Friday, March 20, 2015

Slacktivism and Szymborska

I've had conversations several times in the last few weeks, with several people about slacktivism, and the sense that the bar on political activity has become so low, that the smallest things seem political, and many seem to channel their political impulses into the smallest of things. For some this is a dire sign, the trivializing of the important. The decline of real activism into the merest shade of symbolic action, the laziest of all possible protests. For others, this is a sign of political activity adapting to the tastes and communication styles of a new generation, of a regeneration of political engagement, where being political is no longer confined to the halls of money and power, but animates regular people in their daily lives. For others, the politicization of all things feels like a stifling interference, where ideas from the humanities attempt to but their nose into the sciences or business worlds, or other places where they seem sometimes like intruders.

I have many mixed feeling myself, but want to defend some kinds and styles of slacktivism, in some contexts. Last night, at my open night poetry reading, I read one of my own fumbling poems on the topic, and another reader I'm slowly getting to know, replied to me with a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. It was just exactly right. It has gotten me re-thinking.

But before I get to the poem, I need a brief detour through “political theology.” American understanding of political theory usually make sense of the foundations of the modern state in terms of figures like Locke, Hobbes, Hume and Smith, even Machiavelli, who turned away from religion and tried to ground things in talk of contracts. But there is a strain of political theory, especially in Europe, from Carl Schmitt to Jurgen Habermas and then to living folks like Giorgio Agemben, Ernesto Laclau, or Paul Kahn (many of them atheists), exploring the idea that to quote Schmitt “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” In this style of seeing, often called “political theology,” the foundation of the state is not a prior contract, but a prior act of sacrifice - and the state itself is not an agreement among equals constantly being re-negotiated as much as it is a sacred thing inherited from the past providing a framework within which we attempt to find meaning for our collective activities.

In this style I thinking, I suspect that slacktivism looks suspiciously like a political analog of what in theology is called “cheap grace.” (A term and idea coined by African-America pastor, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, popularized by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship.) “Cheap grace” is the idea of trying to receive the blessing of sanctity without having undergone the burdens of authentic discipleship. Even if the grace is freely given, it seems somehow a poor or immature response to it to take blessing and move on with one's life, rather than being deeply transformed by it into someone trying to “live up to it.” Enjoying the benefits of the past struggles of political activists who toiled hard and in many cases “sacrificed” for the current imperfect political regime, and responding in turn with slacker-activism, can feel intuitively like “desecrating” past sacrifices or real discipleship/activism.

But being authentically political has to involve, eventually, integrating politics into one's whole life. Not just how you vote, but how you spend money, how you talk, how you act in big things and small. But that means that your political convictions should manifest somehow in even little, easy, trivial, dayly things. Which hashtags you use, for instance. As always, someone who does small things well, but screws up the big ones, is criticizable, and often a hypocrite, and hypocrisy is especially loathsome when mixed with arrogance or self-righteousness. But I have a lot of sympathy with a humble hypocrite, who knows they don't live up to their highest ideals, yet, and is trying and failing to be better than they are. And that is true for politics, ethics, or religion. This is one of the reasons that a culture of calling-outneeds to be replaced in most cases with on of calling-in, where you criticize well-meaning failures privately rather than publicly and thereby risking alienating potential allies to show off your own self-righteousness. We want to avoid the hypocrisy of taking the easy way out, and then letting ourselves off the hook, but we also want to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, too. In this fascinating analysis of fragmentation on the left I'm a moderate on the suspicion vs solidarity axis.

If slacktivism is all we do to try to build intentional bridges between ourself and our world, then that is pretty pathetic. But if it is one aspect of what we do, that is another story. Similarly, I'm pretty skeptical of my ability to have real effects on the decisions of the wealthy and the halls of power. But I have some power at least over my daily life, and the people I personally interact with. These minimal interactions - trying to be polite, friendly, and respectful to people; trying to cut people some slack; trying to gently encourage thought and growth; trying to help people see the best in themselves; trying to get my own house in better order; this is where the personal and political meet, and is the sphere where I feel the least hopeless. And a lot of that manifests on the internet, because that is where I do most of my socializing.

OK Szymborska

“Children of the Age”

We are children of our age,
it's a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
All affairs – yours, ours, theirs -
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
Whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way you're talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
Our political moon
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
and though it troubles the digestion
it's a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarrel over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

-by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, 1988

All human affairs, and even many things beyond the immediately human, are political whether we like it or not. Who we are personally is political, even in our genes and our past. We don't have to focus on the political aspect of our experience all the time, thematizing it. Sometimes we can look at the sunset or do math or sip tea while watching TV. These things are political too, it's part of the background of their being, but we don't always have to focus on it. We DO have to admit it to ourselves, acknowledge that self and world and others are all linked in various ways whether we like it or not.  Politics may feel intrusive in some domains, but it is already there whether we like it or not, it is just a matter of if we can overcome our self-deception enough to face it squarely from time to time.  We do have to find ways to live our lives within this interlinking. We do have to acknowledge that people are perishing while we arbitrate life and death, but that this is not new, or unique to us. That there isn't a quick fix, or cheap grace or slacktivist solution to the conundrums of interconnection. But slacktivism may well be one part of navigating this terrain well. I still have good hope that there is room for ourselves to unfold within this space of interconnection, well, some of ourselves … sigh.

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