Not so long ago I canceled my facebook account. It was election season, and it was also job market season, which meant that I was stressed out to the max trying to prepare my job market applications, and every day when I checked my facebook updates, a ton of my friends had posted nasty, inflammatory, snarky memes about the “other side” of the political spectrum. I happen to be very close with people on both ends, and both radical ends to boot, so facebook had essentially become a war zone with fire coming in from all directions. The academic in me could not just ignore them, or let bygones be bygones, but had to compulsively correct their facts, point out their lack of facts, or elucidate the non-factual subconscious messages that their favorite political advertisements were attempting to force feed us. Before too long I decided I had had enough and canceled my account entirely.
Later, when the political dust was settling, a gay rights activist friend of mine said to me that even though it felt like a war zone, and even though he felt like the United States of America was still waging war on the humanity of its citizens, he contented himself to know that no matter how bad it is now, we are still better than we were twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years ago. I said to him, “I’m not so sure. Today we wage a war on homosexuality. It is a public war on a private aspect of our lives. My friend,” I said, “one hundred years ago we did not have the notion of ‘being gay’, we just had men and women who went about their daily lives, marrying the people they were supposed to marry, and carrying on their private romantic affairs with whomever they saw fit, quietly, secretly, discretely, just like they’ve been doing for millennia.” At this point, he cocks a digital eyebrow at me. Am I saying that there is no point in waging this war? That gays and lesbians have invented this tyranny purely for political attention? Of course not. But every generation will have its struggle. The world is constantly changing. What is an offense today, is a non-issue of yesterday, and indeed a non-issue of our future.
There are, in my opinion, two ways of viewing the world which were highlighted by my conversation with my friend. One way is to view our universe as if on a path stretching from a single point in history to an infinitely distant horizon. We exist on a single point on this path, and we can look ahead of us and look behind. Perhaps our point is not as good as some other point, so we strive to bring the two closer. Maybe we are successful, maybe we are not. In our forever quest for existential comfort, we might think to ourselves that justice is about moving our world closer to that better point on the horizon. Knowing that we in our finititude can never reach that point, we seek contentment in knowing that we moved ever so infinitessimally closer.
There is another way to view our world. It is possible that we exist in an infinite cycle of beginnings, middles and ends; with every beginning marking the end of something else. In this view, everything changes, but then it means that everything stays the same. There is a peace to be had in knowing that we exist as if in an ocean, with the waves providing a never ending rise and fall to our experience. Our struggles for justice can then be viewed not as a desperate and futile attempt for the shore, but as the necessary churning of our arms and legs in the waves that keeps our heads above the water. Whether we aim for the shore, knowing that we will drown long before we reach it, or we allow ourselves to simply float on the waves, we must nevertheless exist inside the water. The difference is that in this second view of the world, we see the waves for what they are: water moving up and down around us, instead of an obstacle separating us from an unattainable goal.
When I explained this second view of the world to my friend, he wondered aloud to me the natural question: If the universe exists in a constant flux, then where is there reason to ever attempt to improve it? The reason, I explained to him, is that every night we must go to sleep, and in those moments before unconsciousness takes us, we must face the reality of who we are. It is right to love our fellow humans. In loving one another, we enhance our own sense of humanity and we bring brightness into our own lives. It is not a question of whether or not we change the world, but whether or not we direct our intentions towards greater happiness. The contentment in our struggle must, therefore, not come from the realization of the goal, but the realization of the struggle itself. Just as the racial inhumanities of the sixties seemed to be coming to a conclusion, the sexual inhumanities of my generation seem to reach a head. The struggle never ends. The victory never arrives. The beauty, however, of the cycle is that at every moment we have the opportunity to realize in ourselves the struggle between the easy and the just. This, I told my friend, is the only source of true comfort.
December 9, 2013 at 5:14 AM
With race equality- in the 18th century slavery was normal and acceptable. Voices condemning it became louder, and it was abolished in the UK in 1807 and in the US later. Now it is unthinkably vile to most, and is not an institution.
With homosexuality: Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour for it, a sentence which was expected to kill him. So there was no great societal conflict, perhaps, but notorious gay men were prosecuted and cast out of society.
Is there not progress here?
December 9, 2013 at 5:21 AM
You’re definitely right. Progress exists, but just as we solve one problem, another arises.
April 14, 2014 at 11:58 AM
Resistance to mainstreaming homosexuality in America has just about collapsed. “America still waging a war on the humanity of its citizen?” Huh? Quite the contrary. For an example of what it used to be like when America WAS waging a war on homosexuality as was the whole of Western Civilization, go to Putin’s Russia or any Islamic country where the penalty for homosexuality is still death!