The Threat of a Good Example
Occasionally when I'm speaking to college students, attempting to inspire at least a few to commit themselves to social justice as a way of life and perhaps career, I'm asked the question for which there is no easy answer; the one that goes: "What's the point? Can you make a difference? Why fight against such incredible odds?" As disturbing as such fatalism is, particularly from persons so young, I appreciate the opportunity to confront it. It's one of those rare times during a lecture when the speaker has to drop all pretense, put aside academic theories, and actually connect with that one other human being, even if only for a moment. And it is in that brief span of time when one can actually move another to a different place-without statistics or applause lines-by standing in a figurative sense naked before those one hopes to inspire.
And it's a good question, after all. There is much to suggest that justice, peace and equity are pipe dreams; that even our best efforts aren't enough to prevent tragedy. The bombing of Yugoslavia; the embargo against the people of Iraq; the passage of welfare "reform"; the expansion of the prison-industrial-complex as education budgets are slashed. "Don't these ominous trends,' they ask, 'ever make you want to throw up your hands and quit?"
There was a time when I might have said yes to that question, but not anymore. Like everyone, I confront fatigue and need rest. But that's not the same as wanting to quit. And what made the difference was a letter I received many years ago from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; a letter he sent in 1988 to the anti-apartheid group I co-founded at Tulane University; a letter in which he thanked us for sending information on Tulane's investments in apartheid-complicit firms-information which convinced him to reject the school's offer of an honorary doctorate.
As if knowing that those of us involved in the divestment battle were doubting our relevance-after all, even if we succeeded would things really change in South Africa? -he offered what I consider an obvious, yet profound rationale for the work of any freedom fighter: "You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you do are right."
There's much to be said for such simplicity, as it's usually a lack of complication which allows people to feel. Religion, after all, isn't terribly complex, but has inspired, for good and evil, millions around the world. Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on "winning" the battle in which we're engaged, that we often create false hope, and if victory proves limited or fleeting, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge. And yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to point out that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that "victory," although sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you must mobilize to defend that which you've won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.
There is something to be said for confronting the choice one must make in this life-between collaborating with or resisting injustice-and choosing the latter. There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community. There is something to be said for a good night's sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look oneself in the mirror, and never doubt that if you died before lunch, you would have lived a life of integrity.
Now some may think such an answer would be of little import to college students, obsessed as they supposedly are with consumerism and six-figure jobs. But quite the opposite is true. Sure, some roll their eyes at such talk; but these are folks who didn't care about social justice careers to begin with; those for whom attendance at my speech was simply a classroom assignment. But for others, including those who posed the challenge, the answer is meaningful. These are folks desperate for lives of principle and substance; desperate for someone to assure them they can do it, and that it's worth it, win or lose. These are people in need of assurance that someone is there for them, to nurture their interest and allow their contribution. But unless we reach them before the "real world" begins to feel more like a burden than a challenge, and before they develop an interest, proprietary or otherwise in maintaining the status quo, they will likely drift, moved to action rarely if ever, having had to compromise so much so soon. And it's important to remind them that every now and then you really do make a difference; you really do improve people's lives; you really do force better working conditions; you really do stop people from being bombed, and tortured. And you never know when that will happen; when your efforts will break loose the dam and send forth waters of triumph. But you do know one thing. You know for certain-as certain as the sun rising and setting-what will happen if you don't do the work; if we don't. Nothing. And given that choice, between certainty and promise, in which territory lies the measure of our resolve and humanity, I will gladly opt for hope.
If a monster like Adolph Hitler can rise from a movement which started with roughly seven guys, sitting in a pub, then surely those who fight for his antithesis can make do with the raw material to be found in Generations X and Y. Surely we can inspire as well as he.
And all of us can play that role. A few years ago, I was approached by a student at San Francisco State who said he had seen me on television, and that in the five minutes I'd been given to explain why whites should challenge racism, I had changed his life. At first I thought he had the wrong guy. It never occurred to me that a few words between commercials could have such impact. But the look in his eyes indicated he was sincere, and it's a look I've seen elsewhere since. And who knows whom those inspired by me, may themselves inspire in the future? What great things might they do? All I know is, it's worth my entire being to be part of it. Recently, I spoke at the University of Oregon, and gave a workshop in the Ben Linder room of the student center; a room named for a man who, in April, 1987, in Nicaragua, was murdered by contra forces, armed by my government, and his; killed for helping bring running water to rural villagers.
And as I sat there reflecting on how I'd felt upon hearing of his assassination, I remembered why he, and the revolution of which he was a part had to be crushed. They both posed, as we used to say, the threat of a good example. And that's when I realized that Ben Linder's life and death sum up why I do what I do, and what's required of us. I can think of nothing more rewarding, after all, than to serve as the threat of a good example; and no higher calling than to be prepared to die for your principles if need be, but even more, to be unafraid to live for them.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and lecturer, and the Director of the newly-formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.