A thing I’ve thought about a lot since I was a kid is “praxis.”
Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t know what that word meant. “Praxis” is the practical realization of an idea. As a child, “praxis” was the answer to the question, “what does it mean to live a Christian life?” I’m not religious anymore. I’m an agnostic. But as a kid, I was very devout in my faith, and living a Christian life wasn’t some theoretical concern. These were questions that I arranged my life around.
I didn’t drink til I was 20 years old. I felt that maintaining a purity of body was essential to spreading the Gospel. I didn’t engage in sexual relations while I was still a believer. It was forbidden by the Bible, and I took that command seriously. I didn’t swear. I read the Bible. There were phases where I was so concerned with this question that I was taking my Bible with me to high school and reading it on the bus and before classes and at lunch. I went to a weekly Bible study. I didn’t want to simply “believe.” Being “born again” wasn’t enough. I had to grapple with the core tenets of the belief system that I was subscribing to. And if I wanted to be someone capable of proselytizing for Christ effectively, my actions in real life had to embody those beliefs.
Eventually, conflicts arose between my Evangelical Christian upbringing and a growing sense of social liberalism/faith in science and reason. The latter won out. But the question of “praxis” remained. Instead of asking “what does it mean to be a good Christian,” I was asking “what does it mean to live a life that embodies the pursuit of social justice and equities in the quality of life?” As it turns out, those ideals are much harder to live up to.
Police violence against men and women of color in America has become arguably the political story of the 2010s. Police violence has existed for as long as the police have existed (and before there were organized police systems, mob violence and explicit terrorist organizations like the KKK served this purpose… whose members were often drawn from law enforcement and politics), but it’s dominated the news for years now because access to cell phones and social media have made the dissemination of information on these incidences much easier to spread than traditional (and white controlled) old media. And people of color aren’t letting us look away anymore.
In the last 48 hours, two more black men have been murdered by police officers. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. They are dead because they were black. The cops have created fictions that they were reaching for weapons. The video evidence in both cases shows that isn’t true. The cops try to assassinate their characters as well as their bodies. They bring up minor infractions of the law that white people are never killed for. I was pulled over by the cops once for a registration sticker that was nearly six months expired. I wasn’t shot. I didn’t have a gun pulled on me. But that’s the privilege of being white.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile join a long list of names. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. I could go on and on and on. Americans dead. Fathers and sons and daughters dead. Dead because they’re black. Dead because they’re black and we have created a system of criminal justice where white supremacy trumps the humanity of men and women of color. And every single white person in America — myself included — is responsible for the fact that this system continues to be maintained.
I’m writing explicitly to other white people right now.
People of color don’t need my privileged whiteness telling them how to feel after the latest incident in our never-ending national disgrace of tragedy and violence. They don’t need another white person condescending their emotions to them and that’s not what I’m trying to do.
I am asking other white people, “if you claim to care about humanity, what sacrifices are you willing to make to prove it.”
We’re at one of those crossroads of history. A moment in time that will define the path of our nation. And sides have to be taken. And you have to ask what side you are on and confront some of the tougher truths of what choosing a side means.
When “liberalism” and empiricism beat out spirituality as the defining belief systems in my life, I was forced to change how I engaged in “praxis.” If you’re a Christian, you engage in praxis through proselytizing scripture and living the commandments of your faith. If you’re a “liberal,” what does it mean to engage in praxis?
What does it mean to live your beliefs?
This was a question I struggled with… a question that I ran screaming from when I realized how tough it is… how many risks and disappointments and hardships you have to deal with if you answer it honestly. For those of you that know me, you know that I studied political science in school. I nearly failed out of college because the harsh truth of this question scared me after I was first confronted with the fact that living these ideals means watching them fail to come to fruition over and over again before they finally if ever succeed. I became a professional music and video game journalist because breaking into a job as a writer was easier than directly confronting this question and living with these ideals.
Public intellectual/author/journalist Ta-henisi Coates once posed a question on Twitter that has stuck with me for a long time. I’m paraphrasing but it was the question of “are you willing to do the right thing even if you have no assurance of the outcome you seek in the future.” The only way you’re prepared to engage in good leftist praxis is if you can answer that question in the affirmative but as it turns out, answering that question in the affirmative leads to dealing with difficult realities.
A side effect of living in the 21st century is that we have centuries of social progress behind us, and obviously that’s great. We’ve seen victories that occurred. The end of chattel slavery in America. Women getting the right to vote. Marriage equality. But, the flipside of that is that it’s very easy to see those victories and we forget the decades and centuries of hardship the people who secured those victories had to endure. The Stonewall Riots were nearly 50 years ago now, and although we’ve achieved marriage equality for LGBT folks, the role that trans folks of color played in that event has been erased from the popular history of those uprisings and we are light years away from actual LGBT equality in American (particularly for trans individuals and LGBT folks of color). Slavery ended 150 years ago, and the Civil Rights bills were passed 50 years ago, but systemic poverty and the continued murder of black men and women by the police shows that Jim Crow is as strong as it ever was. Women have had the vote since the 1920s but the ERA was never passed and white men that rape women are still being given shockingly lenient sentences. Women still earn significantly less than men (and women of color even less than that).
