Am I Doing Enough? : Crisis, Activism and the Search for Meaning

Lata Mani

First published on March 13, 2016 as a guest post on www.kafila.org here.

In the past fifteen years I have been developing what I describe as “contemplative cultural critique.” Such an effort at transcoding between secular and meditative understandings is not without difficulty and not without its limits. But it has led me to pose questions I might not otherwise have asked, and to think through them in ways that I would not have previously considered.

How might this approach contribute to reflecting on the political turmoil of the past eight weeks in India? This period has been marked by national focus on the penalization and criminalization of student dissent at Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the former case prolonged institutional harassment drove Rohith Vemula to take his life and in the latter it has led to the imprisonment of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirbhan Bhattacharya on charges of sedition. In both instances a witch-hunt led by the media and the right-wing BJP government has created a hostile environment conducive neither to dialogue nor to a calm consideration of facts. These events, as P. Sainath has argued, extend to university campuses ideological, legal and political tactics long used against communities resisting “development” in rural India.[i]

Even though we are observing the coming to fruition of social and political phenomena several decades in the making, there prevails a subjective sense of a sudden intensification, a definitive atmospheric shift. It is hard turn away from what feels like history unfolding in real time. But history only ever unfolds in real time. Indeed history is the narrative seizure of a certain conception of time as real. Linear, measurable, objective; time summoned as im/partial witness. Still, there are periods when each moment, every twist and turn of the plot seems to pulse with significance. At such times we confront a question at the very heart of the human journey: How should I act? What should I do in these circumstances?

For those in the thick of unfolding events, pragmatic demands may dictate what must be done.  For the arrested students, their friends, families, lawyers, teachers, the communities of which they are a part, the answers may seem to be self-evident. Journalists and analysts who have been studying these events may also know what they must do in the short run. But what about those not close to the epicenter? What are we to do?

The sense of being witness to historic events may keep us glued to television and social media. Being informed is a form of responsible citizenship especially when the battle being fought is explicitly ideological. Have you read, heard, seen? This news? Analysis? Speech? Cartoon? Photo?  Keeping track and sharing with others can feel like a form of civic participation. And to a degree it is. However, beyond a point it can feel insufficient. One might wish one were closer to the action, doing more. Self-doubt and self-judgment can arise in tandem and result in more time being spent online to compensate for the unease. The addictive potential of social media facilitates this mode of staving off the sense of inefficacy.

It may be tempting to conclude that the sense of insufficiency is an effect of distance; that those close to the events are spared this kind of doubt. But that is not necessarily true. Such moments pose an existential question. What is the meaning, purpose and value of my actions, and by implication, my life? Should I be living it in some other way? What do my actions reveal about who I am? The answers to these difficult questions are individual-personal and as well collective-sociocultural. But to the degree that we are not aware of the pressure they may be exerting in us, we will unconsciously seek to resolve their destabilizing effects through action that primarily assures us that we are doing something; that we are not simply mute spectators to a crisis. A sense of urgency cum insufficiency may prompt us to act in ways that contribute more heat than light, noise than clarity.

Am I doing enough? The question haunts social justice activists, all who yearn to end needless suffering. It can lead to fatigue, indifference to self-care, rage at others for not doing enough, drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the horror of injustice. Grief at the magnitude of problems to be addressed and frustration with our failure to resolve them can serve to create conditions in which divisiveness, othering, sectarianism and disregard can emerge not just as legible reactions but as credible strategies for social transformation. We can forget that our politics incubate our futures; that we too will reap what we sow.

To interpret the revolving door of rage, sorrow, despair, frustration and hope as understandable responses to systemic injustice would be to miss something deeper. Heightened crisis brings into sharp relief a conundrum at the heart of our existence within a complexly interdependent social and natural world. The actualities of this world are at odds with three ideas which accrue particular poignancy during crisis periods and which bear directly on the question of whether we are doing enough: our conception of action, significance and impact. Our doubts about the efficacy and value of what we are doing or could be doing are partly a consequence of how we have come to think about these closely related terms.

Action-significance-impact. In our outward-oriented instrumentalist age action must be seen to have extrinsic impact in order to be deemed significant.  The effects of action on the world/on something other than the initiating subject should be nameable, traceable, in some way measurable even if not precisely quantifiable. This conception depends on a mechanistic and simplistic understanding of cause-effect interrelations. It cannot admit the mutability of subject-object boundaries, the difficulty of firmly separating the intrinsic from the extrinsic and the enormous complexity of specifying, let alone grasping, the reality of near-infinite causes generating near-infinite effects. To acknowledge these facts is not to conclude that analysis is impossible but to point to its necessarily partial, situated and open-ended character.

A mechanistic instrumentalism excludes much of what we do as humans. For instance, what could be more significant than breathing?  Or more impactful on those connected to us and from whom the cessation of breath would separate us? Yet within this purview breath can never be deemed enough. One would strive to put it to “use,” endow it with meaning and purpose in order to demonstrate we are indeed “alive” not “merely breathing.” Even the deliberate termination of breath as with Rohith Vemula requires the redemption of a politics of action. Suicide-murder morphs into sacrifice-martyrdom and sought to be memorialized by a law bearing his name intended to prevent others from being similarly cornered by institutional recalcitrance. The vividly resonant mind-heart-life immortalized in his parting letter makes way for a symbol; the particular for the abstract. Inevitable? Perhaps. But should we not draw breath to consider the irony that the campaign to support Dalit students in higher education repeats many of the same reductive gestures so movingly and critically called out in Rohith’s suicide letter? Must something be made of his death for his life to have mattered? Was his life not intrinsically meaningful? Does it acquire significance only if History bears witness? Would it have amounted to nothing if his was one among the countless deaths that are privately, not publicly, mourned?

We may concede these points readily once they are plainly stated. But the gravitational pull of current political discourse draws us in a different direction: into a perspective in which action is most associated with activity undertaken on ‘x’ in order to achieve ‘y,’ with value and significance being aligned to the success of our endeavor. Meaning is rarely sought in the action itself. The link between significance and impact is thus continually cemented. To conceive of efficacy in these terms is to set oneself up to be perennially waiting for signs of success, acutely conscious of the work still to be done, vulnerable to feeling that one is not doing enough. It is not a sustainable orientation.

If our practices are to replenish not deplete, we must rearticulate left-liberal discourse in an anti-capitalist direction that affirms sentience and honours immanence. We must embrace meaning and value as a priori qualities inherent in all persons and things. People are more than the rights that accrue to them and non-human nature is vibrantly alive and greater than its utility to humans. Value, meaning and significance must be decoupled from effect, consequence, impact and success. Meaning and significance are intrinsic to action regardless of whether the prevailing framework considers a given activity or gesture as inconsequential. Our activism does not ensure value (either ours or that of the issue at hand) but simply reaffirms it in context of challenging socially produced miasmas and hierarchies. To reorient ourselves in this way is to open to an ethic of action free of the anxiety of efficacy, an anxiety that has led us to search for meaning everywhere but where it actually resides. In every breath. In all things. In all that we are. In all that we do.

[i] P. Sainath, “Life in the Times of Inequality and Fundamentalism,” February 19 2016, JNU, here.