Everything is horrible; now what?

Where did all the fashion go from my fashion blog? Well, this comes from a dark place. I am jaded. I am all out of outrage.

As if a climate emergency, a pandemic and horrible people in charge of the nuclear weapons wouldn’t be enough, this week came with many people in the US finally being fed up with police brutality and institutional racism. And, just to add my petty worries, on Facebook somebody commented under my yogurt post that the cashew industry is evil. I know these worries are of incomparable magnitude, but bear with me, this might lead us someplace… Also, you can tie all these up with the realization that geopolitically there are always ‘us’ and ‘them’, the valuable people that deserve cashews and the others who have to toil to get them on others’ table, those who can afford to call the climate emergency a hoax and those whose literal land beneath their feet is being flooded.

All of them, the big concerns ones and the smaller ones, are united by how we learn stuff and what do we do with it. The obvious sidenote is that, of course, for each of the crises mentioned, there has been a different social and political responses. The Climate emergency is raging and we are just standing around, maybe doing some ritualistic sorting of our garbage. Covid-19 has been actively managed in some places and actively mismanaged in some other placed. Individually these are similar forces in battle: some deciding to restrict their freedoms for the greater good and some taking offense for even suggesting such outrage.

As for the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd, unfortunately, I am surprised that somebody is surprised. I am very sorry that it took one more death on the top of the existing death toll of BIPOC people when in contact with the police in the US to remind us all that race and ethnicity is a huge systemic problem wherever there is any racial diversity*… and, well, I have no other words to phrase this, that the US is fucked up big time that way. Yes, yes, not every person living in the US, yes, but, fuck, it’s just mindboggling to observe.

As for my petty comment thing, it is tied up with the big issues because it is also a story of somebody learning that the world is not a just and orderly place, and then deciding on how to go on living with that knowledge, what to do with it. I know, it’s horrifying. You might discover that the world is a very different place than you thought, than you had been taught. Or that it is even worse than you had already discovered.

At this point I truly believe that a mass ritualistic suicide to call the attention to the climate emergency or systemic racism would not have much of an impact. So we go on living and painfully discover that Klein wasn’t right, that *this* – whichever fucked up *this* you happen to be dealing with at the moment – doesn’t change everything. Or not necessarily everything or necessarily now. After that naive hope is lost, we are on our own, deciding what to do with this new and terrible piece of the puzzle.

1. Research

First, you learn, you read up, you listen, you try to feed reliable information to your Flubber of outrage, so that it can take shape. Minds are very different and issues are very different, so the time and effort necessary for this step varies a lot.

Be mindful, this is the phase where you are the most likely to go around spewing unsolicited information in a very hostile manner, mostly on the internets and on innocent bystanders. Passion can be very inspiring and it can be very obnoxious. You have probably met a newly minted vegan, remember how horrible that was and try not to be that person. Try breathing instead and learn some more.

Yes, I am putting sticks in your wheels here. I know you are full of rage and passion, and want to act now. Try breathing instead and learn some more.

2. Action

Then comes the action plan… This is tricky, because you have to strike a balance between two uncomfortable truths. Truth A: Any action is valid. Truth B: There can always be more action. Sometimes step 1 listed above ends up being the only action that makes sense. This feeling, soberly analyzed is bound to be a soothing illusion because all other steps are very frightening… and that is OK. Setting yourself on fire requires something quite special, judging from how very few of us are truly willing to do it. I have forgiven Klen her ‘this changes everything’ after Stop Trying To Save The World All By Yourself.

The optimal action would fulfill the double purpose of making an actual change and relieving your anxiety of being a mere observer of a major injustice. Now, repeat after me: there is no perfect action. Accept the very painful truth that individual actions, especially the easy ones such as stopping buying something or changing a profile picture, serve – in the great majority of cases – just to make you feel better. Yes, if such gestures are truly massive, they can shift something. But don’t hold your breath for that…

We don’t like to admit it but much of the ‘activism’ that we do is to keep our self-perception acceptable, to keep that ‘I am the person which’ reality in line with our fantasies. Not as an evil plot to just appear some way and signal our virtue to the others but to honestly be able to go on with our everyday life without being driven mad by the cognitive dissonance. Cyberactivism is only what it is. We add a black ribbon to our profile picture, post a black square, and read up. A black square and then what?

As far the heroic activism, even just showing up in person, not even talking about that gasoline or putting your body between the bulldozers and the rainforest, very few of us are ready to do that even for our most cherished causes. This is hard, I know. But writing angry posts about my guilt is so much more easy than leaving it all and moving to West Bank, Manaus, Lhasa, or Minneapolis. I wish it would be my impulse, but it’s not. And the empirical observations suggest that I’m not the only weird one.

Try to accept that all your activism is mostly rituals we carry out to make ourselves feel better. Unless you are that person who will take up the gasoline in earnest, accept that you need a clearly delimited plan of what are you ready to do for a cause, aspiring to at least some real impact and let go.

The tiniest real life impact will already set you ahead of most cyberactivism. Try and find something that involves either (a) figuring out how you might have added to the problem so far and how could you change something in your own everyday behaviour, truly trying to involve other people in that activity, (b) moving money toward a cause, as close as possible to the grass roots, or (c) bothering an elected official as to make at least a minor aide in charge of their Twitter or public e-mail uncomfortable. These are very mid-XX century basics but they are still valid.

3. Empathy

Oh, this one stings even more than the above suggestion that most likely our dedication to the cause is not as total as it could be. This might be the step that is the easiest to do in theory and often the most painful in practice: practicing radical empathy. Yeah, slippery slope and, yes, so needed. Yes, first of all, towards all victims of racism, climate emergency, horrible labor practices in fast fashion, the cashew industry and all other places of pain and injustice. But also for ourselves and other people who have been the not-so-innocent bystanders so far. Our mental health would benefit from that. And our educational efforts would benefit, too. Turns out people don’t like to be called murderers. Who knew?

This is not to suggest that people are not to be held accountable, especially if they are directly perpetrating an injustice. And I am the first one to be appalled by tepid and ‘strategic’ stances. But take a minute to trace a couple of possible causal chains of how come the person in position to carry out violence got there in the first place. Yes, some of it is self-selection of sociopaths. But in other cases you can imagine one of those dramatic movie scenarios of the ‘good’ person being pushed towards horrible choices by their circumstances and status quo bias, and the urge to preserve that same positive self-perception mentioned above. People can get quite savage when their positive self-perception is questioned.

And, again, I hate to be the one saying it but empathy really helps to start a conversation and do the emotional education work that can change hearts and minds. This is a very fine act to balance, I wish you the best of luck in finding the sweet spot between being honest to your values and doing effective advocacy work that lures over those who didn’t know better until they met you.

*

How have you been coping with the shitstorm? Did you put up the black square? Did you participate in the applause for the public health workers? If so, what did it mean for you? And what are your experiences with the different stages of accepting the dark side of the world? How do you do is?

* Coming from a place of barely any phenotypical diversity – hello, Latvia – I know the other variety of racial/ethnic issues that bubble up there: how overtly racist it gets when anybody different looking even steps across the threshold and how eager people are to look for any other differences, such as slight variation in aesthetic preference, to set the Other apart.

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