Unfinished Thoughts on Collective Responsibility

I‘ve been trying to figure out where to take this blog and I think I‘m gonna make it more personal as I train myself out of the very academic writing style I’ve picked up.

From the march for residential school survivors in Vancouver in June. This one turned into a concert / block party after crossing the bridge.
From the march for residential school survivors in Vancouver in June 2021.

I‘ve spent the summer cataloguing my thoughts on the various protest waves but I haven’t figured out what it is that I want to say about them so I’m just gonna write the loosely connected conversations I've been having with myself as I walk away from them. You‘re gonna read this and hopefully begin having those conversations with yourself.


Take nothing I say here as the ultimate distillation of the truth but rather as my incomplete thoughts on collective responsibility. As with everything I say here, I welcome you to challenge me or direct my thinking further.


With that in mind, here’s why I’ve posted nothing for the past few months:


“From Vancouver to Palestine…” they chanted between speeches to a crowd of unfamiliar faces. “…occupation is a crime,” replied the crowd after a botched land acknowledgement that came several hours into the rally. There‘s an unavoidable irony in the arguments used in the Free Palestine actions I’ve seen in Vancouver. Of course, they are the right arguments and I agree with the chant--but I can’t shake my unease knowing that just about none of the people at this protest would be at the vigils of residential school victims a few weeks later. I can’t shake my unease at watching people who don’t show out for anyone else then criticize others for not showing out for them.

Beyond events that happen when issues are dominating a news cycle, solidarity is lacking across the marginalized peoples that need it. By that, I mean you don’t see the free Palestine crowd at the other rallies, nor do you see the EndSARS crowd, the StopAsianHate crowds and especially not the Earth-Day-Greta-Thunberg crowd—or those white vegans with the V for Vendetta masks downtown. We are all as bad at showing up for movements that don’t align with our most immediate agendas as we are eager to pretend our allegiances are intersectional.


As I’ve pieced these thoughts together, I’ve been struggling with the “why.” Some days I see hypocrisy and loosely held morals. I see people playing oppression olympics as a ploy for the commodified attention of the masses. “Your Silence is Violence,” we say.

From the BLM Rally in May 2020.
From the BLM Rally in May 2020

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that some—and dare I say most—of you need to learn when to shut the fuck up because what you’re saying is doing more harm than good. Respectfully, some people are better equipped to lead these conversations than others. By all means, educate yourself and amplify the appropriate voices by sharing all my articles with all your friend--and give ‘em my Paypal while you’re at it--but please understand that even if you know exactly what you’re talking about, presenting that information to someone else in a way that comprehensively covers the topic and is comprehensible to them is an entirely different task than figuring it out for yourself. Your ethno-racial proximity to any given issue alone does not make you a qualified spokesperson.


A lot of us need to sit with ourselves and ponder the lessons the history of today can teach us. I’m reminded of the queer brown speaker at the Palestine rally in Victoria. He came to the stage and spoke well on the most immediate matter at hand: the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. This part of his speech was met with the usual scattered cheers and applause. Then he pivoted into a vision of the future. A Palestine united and safe.

Great.

Safe for Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-religious peoples.

Good but now you could feel some tension as the crowd anticipated his next words.

Safe for all the people who do not conform to a restrictive and uninclusive heteronormative social structure.

The crowd did not like that last bit and they made it known with their groans and lack of applause. Let’s not get into all the people who are pro-Palestine but are silent when it comes to the Kurds who have same wants of human rights and self-governance free from external meddling but different geopolitics so who cares?

From the Victoria Free Palestine Rally in May 2021. Speaker stand in front of the BC Parliament building.
From the Victoria Free Palestine Rally in May 2021.

Really examine your agenda and figure out if you are for the liberation of all people, everywhere, or just looking to reestablish the hierarchy in your favour.


As I’ve pieced these thoughts together, I’ve been struggling with the “why” but I think I’ve settled on something.


Just allow me to borrow from Hannah Arendt who believes we should all “be held responsible for the sins of our fathers as we reap the rewards of their merits” (151). I initially read this text in the context of the American Civil Rights Era. Don’t excuse the pun but in Black and white terms, this means that because white America has plundered and robbed its way to dominance, they owe a moral duty to Black and Indigenous peoples to establish real legal and socio-economic parity. Regardless of whether or not white people of today are not immediately guilty of being racist, as long as they continue to benefit from the racism of the past, it is their responsibility to dismantle the racist and unjust system crafted on their behalf. The cost of the privilege gained through membership in a group who benefit from slavery, despite not practicing it themselves, is the responsibility to solve the issues that allow for their prosperity.


When described in this manner, people tend to view their responsibility as a retroactive punishment for acts committed generations ago. My advice would be to reframe it in your mind as paying your dues. Or don’t. I’m not particularly concerned with how you feel about it as long as you’re doin’ the work. Factor reconciliation into your financial and social budgeting like you would taxes.

Now I gotta come for some people. Being an immigrant or PoC or queer or Black or a poor white person or sensitive to the news or whatever does not excuse you from this responsibility. If what we want is a society that is safe and inclusive of everyone then we are all on the hook for bringing that world into existence. Do white people have the most atoning to do? Absolutely. Does just ragging on white people and telling them to do better constitute fulfilling your obligations? No--unless you’re pulling some record breaking white guilt numbers, in which case, we’ll talk. It may feel punitive but it’s not; it is a necessary step in bettering the places we live. This responsibility is intrinsically linked to our participation in today’s world. None of us get to choose whether or not it applies to us. It exists and either you make the choice to ignore it or you do the right thing. It is a social contract that many of us are not living up to.


