"More than machinery, we need humanity."
When surveying the news of recent days, weeks and months it can be a rather troublesome exercise to ask the question: what is the moral of this story? Granted, not every story has a moral—the news is not a fable, after all—and sometimes the lesson to be gleaned is not a particularly uplifting one. Indeed, it may be a lesson that we had been certain we had learned so long ago as to make the retelling seem anachronistic. And yet, even if we are seeing the headlines courtesy of the latest technological innovations the content of those headlines is a reminder that we are not as far removed from yesterday as some would like to think.
From Ferguson to Cleveland to New York City – it is proving to be a brutally cold winter. On Tuesday, December 2, Americans were encouraged to participate in the festive showing of conviviality known as “Giving Tuesday” – an occasion to show some loving warmth as the snow begins to fall. And the next day the nation was provided with further evidence of how unjust, how little of a damn is given, for the lives of many of our fellow human beings. The coldness of what passes for justice provoking an angry spirit hot enough to melt the sturdiest snow bank. Amidst the justified shouts of “Indict America” is another sentiment: this year we are all getting coal. We see these occurrences and listen as politicians urge calm while others declare “never again.” But it happens again, and again, and again.
In the formulation “first as tragedy, then as farce” we come to see that the “farce” was only the mistaken belief that the initial tragedy had ever ceased. We have never escaped from the initial tragedy of racism – regardless of the farcical comments to the contrary. Tragedy heaps upon tragedy and the fresh horror of each occurrence is only transcended by the even greater tragedy of which it is a part. Playing the lead role in the farce is the notion of law and justice itself – the blindfolded figure having been turned into a comically inept bumbler. We are told repeatedly that the grand jury decided not to indict, that the jury voted not to convict and we witness again and again the ways in which the law, far from providing justice, simply gives an authoritative veneer to gross injustice. Granted, this too is simply evidence of the ongoing tragedy. As Jacques Ellul described it:
“law ensures order instead of justice.” (Ellul, 296)
And seeing the lines of police officers outfitted in millions of dollars of “riot gear” is a testament to the way in which “order” – acting under the guise of law – always seems to trump justice. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that law and order force justice into submission.
Thus when we read the news, when we feel the news like ice upon our skin, and struggle internally to discern the moral of this story we find ourselves confronting truths that are not so much amoral, as immoral. Yet the headlines themselves fluctuate and morph swiftly so as to prevent us from becoming overly bogged down in this feeling – there are celebrities taking racy photos, sequels to prequels to sequels to get excited about, and (remember!) this is the holiday season so you had better start shopping! And then…wait…where were we? Until the headlines are once more disrupted by another death, another miscarriage of justice in the name of law and order, and another call for a national conversation that always seems to represent the end of discussion instead of the continuation of discussion.
There is an odd dissonance between the way in which, today, we are more connected than ever – and yet seem to be as far apart from one another as we have ever been. Though the sense that this is in any way “odd” is likely more evidence of the farcical nature of thinking that things have changed at all. Our communications tools allow us to see what is going on with other humans all over the country, and all over the world, but as our devices turn these people into images on our screens do we start treating them as only images instead of as human beings? It is not an idle question. Despite what claims one can make about ethical imperatives to the aesthetic, a person owes no significant moral obligation to images, as such. It is not that the injustice, the murder, is caught on camera – the injustice is that anything occurred to be caught on camera in the first place. The outrage is not the image, not even images of people. Our obligation is to the other person. As a person.
In her book The Need for Roots, Simone Weil, delved into the essential conditions necessary for a just society – one of justice, not strictly of law and order. Weil wrote in ethical terminology, the moral of her story was “morals,” and she described the commitment of humans to each other as one defined by “obligation;” Weil writes that:
“The object of any obligation, in the realm of human affairs, is always the human being as such. There exists an obligation towards every human being for the sole reason that he or she is a human being, without any other condition requiring to be fulfilled, and even without any recognition of such obligation on the part of the individual concerned.” (Weil, 5)
It is this sense of “obligation” that seems so hard to detect of late – and what keeps this evocation “of late” as being more than just another echo of the “farce” of forgetting the ongoing “tragedy” is that this obligation seems buried somewhere within the makeup of our species. Writing in 1902, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Peter Kropotkin drew upon a naturalist worldview, and a wealth of scientific observation and research, that encompassed non-human animals and many forms of human civilization. Kropotkin argued that not struggle but cooperation (or “mutual aid”) was the defining feature that allowed species (including humans) to advance; as Kropotkin put it:
“the practice of mutual aid and its successive developments have created the very conditions of society life in which man was enabled to develop his arts, knowledge, and intelligence; and that the periods when institutions based on the mutual-aid tendency took their greatest development were also the periods of the greatest progress in the arts, industry and science.” (Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, 244/245)
For Kropotkin the portrayal of human history as a one of struggle was reflective of an attempt to bury the history of mutual aid. An attempt to make it seem as if lines of police officers (for example) were all that separated humanity from returning to a primordial state of constant war – thus “law” could come to replace “justice” even as an “obligation” to fellow people was mutilated into an “obligation” to follow the dictates of the law. As Kropotkin would describe it later:
“Law has perverted the feeling of justice instead of developing it.” (Kropotkin, Fugitive Writings, 138)
Yet what we see around us today is evidence that, while the “feeling of justice” our sense of “obligation” may have been dimmed and glossed over, it has not vanished.
Though some may scoff at Kropotkin’s comments about “progress in the arts, industry and science” – holding aloft their smart phone as evidence – the retort is not to ignore such technical advances, but to ask what could be achieved if we restored the emphasis to cooperation instead of sleek “innovation” (which is not to even discuss the vital role mutual aid plays in scientific advances). Likewise some may shrug at Weil’s reminder of their obligation to their fellow humans – but as Weil herself indicated, choosing to willfully ignore this obligation does not in and of itself negate the obligation. Alas, our age is a sad testament to the fact that progress in science and technology does not necessarily coincide with any societal progression towards justice.
In other words – the moral of our story remains, and has always been, us – human beings. We lose sight of this often, distracted by flashing screens and offers of excellent deals, but as Kropotkin and Weil believed – at our core (be it evolutionary as with Kropotkin or spiritual as with Weil) we are the moral of our own story. It is as Grace Lee Boggs captured in her essay “Let’s Talk About Malcolm and Martin”:
“Love isn’t about what we did yesterday; it’s about what we do today and tomorrow and the day after.” (Boggs, 97)
This is proving to be a very cold winter – in a very cold world – blankets will not warm us. But coming together just might.
Grace Lee Boggs. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2012.
Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
Peter Kropotkin. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006.
Peter Kroptokin. Fugitive Writings. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1993.
Simone Weil. The Need for Roots. London: Routledge Classics, 2002.