No doubt about it, the news of late has been dismal, heart breaking, soul crunching. Pick a place or theme and see where you end up: Ebola in parts of Africa, Israel and Hamas; Ferguson, Missouri; Ukraine, U.S., and Russia; unaccompanied minors from the south crossing over into U.S. borders; the assault of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) on Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, Shi’ahs and journalists. This list could (should) be augmented by many other conflicts and areas of strife which have been on-going for longer than the last several weeks.
I don’t know about you, but I draw my weary attention to the latest news each morning with knots in my stomach and a heavy weight on my shoulders. Meanwhile, even if I am not directing my attention to the news per se, the same events are all over social media and I confess I check into facebook and twitter each day even when I try to maintain a casual posture over usage and to keep upbeat attitude in how I engage (or ignore) the latest hash tag or hot button issues.
For weeks I have been thinking I should blog about an important lesson I have learned as best articulated in the book by Sharon Welch: A Feminist Ethic of Risk. In a world riddled with problems of proportions greater than can be solved by any one person, one group, one country or over one life time, how does one continue to be ethically engaged, avoid crippling despair and pointless cynicism, or just plain fall into apathy?
Welch outlines the problem of an ethical model that is predicated on success in the face of inherent crisis, obvious human rights violations, or even catastrophes of nature. The success is achieved in part as a result of an on-going imbalance of power. This imbalance operates on the basis that any intervention will guarantee the sought after results: tyrants will be put down, enemies of the state will be subdued, and the victor will come home to accolades of support. This presumes that all others are not equal and so if any should transgress “our” territory or sensibilities, we will just go blow them away. (This by the way is the set-genre of US hero films). All it takes is for our hero to come into his or her full prowess and all evil doers will be vanquished, order and beauty will be restored. In short, we can go on about our lives unconcerned about lesser mortals because not only are we safe from terror or the threat or terror, we have proven we have the means to kick butt should any arise.
Naturally she compares this model with patriarchy and imperialism.
As a consequence, when morally responsible action does not have the possibility of resulting in the desired successful outcome—and in no short order—we tend to fall into despair and then, do nothing. But apathy is never an ethical alternative.
I am aghast at the number of people who have gone as far to say things like “just nuke ‘em” when clear evidence of certain atrocities have been presented against some enemy (over there). In other words the only response to brute force is just to have more powerful brute force. I fear what our attitude will become when we so easily fall into such cataclysmic way of thinking.
Another consequence of this, is to let roll all of our latent, anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, able-ism and homophobia against those we perceive to be the enemy, and that is really the point of no return for me in these crisis, which brings me to this blog.
Mahmoud Hamdan wrote a book with the title Good Muslim Bad Muslim, in effect problematizing the extent to which this notion of clear black and white (imagine that metaphor given the Ferguson crisis?!) somehow comforts us falsely into that victor mentality allowing wholesale castigation of certain persons or people whom we find easier to blame than to work with for resolving world problems of gargantuan proportion. I used to see this on the day time talk show programs that would bring out a person with some moral shortcoming (who is the father of this woman’s child?) and the audience would attack the mother as if the indecency in her life gave them an clear target for their own imperfections rather than to go home and face those imperfections enough to actually do something about it. (The biblical cast the first stone!).
Hamdan demonstrated with a cross sectional study (over time and place) how easily the ally of today becomes the enemy of tomorrow. What is more, how alliances are formed internationally in order to achieve certain (imperialist) goals even at the expense of all the cries for democracy and human rights on the surface, as long as atrocities could go on unseen or be committed by certain convenient proxies.
In other words, it’s complicated.
In my newsfeed, people who cross the line are reprimanded and if that has no effect they are deleted and blocked. Ours is a beleaguered planet yet it is ours and we share it—even with people for whom we find terrible and unconditional disagreement.
Welch reminded me that a feminist ethical model (one that needs to be adopted especially in times like these) nurtures the moral subject and actively participates in resolving problems without the arrogant expectation that the problem will be resolved by our singular efforts. Rather, the ethical person continues to do what is determined to be good because of the good itself. The results are not only unforeseeable they no longer become the immediate goal. In a world that is bigger than our little corner we must continue to commit to moral actions because we elevate ourselves above the disdain for others and instead participate in the goodness that we would like to see in the world. In other words, we are not THE solution; we are part of both the problem and its solution. Take heart.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.