ISTANBUL – It is easy being a cynic. I learnt that quickly during my undergraduate, after all, my entire field consists of critics. As a sociologist, one writes about societies (mostly Western societies; there is a substantial eurocentric bias to be found in academia), and ours is easy to criticize. Dysfunctional financial systems, exploitative capitalism, postmodern thrift shopping of identity where consumerism enables us to symbolically adopt ideology by expressing through them facile and superficial representations.
Our age is about problems and crises, all seemingly without solution. The anxiety that stems from this friction is capitalised upon by many people and organisations that pretend to be *fixing* these gross inequalities. They show starving African children and crying mothers on television, trees burning and polar bears drowning, and we buy off our guilt with charity so that we won’t feel bad about ourselves when we buy the new iPhone ’cause we want to have it, or we go on a shopping spree at Primark, or we take that extra long hot shower. Systemic change is a rare animal.
So, as a sociologist, it is easy and very tempting to restrict oneselve to criticisms that make people (including those who study in the field) extremely uncomfortable. But, we seldomly move beyond this point. Ever since Marx, no sociologist has dared to venture beyond criticism. Well, hardly anyone, anyways.
For me, it makes it hard to believe in sustainable social change that is not the product of a trend or a video going viral. The reactions to Charlie, and to a lesser degree the reactions to the Copenhagen Criminal or Mr. Omar El-Hussein are consumerist expressions of outrage. A minimalist approach to morality that allows us to soothe our ethical selves and feel morally superior. Beyond that, we do not engage.
Idealism is dead, or at least in a comatose state. I would like to say that there is a rebirth happening in Europe at the moment where the younger generations are realising that they (will) inherit a world so rifled with inequalities, global disasters, and polarising forces, that they are rising up to the challenge. I would like to be optimistic about the intellectual elite who are moving beyond borders and nationalism and look for global solutions to global problems instead of being stuck in locality.
The ironic feature of postmodernism is that any attempt to escape it is recruited amongst its very own ranks. If representations of ideology are running rampant like a headless cock, as they say in Uganda, then any adherence to ideological perspectives that might free us from boundary-thinking automatically means we are too free because there is no anchor anymore.
I told Mr. Shell that I became a sociologist to change the world. I still do. I am becoming increasingly guarded about what exactly that might entail pragmatically, and although I identify greatly with my field of study, I sometimes feel cursed for what I know. I also feel the moral obligation to act upon this knowledge, because if not me, then who would?
I guess this is one of the more fundamental reasons I started writing as thepoliticalnarrator. And, I am not alone. There are others who have realised the above to be (a) truth, although we might disagree on the specifics.
However, can I remain optimistic about the recent political- social- and cultural developments in the Western World intended to battle the apathy of modernity and postmodernity? Can we truly re-engage in ideologies like democracy, humanism, or humanitarianism without floating on a representative surface by expressing superficial symbolic gestures designed to strenghten our identities rather than to support the actual cause?
I think we can. And I am not talking about the news stories that seemingly support the battle against apathy. The Muslims in Oslo forming a human shield around a synagogue, or the world leaders walking arm-in-arm in Paris , or the many social trends like vegetarianism, veganism, organic food-ism, the gluten-free epidemic, and the fancy beverages with natural this-and-that. The click-like-if-you-like Facebook-based culture is exactly what stands in between us and systemic, actual, and truthful change. Because although often well-intended, these acts battle the symptoms. We are giving a patient with an auto-immune disease acne cream because we hate looking at the pimples. And then we post pictures of his bed-ridden (but well-cared for!) face on Instagram in support, or to “raise awareness”, one of the many favorite activities of so many social change campaigns. But guess what, although being aware of a problem is a prerequisite for solving it, awareness alone does not get us anywhere, especially when the issue we are raising awareness for is seemingly so serious we cannot phantom the possibility of actually addressing it.
We don’t like hearing about where our sneakers come from. We don’t enjoy hearing about climate change (as Al Gore so eloquently put it; it is inconvenient), or oil spills, and we don’t like to hear about why the ceiling of our political system is showing cracks. We’d rather believe the heavens cannot possibly fall down that to face the fact that whatever product of human invention we talk about, nothing is too big to fail. Raising awareness without offering a solution makes people nervous, it makes them rationalise all of these problems away, and focus on their immediate surroundings rather than the larger system.
I wonder what the solutions to all of these global challenges might be. I don’t know. What I do know is that for most of them, it will require a collective, fundamental shift of mindset. A radical culture change that will impact the way we perceive reality, and each other. Both of those are fancy ways of saying it will require a revolution.
And those tend to make people nervous too. Especially those people who are *quite* comfortable in their position right now. And guess what? Those are also mostly the people we leave in charge of taking care of all of these global crises while we go on living our comfortable lives.