communities is that they lack agency to make themselves heard. This doesn’t mean that they are vulnerable. Many members of marginalized communities are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. We need to focus our social justice efforts on empowering those who don’t have voice, to give them the tools they need to build agency. They don’t need us to speak for them. We need to listen carefully to what they are saying and not to come in with our preconceived notions of what they need. This, I think, should be the premise of social justice work and it is a principle that I apply in my own work advocating on behalf of others. The goal is to build a world in which everyone can reach their full potential. I am excited for you to join me in this endeavor. As Maya Angelou said, let’s keep on marching forward. Thank you.
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