Smile Politely

Sitting around and feeling bad

I have a lot of friends who I would consider activists. They are loud, mobile, restless, and most of all they are active. They are motivated by the things they see out in the world that bother them and they are the first to raise their voice to speak out when an injustice is present. There is travel, reading, writing, and an unceasing commitment to motion and thought central to this lifestyle. Sometimes it seems exhausting. I know I have tried to do these things at a very minor level and found them completely incompatible with my lifestyle and work ethic. But what I would like to address here, in this opinions piece, is not the lifestyle of an activist per se, but about the daily denial of any kind of activism that I see within my community, my peers, and within myself.

This is a funny article for me because this sentiment is indeed rooted within the self. In a community-centered publication amidst a spate of highly visible global tragedies, this seems wrong to write about. But my point is about complacency, and it starts in my own brain. It is about the ability which I have located within myself to not only live my life inattentive, in a bubble of white middle class hedonism and socio-political inaction, but to be able to be relatively satisfied by whatever excuse I make for it.

Complacency, on a global, local, or personal schedule is not ignorance. Ignorance is an entirely different issue. Complacency is performing what Lauren Berlant calls a shallow identification: offering some small token of grief in order to feel so very good about feeling bad and then moving on with one’s life feeling better. Standing by and watching injustice float past you. And there lies the rub. It’s that satisfaction, present in a glib gesture of solidarity or a comment at a party or even a passionate but static diatribe, that lets us walk away and feel okay about having done nothing.

I find myself acting in this manner all the time. And the relevance that I have found is that I think we all do, to an extent. It is certainly not isolated within my mind and body. At the risk of sounding glib, I would ask: what is a community but a system of individuals who think and feel and act on their own accord?

There is only a certain amount of things any human can do on a daily basis against things in the world that they do not agree with. Of course it happens. Sometimes it is all one can do to change your profile picture or go see an activist film. Small ways to demonstrate attentiveness and forward thinking are at the very least a way to shirk off a general and creeping ignorance. On a global level, feeling small and powerless is not only a symptom of its size but a necessary function of its complexity.

But what I have noticed is that these moments of complacency are not isolated to sweeping global problems. Complacency in the face of oppression happens right here at home, in the greater Champaign-Urbana community and on our campus.

It happens in moments where we say nothing or excuse the actions of racist student organizations, like the Illini White Student Union.

It happens in moments where we excuse and defend racist symbology as a collegiate mascot, like Chief Illiniwek.

It happens in the moments where we either ignore or champion our University’s perpetuation and continued investment in irresponsible fuel sources.

It happens when we don’t vote, or don’t care, that our elected officials are attempting to enact sweeping policy based on xenophobic and downright ignorant principles.

It is any moment when we see these things and allow ourselves to say nothing or to shirk the responsibility of doing so to our neighbor. The insidiousness of this phenomenon comes in the ease of becoming wrapped up in your own daily minutia, of engaging in the solipsism of personal privalege.

I’m not calling on our Champaign-Urbana community to engage in radical action. I wish we could. But that would be both unrealistic and hypocritical; a progressive fantasy. What I am imploring, from myself and from all of you, is to think of the ways in which you can engage these issues, issues of injustice, on a level that goes deeper than the surface. Don’t take speaking up at face value. Don’t feel good about feeling bad. Try and do something.

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