The Burden Of Progress

By Evah Wanjiku. Evah is a digital marketing consultant from Nairobi, Kenya. Please read her article and leave thoughts and comments below.

One thing I have become painfully aware of in the past few years is that we as a society have become adept at spouting off platitudes that sound extremely profound. The most egregious of these are #notallmen in response to #menaretrash, and #alllivesmatter in response to #blacklivesmatter. I thought of these when I first read the statement “hate attracts hate”. Since I did not want to draw conclusions without looking into the context of the quote, I sought out the film and its reviews and reception at the time of its release.

While many praised director Mathieu Kassovitz for his raw depiction of life in the outer suburbs of Paris (banlieue), the thing I found most fascinating was his casting choices, defying stereotypes and expectations to cast a black man (Hubert) as the quiet one, a Muslim man (Said) as the voice of reason, and a Jewish man (Vinz) as the radical. Unfortunately, these deliberate choices were undercut by having Hubert, the black character, say the “hate attracts hate” line.

So why is this statement and those mentioned above a platitude? Because they put the work of not only fixing broken systems, but also the work of apologizing for offended sensibilities on the victims instead of the perpetrators. First, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal, the #metoo movement was expanded into the mainstream lexicon, and more and more women came forward with stories of assault, harassment, and generally toxic work environments created by men with the power to do so. These stories were generally accompanied by the hashtag #menaretrash to express the frustration women felt at having to explain themselves, and their general frustration with men who refused to speak up in the face of blatant discrimination and cruel sexism in the workplace.

In response, #notallmen began trending, with men sharing their stories of heroism that included: respecting their mothers and sisters, and not assaulting women who were incapacitated by alcohol. The issue is, shouldn’t men have been performing these supposedly generous acts regardless of applause and recognition? Also, the phrase men are trash does not imply that ALL men are trash. It simply seeks to recognize a system of governance, recognition and protection that has continually sought to exclude women from the decision-making process. Insisting that this discussion also recognize the men that did the bare minimum meant that women continued to spend precious time getting into arguments about the “right way to protest and create awareness”

Second, after the death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide under the ‘Stand Your Ground law,’ the statement Black Lives Matter was coined. It began getting traction, and has been used for every suspicious death of an African American person, especially in cases of alleged police brutality. In response, another hashtag, dubbed ‘All Lives Matter’ began making the rounds. The argument was that saying “Black Lives Matter” meant denying that the lives of all other people mattered. While this argument is facetious at best, it demonstrates the ways in which society feels it can police the protests of minorities.

This is not a new phenomenon though: Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about it in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing to clergymen who had released a statement upon his arrest calling his actions untimely. In response, he wrote:

‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”’

Once again, the burden of comforting the oppressor is placed squarely on the shoulders of the oppressed. It is for this reason that I feel Kassovitz is dealing in platitudes. Hubert’s argument is that while wanting revenge for the injuries caused on a friend by an alleged case of police brutality is perfectly human, engaging in the plot will only bring them more police into their home turf, and cause them more deaths, violence, and other problems. While it sounds reasonable at face value, what he is actually saying is that it is better to stay silent in the face of violence and oppression and hope for a way out.

In reality, staying small and quiet does not protect them from police brutality, as many minorities before them have learned over the years. Hate may attract hate, but it does not transfer the burden of progress onto the oppressed, neither does it demand the comfort of the privileged to take precedence over the lives and safety of those in no position to take a stand. The longer we as a society stay silent, the further into despair we fall.

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