Susan Sontag, On Resistance

“We are all conscripts in one sense or another. For all of us, it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under banner-words like justice, peace, reconciliation that enroll us in new, if much smaller and relatively powerless communities of the like-minded. That mobilize us for the demonstration, the protest, the public performance of acts of civil disobedience – not for the parade ground and the battlefield.

To fall out of step with one’s tribe; to step beyond one’s tribe into a world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically – if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex, difficult process. It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe: the wisdom that values the lives of members of the tribe above all others. It will always be unpopular – it will always be deemed unpatriotic – to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one’s own. It is easier to give one’s allegiance to those we know, to those we see, to those with whom we are embedded, to those with whom we share – as we may – a community of fear.

Let’s not underestimate the force of what we oppose. Let’s not underestimate the retaliation that may be visited on those who dare to dissent from the brutalities and repressions thought justified by the fears of the majority. We are flesh. We can be punctured by a bayonet, torn apart by a suicide bomber. We can be crushed by a bulldozer, gunned down in a cathedral.

Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example – for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions – who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are – and always will be. How things really are – and always will be – is neither all-evil nor all-good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act; to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the anti-principled: “I’m doing the best I can.” The best given the circumstances, of course.

…At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said No. No, I will not serve. What models, what stories? A Mormon may resist the outlawing of polygamy. An anti-abortion militant may resist the law that has made abortion legal. They, too, will invoke the claims of religion (or faith) and morality — against the edicts of civil society. Appeal to the existence of a higher law that authorizes us to defy the laws of the state can be used to justify criminal transgression as well as the noblest struggle for justice. Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of “moral courage” – because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.

And resistance has no value in itself. It is the content of the resistance that determines its merit, its moral necessity. Let’s say: resistance to a criminal war. Let’s say: resistance to the occupation and annexation of another people’s land. Again: there is nothing inherently superior about resistance. All our claims for the righteousness of resistance rest on the rightness of the claim that the resisters are acting in the name of justice. And the justice of the cause does not depend on, and is not enhanced by, the virtue of those who make the assertion. It depends first and last on the truth of a description of a state of affairs which is, truly, unjust and unnecessary.

…The dramaturgy of “acting on principle” tells us that we don’t have to think about whether acting on principle is expedient, or whether we can count on the eventual success of the actions we have undertaken. Acting on principle is, we’re told, a good in itself. But it is still a political act, in the sense that you’re not doing it for yourself. You don’t do it just to be in the right, or to appease your own conscience; much less because you are confident your action will achieve its aim. You resist as an act of solidarity. With communities of the principled and the disobedient: here, elsewhere. In the present. In the future.

Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it directly inspire the formation of a movement of protesters in far away Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.

The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”

Full Speech: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2005/06/resistance

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