Dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing we can do. Or, is there still something else we might do, like public protest, or something else? In his book on prophecy, Commandments for the Long Haul, Daniel Berrigan offers this advice. Prophetic gestures aren’t always politically effective. Often they accomplish nothing that’s practical. But he adds: if you can’t save the world, at least you can save your own sanity.
Sometimes that’s all that can be accomplished by our protests against injustice. Moreover, struggling to salvage our own sanity is not as privatised as it first appears. When we protest against something that’s wrong, even though we know our protest is not going to change anything in practice, the sanity we are saving is not just our own; we’re also saving the sanity of the moment.
Commenting on the current activism on the issues of human rights and the environment of Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, art critic John Berger says this: “Profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however, is not the first reason the protest is made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds … A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present.” In essence, it preserves some sanity in the present moment.
But it may be inconsequential in terms of practically changing anything. Almost everything remains the same. The injustice continues, the poor continue to be poor, the international scene continues to threaten war, racists continue to be racist, the environment continues to be ravaged, corruption continues to go unchecked and dishonesty continues to get away with its lies. And so people go on marches, go to prison, go on hunger strikes, and sometimes even die protesting, while the injustice, corruption, and dishonesty go on.
At a certain point, logically and inevitably, we need to ask ourselves the question young Marius asks in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after his friends have died while protesting and nothing seemingly changed: what was your sacrifice for? Was this worth dying for?
Those questions are valid, but they can have a positive answer. They didn’t die in vain, for nothing, for an impractical idealism, for a naïve dream, for something they’d have outgrown had they lived longer. Rather, their death was “an inconsequential redemption” of the present moment, meaning its practical effectiveness may be immeasurable, but the moral seed it sows inside that moment will eventually help produce things that are measurable. All the women who initially protested for the vote never got to vote. But today many women do get to vote. The moral seed they planted in their inconsequential protests eventually produced something practical.
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