And any time you’re confronted by a contemporary failure to address these systemic inequities, it’s easy to feel a helplessness that anything can be done. But if you’re a person who profits in any way (even if you don’t realize the direct ways that you’re profiting) from white supremacy and the patriarchy and cisheteronormativity, withdrawing from these problems like a frightened turtle hiding inside it’s shell is the definition of your white/male/cishet privilege. And you can’t claim to lead a life that embodies liberal/leftist ideals if your action/praxis maintain that status quo even if your stated/internal politics oppose that status quo.
Hannah Arendt was one of the most formative thinkers of the 20th century. Born in Germany, the Jewish Arendt fled Europe and escaped the Holocaust and resettled in the United States. Arendt is most famous for her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Assigned by the New Yorker to cover the trial of crimes against humanity committed by top-ranking Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, Arendt eventually wrote a book about the trial and what is “evil.” Is “evil” exclusively malicious intent or is it also those moments when people don’t think about the moral consequences of their actions because they’re simply going along with the flow of the society they’re living in. Can evil be “banal?” Arendt seemed to think so. She never excused or defended the actions of Adolf Eichmann. She is fairly damning of him by the end of the book, but, also, she recognized that in every way that matters, Eichmann was an ordinary man. He wasn’t a raging anti-Semite. He wasn’t a zealot of Nazi ideology. He was an adult man who obeyed the orders of a fascist regime and he is culpable because he refused to engage with what those orders meant.
That’s a lot harder to swallow at first than the convenient myth that all Nazis were monsters at some genetic level… that they were predisposed to genocidal violence. I was raised as an Evangelical Christian but I also have ethnic Jewish heritage. And trust me when I say that it would be much easier for me to believe that Adolf Eichmann is a demon. But he wasn’t. He was a man. He was a man who lived in a society built upon state sanctioned violence and genocide and when it came time to make a decision, he decided to follow the prevailing winds of the state and helped become one of the chief architects of the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. And if his claims at his trial that he was mostly non-ideological in his beliefs were true, he organized the deaths of millions of people without ever really thinking about what those actions meant and he did them because that was what the German state asked of him/that was the mainstream of German politics of the time.
How many people do you know who simply go along with whatever counts as the consensus in politics without really engaging with what those beliefs mean?
In addition to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was also famous for her conceptualization of “praxis” and for being one of the first philosophers to really engage with what praxis should mean in the 20th century. So much of politics and philosophy is internalized. To be a philosopher is by definition to be a thinker. We vote in America with a secret ballot… and many of us don’t vote at all. And because we’ve unintentionally turned philosophy and politics into these byzantine, inaccessibly academic subjects, the average person doesn’t think they’re of any use in their lives.
I could retire today if I had a couple bucks for every time I’ve heard a person say that politics don’t matter in their lives. That statement means one of two things. 1) You benefit so greatly from the maintenance of the status quo in American politics that there is no reason for you to think about what politics means outside of your life. Or 2) politics seem so remote and unreachable to you that you can’t see how you can make a difference.
Statement 1 is the ultimate unintentional statement of privilege. It’s art that doesn’t think it’s political just because it’s politics maintain the status quo. It’s the well-to-do white dude that keeps bringing up All Lives Matter any time a person of color talks about the Black Lives Matter movement. Statement 2 is a tragic if defensible side of our national politics which privilege wealth over grassroots organization.
Either way, that conception of how politics and philosophy work in your lives is one of many reasons why American politics is so broken. We are fundamentally ill-equipped to explain to the average person why political praxis is meaningful and important in their day-to-day lives. And when you benefit from white/male/cishet privilege, the scale of society is so naturally tilted towards your needs/desires/safety that you no longer have to engage in praxis to protect the things that benefit you.
We don’t teach political philosophy in schools. We teach the amusement park version of American political history and force students to memorize dates and branches of government. At least until college (or the occasional AP class), we don’t ask kids to think about what American political structures actually do today. We don’t ask them to think about the practical implications of the policies that major parties want to implement. We don’t ask them to think about the lingering effects of decades of systemic oppression. We don’t make politics real to them before they’re old enough to write off the entire system. We don’t find ways to encourage young people to be actively engaged and dedicated to the politics they think are worth upholding. Instead, they’re vague abstractions for folks who have the time to worry about such things.
Arendt thought that was a catastrophic problem… one that clearly helped to lead to the rise of fascism. It’s hard to disagree with her.
