Borders to Democracy

Cornel West spoke several days ago at the University of Arizona. I didn’t know much about him — I’ve only read a couple of his articles about immigration — and didn’t realize he was such a huge name. There were easily fifteen hundred people at the event. He spoke as part of the ongoing series of events, “Who Draws the Line? Social Justice Perspectives on Diversity.”

Honestly, I was not prepared for what I was in for. Usually at this sort of lecture, I take notes about events and ideas that I have not heard of. But Cornel West barely said anything that could be considered academic outright – he did cite a lot of different facts and statistics and their authors, but not as what he was saying, but to support what he was saying, which I think is a concept that social justice academics lack a lot of the time. They are too busy talking about their research.

Anyway, the point is that he spoke powerfully. He was engaging. He was incredibly personable and human and passionate and I know the reason many people don’t speak like him is because it takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of people and tell them how you feel instead of what you know. Nowadays, as he said, “too many people don’t want to be courageous. They just want money.”

I think this is only partially true. I know plenty of people, both personally and not, that are willing to compromise their safety and comfort for the good of others. That is what we are told courage is, right? Police officers, border patrol agents and soldiers are told that they are courageous. Peace corps volunteers, firefighters and human rights observers are told they are courageous. But Dr. West spoke of a different kind of courage. The kind that those in power speak of as a perfectly valid idea, but never as anything to seriously practice. He spoke of having the courage to think critically. To live decently and compassionately. To realize that assumptions and pre-suppositions that have been deposited in you by society require scrutiny. To love. This is what we should be encouraging as the idea of courage – but we are unfortunately and not coincidentally trapped within the idea of material safety and happiness. In our society, success is material and being well-adjusted to injustice. Whether that means you have succeeded in keeping your body intact in a dangerous place or “earned” your access to items of physical comfort and luxury, as long as you manage to enjoy that privilege and ignore the fact that the world is systematically oppressing women, people of color and lower classes, you will be well-respected in mainstream society.

Are people who call for the end of injustice well-respected? Are people who dare to raise their voices among the cacophony of lies well-respected? Are people who have the courage to externalize and share their identities as much as heterosexual, white males do well-respected? Are people who sacrifice their dignity in order to fulfill their needs well-respected? Only in very small circles, and even within those circles, most good-hearted people stand around, waiting for a leader and a voice that has the courage to be what they are scared to be.

This idea speaks volumes of what we have internalized. Dr. West said that even without a formal education, most people in the United States have been schooled. Various demographics have been been taught self-devaluation, even when society at large already devalues them. They have been taught to feel powerless in a society that has the audacity to call itself a democracy. They have been taught that we base our country’s educational success on the education of the well-to-do. The 50% of Mexican-American students throughout the country do not count. The women that leave school in order to take care of their children do not count. And when I say “they,” I really mean all of us. Even those who are privileged enough to be able to speak without being forced to represent whatever race or sex or class they are, they are have been taught to be afraid or to feel inadequate if they bring up injustice. How many men can call their friends out for sexist comments without hesitation? How many women have made the commitment to stop insulting each other based on sexual practice or wardrobe? How many people have the courage to say they are moved and saddened by commercials about hunger and poverty instead of normalizing them? People will make fun of you if you say these things, or they will devalue your feelings by telling you there is nothing you can do about them. Or worse, they’ll stop thinking you’re a normal, fun, well-adjusted person worth hanging out with. They’ll think you’re a downer when you tell them the restaurant they eat at doesn’t pay their bussers minimum wage. We are taught to feel that we will be devalued or trivialized when we respond to disaster.

Well, I completely agree with Cornel West when he says, “So what? We NEED more maladjusted people! We need less people who are well-adjusted to injustice!” We need people who will not just tolerate everyone, but actively respect them. We need people who will intensify Socratic energy in society and have the courage to follow through with empathy and compassion. People who realize no culture (their own non-violent, pluralist culture included) has a monopoly on truth, goodness or wisdom, but that all traditions must be vital and dynamic. People who confront political complexities and contradictions. People who ask themselves not only “what is the truth?” but also “How do I  love wisdom and justice?” We need people who love and cry. “Anybody who has never cried, you have never loved people…You may love wisdom in the abstract, but you have never loved people.”

It is not enough to know. It is not enough to fall into the systems (non-profits, churches, political parties) that have been created by mostly well-intentioned people in order to save the world, or to talk to people who already believe you about the world. To truly facilitate a higher-quality life for others takes more than that. It takes the courage to be completely 100% unapologetic about justice.

**Most of this essay is what is considered creative plagiarism, or paraphrasing, of what Cornel West said last week. I only elaborated, condensed and categorized. Honestly, I don’t think he’d care if people know who said these things, but I think it’s important to share that it’s not all coming from me….

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