By Will Falk
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about responsibility.
It all started when a friend of mine asked me why she should feel responsible for this culture’s oppression. “I’m not doing any oppressing,” she said. “I refuse to accept responsibility.”
This shocked me – not so much because I haven’t heard people say this before, but because it came from a woman I consider a very compassionate person. If she refused responsibility maybe I should think about it, too.
This spun me into a tornado of self-examination. We only get one chance at this life, right? If the oppression is not my responsibility, why should I spend all my life fighting it?
I have always been deeply troubled by the atrocities being committed around me and I’ve always taken it for granted that I had a responsibility to try to stop them. This surface reflection, however, seems too sentimental to me. It seems like I am merely emotionally predisposed to wanting to save the world. Now, there may be nothing wrong with purely emotional reactions – the world, of course, needs all the help it can get – but I want there to be a reason for responsibility rooted in real, physical consequences. If I am going to spend my one life fighting, it needs to be for reasons deeper than “I feel like I should.”
I think I have found those reasons.
I begin analyzing the truth in her statement, “I am not oppressing anyone.” In the end we must realize, in the United States at least, most of us owe our existence to oppression.
I think the word “oppression” conjures up images of white men in cotton fields with whips or soldiers bursting into homes with torches in the middle of the night. Obviously, most of us outside the military have not witnessed much less participated in this type of oppression. But, I don’t believe this excuses us from being a class of oppressors.
We must realize the way violence carried out on our behalf is being carried out around the world. Even if the only way we support the government is through paying taxes, we may not personally be the soldiers coming with torches, but we are paying their salaries. Among the many ways our tax dollars are spent, consider that they are used to enforce a national caste system through the so-called criminal justice system. Consider again the amount of civilian casualties caused by American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if you believe the wars were necessary, I think you will have a hard time saying the thousands of children killed by Americans in those wars were not oppressed.
Looking deeper, consider the way the land we all stand on right now came to be under American control. We only sit here because of centuries of genocide and forced relocation of indigenous peoples. It is true that many of us did not participate in the now notorious massacres that systematically dyed California red with Indigenous blood over the last three centuries, but we do occupy land that was stolen from them. And if we are not oppressors, why don’t we give that land back? Again, how did the American economy become the strongest in the world if it not on the backs of African slaves? And if Africans are not being oppressed in this country still, why aren’t we distributing their ancestors’ back pay?
This list, of course, could go on and on. I could talk about how the workers were treated who grew the banana I’m eating. I could talk about how many women die in the factories where my computer was manufactured. On and on and on. And, that’s the point. Our hands are red with human blood.
And, I haven’t even started talking about the oppression of non-human communities.
Coming this far in my reflection, I ask myself why don’t I just withdraw from this culture? Walk away? Stop participating? Become a vegetarian? Go live in one of those groovy geodesic domes in the woods?
I don’t find any release from responsibility considering this course of action, either. For one, vegetarianism would not free natural communities from the trauma that is agriculture. Agriculture, of course, involves clearing the land of every living thing save the desired crop, and we are seeing how terrible the destruction to communities like the Great Plains have been.
I think there’s an even better answer for why I would still feel responsible even if I just withdrew. The idea is simple: If I saw you being beat in an alley, and I had the power to stop it, I would do everything I could to stop it. The world is being beat in the alley, we have a responsibility to stop the beating.
I can hear the objections already.
One objection that I’ve been getting a lot, and that doesn’t make sense to me, goes like this, “Humans have always been oppressive, or at least destructive, and if you think we will stop, you’re wrong.” This objection seeks to eliminate responsibility drowning it in inevitability. Well, frankly, it’s just not true that we’ve always been oppressive.
We evolved into our present incarnation about 300,000 years ago and we lived in balance with natural communities devoid of oppression (tribal wars never involved the violence civilized humans are now capable of) before the rise of agriculture and civilization about 10,000 years ago. During this time we were productive animal members of the Earth. We breathed in oxygen created largely by trees. We exhaled carbon breathed in by trees. We ate animals who ate plants. We metabolized those animals and returned that energy to the plants. Then, when we died, the plants ate us. We took what we needed, and we left what we didn’t. It worked. We lived like this for more than 95% of our history as humans.
I know, now, that there are very real reasons that I am responsible for stopping this culture’s oppression. First, my existence and my way of life were built – and are maintained – on oppression. Second, even if I walked away, and tried to live as simply as possible, the oppression would still be happening. Withdrawing in the face of the oppression is like seeing someone being beat, pulling your hood tighter around your face, sticking your hands in your pockets, and walking the other way. Finally, this oppression is not inevitable. There are humans who lived without oppression, and there are humans resisting the oppression right now. They recognize our responsibility and so should we.
I do not mean this as a guilt trip. Guilt is useless if it does not motivate. I merely want us to recognize our responsibility and once recognizing it, I want to see what we can do about it.
I recently moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, WI where I was a public defender. I am looking for life outside of law. My first passion is poetry and I am interested in the way the land speaks through the poet. If you can’t find me drinking too much coffee in Cafe Calabria, I’ll be on a rock somewhere in Joshua Tree.