These repeated manifestations of inhumanity shake our belief in practically everything that we are told society, community, religion--humanity itself--and all other forms of organization stand for. The horrors that our species perpetuates on others who are more vulnerable or different are beyond comprehension--or so we tell ourselves, knowing, somewhere deep inside, that they are completely comprehensible if the mythic logic of "received humanism" is thrown aside. So we rush to tell ourselves--and each other--that this is the kind of thing we will not stand for, or be identified with. We rush to stand out and apart from the perpetuation of such horrors so that we are not tainted by the guilt that must wash over all those that remain safe, all those who can go home in the secure comfort that It Will Not Happen To Them. We all share the guilt of the survivor.
And as we flail about in desperation, trying to see what we can do to not only feel less guilty but to stop the things that make us feel guilt--poverty, social injustice, violence against children and other vulnerable beings, war, cruelty to animals, growing mounds of unrecyclable plastic, environmental degradation--it is the symbolic solidarities of marches and candlelight vigils that work to throw us a lifeline, a promise and a hope that other worlds are possible.
What is the narrative of the nation we would fashion for ourselves? Considering, of course that we even buy into the notion of nation (I for one do not but must accept the reality that to some extent nation and state are intertwined and while one be uncomfortable with the former one has to live with the latter as a unit of governance and civic management). Is it possible to grasp the strands of that narrative--of young women who find their future in impossibly hopeful ways, of children who beat all odds to rise above domestic cruelties and deprivation, of people who make space for others to find happiness and fulfilment even as they find their own--and weave it into a strong enough yarn, a rope, that we can hold on to? And then, perhaps, to draw out a somewhat tired metaphor, it can become a fabric that we are comfortable enough to clothe ourselves with.
And then there is the complexity of everyday life we have to deal with. This is so many ways feeds the guilt. How do we eat our breakfast (sometimes spoilt for choice) when we know that for so many, hunger is the only certainty? How do we get into the car--or bus, or cab--when we know that mobility of any kind is a distant dream for such a large percentage of our population? How do we find satisfaction in our work when we know that for a majority of people in the world, it is not satisfaction or success, but just existence, that makes work necessary.
And then there is the guilt of knowing that even thinking about these things--in these ways, in this space, in this language--is a consequence of privilege.
So we take to the vigil, the march, the petition, the rally. These are ways out of the sometimes paralysing effect of solitary thought. When solidarities lead to conversation, they can also open up pathways to change, however small, however narrow. And even as we shore up these energies for the big changes that we'd like to see happen, we can go back into our everyday workspaces to work on the small changes that we know can happen--being fair and open with people we interact with, using less plastic, not littering on the streets, treating animals humanely,...you get the drift.
Good citizens (of the world, not necessarily the nation) can do with some guilt. But perhaps we need to temper it with a measure of doing, in both symbolic and material ways.