When I was a kid I thought that smiling signified goodness and I was certain that the ripple effect of a smile could change the world — some Tuesdays With Morrie, Pay It Forward Weltanschauung of compounded kindness. I am not certain at what age children begin to understand nuance and complexity: that smiles can be sinister, can be mocking, can be the rickety façade veiling aggression and hurt. Perhaps it is simply called “growing up.”
Or maybe we were never fortunate to have the privilege of obliviousness. Maybe we have always known that there is no practice of radical kindness that can be enough. That Blanche DuBois’s dependence on the kindness of strangers didn’t quite work out for her at all. That there is no compassion or generosity or tenderness that mitigates our failure to demand justice and our failure to act. Moreover, that our current indignation is undermined by kindness that stops at action, compassion that stops at dismantling oppressive apparatus and envisioning something better.
I was struck by images of George Zimmerman smiling on Saturday after the verdict was announced. Before Zimmerman’s verdict was released, Sheriff Donald F. Eslinger spoke at a press conference where he encouraged Seminole County residents to live their lives “normally” regardless of the verdict. Yet it is normalcy that is most dangerous, as there is no transformative power in stasis, in compassion or empathy or outrage, without sustained action.
Compassion in the face of injustice is not enough to eliminate systemic racism and the peoples who continue to profit from its longevity. Living in this moment of what Butler might call precarity suggests the frailty of the now; the center cannot hold.
We have an obligation to demand accountability, not only from lawmakers but also from ourselves. This obligation means not simply gesturing towards neoliberal rhetoric of tolerance, acceptance, and kindness, but instead acting for justice. For Butler, this seems to mean cooperative and collective assembly to demand recognition and the refusal of what Audre Lorde called “hierarchies of oppression.”
I do think there is something to be said about collective assembly to show solidarity or protest, but our obligation to act ought to extend past times of divisive social policy and failures of justice. Our efforts must persist as cooperative resistance. It is good to march in protest, to demand recognition; it is better to work to dismantle harmful systems of oppression not just when tragedy strikes. To selectively demand recognition means seeing oppression as discrete instances rather than systems that we are enmeshed in and continue to enact. It is seeing oppression as somehow engendered by singular bad people rather than as a pervasive rot. We should demand justice, and not simply because of injustices perceived as discrete or unrelated.
This isn’t just about George Zimmerman. This is about the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world, and our reluctance to name the prison industrial complex as a racially biased continuation of chattel slavery.
This isn’t just about GOP lawmakers in Texas. This is about our collective failure to confront misogyny because it threatens norms that we are accustomed to.
This isn’t just about neoliberal politics promoting single-axis rights and promising to come back for the marginalized at a later time. This is about the marginalized people and causes that aren’t lodged in the American cultural consciousness, even as short-lived pseudo-activist tweets or status updates, who will continue to suffer as we continue to slight justice. This is about the overwhelming litany of injustices, that, when listed, collapse into each other though they call for nuanced and dignified attention.
Compassion and kindness cannot achieve a just outcome for Trayvon Martin. The only appropriately just scenario is fantasy: to fold time back to February 26, for the bullet to withdraw from his body, and slide into the barrel of the gun; for George Zimmerman to lower his arm, loosen his grip, and walk backwards home, a scene in reverse, a tragedy averted. A rewritten night, lived this time with compassion.
Hegel writes that justice is a virtue if it is regarded as a duty so required by moral law, rather than by the state. Until we can cooperatively confront state sanctioned violence and embrace justice as praxis, kindness will always be insufficient.
Until then, Zimmerman’s smile for his legal absolution will set the tenor of our political climate. A smile that suggests that we are all equal — but some will always be more equal than others.