I understand that people won’t have the bandwidth to fight every news cycle. Especially when they’re expected to be an expert on this month’s colonialism. And people have an even harder time prioritizing acts that feel good over acts that matter. I promise you that despite the lack of bodies and media attention, the blockades on the viaduct or the port say much more to the people in power than whatever crowd is gathering at the art gallery. I can also promise you that no matter how gratifying it feels to let those twitter fingers rattle at internet racists, you are wasting time and energy that could be spent on someone amenable who is closer to you. There is value in this section being more cutting than coddling but my hope is that presenting this topic in this way will trigger a collaborative response rather than the usual combative or defensive one.


People don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with all that’s going on because reading the news sucks, a lot of the time it's difficult to parse together what’s actually happening and then when you do, it’s so emotionally taxing that it becomes difficult to motivate yourself to action. When everything is a structural issue it begins to feel impossible to even figure out where to start. Then you do start but it feels like you’re just addressing symptoms because the real problem is so far out of reach, You get all of that going on in your head and still have to figure out how to meet your own needs, I’m certainly not advocating that anyone dedicate every waking hour to hunting down actions to attend, books to read and arguing with people online but most of you that read this are also on social media. You see the calls to action, you see the GoFundMe links, you stumble across protests around the city. Take note of the excuses you use not to participate. Some of them will be valid but many won’t be. Keep your responsibility to this place and its people in mind next time you’re not doing anything when there’s a blockade, or jail support, or march. Of course these things aren’t always pleasant but more times than not you’ll meet someone interesting, learn something new or have a thought you just wouldn’t have had at home.


I‘d love to put politics behind me and open a café or pursue fine art photography full time or move back to Belize and live on the cayes but I feel a responsibility to the world that forces me down the path I’m on. It is well within my abilities to give up on having these conversations and pursuing a life of leisure and I‘d probably be supported no matter what path I go down. It is a personal and individual responsibility to the collective that keeps me chipping away at this piece that I hate writing. While I don’t know exactly where this feeling has come from, I also don’t know how other people don’t feel it. I know it‘s not possible for everyone to commit to the cause full heartedly but surely everyone must feel some responsibility to contribute more than an IG infographic repost every few days.


This isn't directed at the people who are physically or mentally incapable of being present because I have been big chillin’ this summer and lots of others will be too exhausted and depressed to argue or write or fight.


This however, is directed at all the people that refuse to get vaccinated whilst being unwilling to stop living life as though they are. If you want to take your mask off in the elevator then get vaccinated. If you want to go bar hopping, travelling, to go to school in person or go to your vaccinated friends’ graduation party then get vaccinated.


Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.


If you think a vaccination record is the start of government tyranny then you have not thought through the entire time you have been on this planet. The reason you don’t have to deal with diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, or rubella is because you and just about every person around you is vaccinated against those things and has a detailed record of when and where they received those shots. If you immigrated here then you probably even had to take all those shots again to enter the country. The only reason we don’t ask for that record in the same way as the COVID vaccine is because, at this point, it would be unreasonable to assume someone didn’t have a measles shot.


You owe a responsibility to the collective you live amongst to get vaccinated against COVID-19. If you can't or won’t get vaccinated then keep your mask on and don’t go flying across the planet to some community that can’t afford to put you and everyone you may infect in intensive care.


You also owe a responsibility to the collective you live amongst to combat genuine authoritarianism so bemoan the government with the same vigor about police budgets being expanded all over the country. Go tell your friends about the snap election on September 20th. Go be suspicious of every politician that gets elected on that day, not all the doctors and nurses begging you to get vaccinated.


This is directed at the campus Liberals I met at UVic before the last federal election. I asked if you were happy with the job Trudeau and his cabinet accomplished in his first term. You told me no whilst asking me to vote for his second term. If you genuinely believe in this political system then you must understand that the theoretical success of representative democracies hinges on there being consequences for the representative that are fucking up.


The system cannot work when you vote for someone you don’t like because you like the alternatives even less. So campus Liberals, start lobbying the party that has disappointed you to do a better job rather than harassing students into voting for them and just hoping for the best.


This is also directed at me. A week or two ago, I was viewing my photos in the Royal BC Museum. It was a moment of empowerment. I wanted to talk my shit and tell everyone in there who took those photos but I also couldn’t even explain to myself the gravity of that accomplishment. Everyone that asks me about how it feels to have my work in a provincial museum get the same response, “it’s the first of many.” Which is honestly how I feel but I also don’t have the words to explain what it means to have this be the first. It’s big.


Before I get back to the point of bringing this all up, here are the photos. 3 or 4 images from the BLM protests last year as part of an exhibit titled “Hope Meets Action: Echoes Through the Black Continuum.”


That afternoon I ended up as part of a march that would blockade this big bridge across town in Victoria. What a perfect way to respond to seeing those particular photos in that particular context, right? Well after 15 minutes as part of that protest I ended up dipping and within 30 minute of getting there I was shopping for an upcoming shoot. Sure, I wasn’t dressed to protest and sure I wasn't in the headspace to occupy a bridge with a bunch of strangers in a community I’m only loosely affiliated with but isn’t that what this article is about—sacrificing our short term individual interests for a more important collective gain? That afternoon I caught myself trying to justify that decision to myself. I’m not sure I’m convinced that protests change much but I know it’s still important to show up to them. I’m not sure if one more body turns the tides but I do know that the countless people who had the same thought could have made a difference. I tell myself I can’t get arrested or I might not be able to fly through the US to get home to Belize but maybe that’s the cost of living here. Maybe that should really be the reason why the cost of living on this stolen land is so high.


Maybe collective responsibility is returning to the country I came from with everything I’ve gotten out of being here.


It’s a necessary complication.



Reference


Arendt, H. (1968). Collective Responsibility. Scribd. Retrieved from (https://www.scribd.com/document/362424977/Hannah-Arendt-Collective-Responsibility)



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