If you’re disgusted by all of the violence you see on the news today… if your heart broke after Orlando and after the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and all of the others… if you want to live a way where you feel like you’re contributing to the ending of this violence, what can you do?
There are the obvious things. You vote. You vote in every municipal, county, state, and national election. You don’t just vote every four years for President. You pay attention to elections at all levels and you vote. And I know that’s hard to do. I am guilty of ignoring local politics myself, but local politics is where real change starts. You don’t get national political leaders without having local leaders first. And you hold politicians accountable when they don’t act on police violence. You hold them accountable when they uphold white/male/cishet supremacy.
You discuss these issues with your loved ones even when it’s tough. This is an election year. And the odds are that if you’re white, you have a family member (or several family members or even maybe most of your family) who plans on voting for Donald Trump. Confront them with what a vote for Trump means. Tell them that it means supporting a candidate who actively engages in misogyny and racism. And if they forgive Trump for explicitly being a misogynist and a racist, that means they’re okay with misogyny and racism. And then you have to ask yourself a tough question. Can you have people in your lives who support misogyny and racism? Are you able to remove them from your life? If they support Donald Trump, they are approving his statements that Mexicans are rapists, that female reporters deserve to be physically assaulted by men in Trump’s campaign, that Muslims should be banned from coming to America. And if you have a choice to not have these people in your lives who are clinging to a toxic world of hate, then you’re tacitly approving those views as well. You’re saying the feelings of the people who have those views and your relationships with the people who have those views are more important than the lives of people of color and of women and of Muslims.
If you want to engage in good liberal/leftist praxis, you have a moral obligation to discuss these things with people in your life that you care about and if they can’t understand why these issues are so important, they shouldn’t be in your life if you have any say on it (the obvious exceptions here are minors who are living with parents who are problematic but as soon as you’re an adult, you have some degree of responsibility to emancipate yourself from this situation if it’s at all possible). The only thing that happens when you keep these people around is that you help to validate their beliefs. We aren’t talking about taxes here. We’re talking about whether people have a right to live free of terrorism from the state and free of terrorism from white/male/cishet supremacy. And if folks who aren’t engaging with Trump’s politics/the politics of supremacy realize that folks are willing to no longer have them in their lives because of this, maybe it will force them to finally think about what these politics mean. And if not, there’s nothing you can do for them.
You use the resources you have to make a difference. If you have money, you donate to the causes who are most directly involved in these fights. If you have time, you get actively involved in local politics and local organizing beyond just voting. You attend protests and help arrange fundraisers. You go door to door and talk to people. If you have a platform, you use that platform to shine a spotlight on something that matters that the folks who know you for your platform might not be aware of. You use whatever skills you have to do something because if you benefit from privilege but don’t act, you are complicit in the status quo. Blood is on your hands. I don’t have money. I don’t necessarily have time. But I have a skill. I can write. I can explain in direct language what folks have to do if they want their moral praxis to equate to their stated politics. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Most importantly, you listen. You listen when people of color say that Black Lives Matter. You understand what that means. It isn’t saying that all lives don’t matter. It’s saying that right now (and for centuries in American politics), black lives have been expendable. They’ve been chattel labor. They’ve been killed by the police. They’ve been the new indentured servants of the 20th/21st century through the prison-industrial complex. And that we as a society have a moral obligation to make Black Lives Matter as much as white lives. You listen when women describe the constant terror they have to endure because of catcalling and rape culture and other patriarchal violence. You don’t dismiss it. You understand that as a man you’ll never have to go through this but you want to work with women to create a system where they won’t have to experience this either. You listen to queer folks and transgender folks as they describe the many battles that are left to be won in a fight for LGBTQ+ equality.
You listen and if something they say makes you uncomfortable, you think about why that is and why it’s on you and not them to create a world where their honest, lived experiences aren’t a threat to your way of life.
And 50 years from now when maybe we’ve worked toward actually solving these issues (although as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, there’s no guarantees), do you want to be the person who can say you took a stand? That you took a risk and that it was tough but you did the right thing even when it wasn’t easy. Do you want your kids and your grandkids to know that you were part of a movement for justice and empathy and the respect and protection of human life.
Or do you want to know that when it mattered, when the boiling point was reached, that you sat back and were quiet. That you didn’t actively support white/male/cishet supremacy but you didn’t fight it either. That you benefited from privilege without ever trying to make the world a better place for those who didn’t have the same opportunities as you.
Will you be able to deal with that? I can’t. And you shouldn’t.
Black lives matter. Alton Sterling’s life mattered. Philando Castile’s life mattered. We have to say their names. We have to recognize how horrific this is every single time it happens. We have to confront our responsibility for it every single time it matters.
And if we can’t do that, nothing we claim to believe in is worth a damn, and neither are we.