“There is a certain sort of a self that one must try to fashion oneself into in order to be a radical or militant resister. The image of such a resister can be invigorating or thrilling if one envisions the bold and determined fighter striving tirelessly for fundamental change, never giving in to the lure of compromising reforms but maintaining instead a clear knowledge of who the enemy is and a driving anger against this enemy, never bowing down under threats or rejections from the mainstream but enduring instead the risk and the loneliness of going against the grain. But this is a romanticization of the resister, and below the surface of this image there is something sad having to do with what the resister sacrifices or loses. The traits that enable resistance and the traits that enable human flourishing often fail to coincide.” (Lisa Tessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles, p. 114)
The image of the social justice activist is undeniably compelling. In the person standing on the front lines of protests, we see human courage on full display. Yet as Lisa Tessman indicates in the quote above, this form of resistance comes at a cost. Her analysis of the politically resistant self in Burdened Virtues has caused me to think twice about the media’s valorization of social justice activists. While we should honour the sacrifices that people have made to make our world a better place, a respectful distance and deferral to their expertise isn’t enough. By merely looking on without getting involved we are asking marginalized groups to bear burdens that they shouldn’t have to bear alone.
The main question asked by Tessman in her chapter on “The Burden of Political Resistance” is this: Are the traits necessary for the “politically resistant self” conducive to flourishing? Her analysis must be considered against the background of Ancient Greek ethics. What does it mean to live a good life? For some Ancient Greek philosophers, happiness was thought to be the ultimate “end” or purpose of human life. For Aristotle, flourishing required the right sorts of external conditions (or external goods), rationality and an active life of virtue (the life of a hermit could hardly be characterized as one filled with good works). The notion of the Golden Mean was introduced by Aristotle to determine what counts as a virtue. Virtues were thought to be “means” existing between character traits that were in excess or deficient (in other words, vices). For example, the virtue of “courage” was said to lie between the “excess” of rashness and the “deficiency” of cowardliness. And the virtue of “generosity” between the “excess” of extravagance and the “deficiency” of stinginess.
When your external conditions are oppressive, you have less opportunities to flourish. A clear example of this is found in “dirty hands” cases, in which people have no choice but to make immoral decisions. Someone might have to steal to provide for their family or kill to protect them. Decisions such as these might be necessary given the circumstances, but they would still likely cause the person who must make them regret not only the things they have done but the people they have become. It is these worrisome changes in character, that result from living under oppressive circumstances, that concerns Tessman. Her focus is on three cases: the development of toxic anger, courage that results in too much personal sacrifice, and uncritical group loyalty.
Let’s take a look at her analysis of anger as an example. We often see social justice activists displaying anger at wrongdoing. This anger is justified, and necessary: “Anger on the part of those who are in subordinate positions… signals a recognition of the wrongness of the subordination and a refusal to accept it” (p. 118). It also motivates people to take to the streets and speak out when they would have otherwise stayed silent. Aristotle allows for anger to count as a virtue, but for him you must be angry at the right sorts of things, and in the right sorts of ways. The problem for political resisters is that while they might be justifiably angry at their social conditions, they may not always be angry at the “right sorts of things” (Is their anger ever misplaced? Directed towards their community members?) or in the “right sorts of ways” (Are they constantly boiling with anger? Bristling and ready for the next fight?). According to Tessman:
“If tremendous anger is ultimately unhealthy or corrosive for its bearer, then the political resister with an angry disposition displays an example of what I have been calling a burdened virtue: a morally praiseworthy trait that is at the same time bad for its bearer, disconnected from its bearer’s well being.” (p. 124)
The key problem for Tessman is this: Political resisters are trying to create a world that is free from oppression, but they often end up being harmed in the process. This doesn’t mean that political resisters carry with them no positive traits. Such traits include “[i]ntegrity, sociality, sustained focus, creativity, visionary imagination, and perseverance.” (p. 116) It means that we shouldn’t be uncritical of the burdens we expect others to bear to move the moral compass of our society forward.
In our final blog, many of my fellow OpenThinkers have chosen to address the question of what we “owe” to one another. In this final reflection I would like to consider what we “owe” to those working on the front lines of social justice causes (which might include everyone from the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion officer at our workplace to the student activists who we invite to sit on panels to those marching in the streets). Much more is required from us than an ear intent on listening. For this wave of social change to yield results we need people willing to get uncomfortable enough to think alongside resisters to come up with solutions. This doesn’t mean decentering their place in the conversation but being active participants within it. Putting yourself on the line like this will be risky. You’ll probably make mistakes and won’t always get things right. But we need all hands on deck to end this pandemic.