The Threat of a Good Example

Occasionally when I’m speaking to college students, attempting to inspire

at least a few to commit themselves to social justice as a way of life and

perhaps career, I’m asked the question for which there is no easy answer; the

one that goes: "What’s the point? Can you make a difference? Why fight

against such incredible odds?" As disturbing as such fatalism is,

particularly from persons so young, I appreciate the opportunity to confront

it. It’s one of those rare times during a lecture when the speaker has to drop

all pretense, put aside academic theories, and actually connect with that one

other human being, even if only for a moment. And it is in that brief span of

time when one can actually move another to a different place-without

statistics or applause lines-by standing in a figurative sense naked before

those one hopes to inspire.

And it’s a good question, after all. There is much to suggest that justice,

peace and equity are pipe dreams; that even our best efforts aren’t enough to

prevent tragedy. The bombing of Yugoslavia; the embargo against the people of

Iraq; the passage of welfare "reform"; the expansion of the

prison-industrial-complex as education budgets are slashed. "Don’t these

ominous trends,’ they ask, ‘ever make you want to throw up your hands and


There was a time when I might have said yes to that question, but not

anymore. Like everyone, I confront fatigue and need rest. But that’s not the

same as wanting to quit. And what made the difference was a letter I received

many years ago from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; a letter he sent

in 1988 to the anti-apartheid group I co-founded at Tulane University; a

letter in which he thanked us for sending information on Tulane’s investments

in apartheid-complicit firms-information which convinced him to reject the

school’s offer of an honorary doctorate.

As if knowing that those of us involved in the divestment battle were

doubting our relevance-after all, even if we succeeded would things really

change in South Africa? -he offered what I consider an obvious, yet profound

rationale for the work of any freedom fighter: "You do not do the things

you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor

because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do

because the things you do are right."

There’s much to be said for such simplicity, as it’s usually a lack of

complication which allows people to feel. Religion, after all, isn’t terribly

complex, but has inspired, for good and evil, millions around the world.

Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for

social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on "winning" the

battle in which we’re engaged, that we often create false hope, and if victory

proves limited or fleeting, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent,

unable to rise again to the challenge. And yet we undersell the work too, in

that we often neglect to point out that there is redemption in struggle

itself, and that "victory," although sought, is not the only point,

and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure

of justice, you must mobilize to defend that which you’ve won. There is no

looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.

There is something to be said for confronting the choice one must make in

this life-between collaborating with or resisting injustice-and choosing the

latter. There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to

stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community. There is something to

be said for a good night’s sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look

oneself in the mirror, and never doubt that if you died before lunch, you

would have lived a life of integrity.

Now some may think such an answer would be of little import to college

students, obsessed as they supposedly are with consumerism and six-figure

jobs. But quite the opposite is true. Sure, some roll their eyes at such talk;

but these are folks who didn’t care about social justice careers to begin

with; those for whom attendance at my speech was simply a classroom

assignment. But for others, including those who posed the challenge, the

answer is meaningful. These are folks desperate for lives of principle and

substance; desperate for someone to assure them they can do it, and that it’s

worth it, win or lose. These are people in need of assurance that someone is

there for them, to nurture their interest and allow their contribution. But

unless we reach them before the "real world" begins to feel more

like a burden than a challenge, and before they develop an interest,

proprietary or otherwise in maintaining the status quo, they will likely

drift, moved to action rarely if ever, having had to compromise so much so

soon. And it’s important to remind them that every now and then you really do

make a difference; you really do improve people’s lives; you really do force

better working conditions; you really do stop people from being bombed, and

tortured. And you never know when that will happen; when your efforts will

break loose the dam and send forth waters of triumph. But you do know one

thing. You know for certain-as certain as the sun rising and setting-what will

happen if you don’t do the work; if we don’t. Nothing. And given that choice,

between certainty and promise, in which territory lies the measure of our

resolve and humanity, I will gladly opt for hope.

If a monster like Adolph Hitler can rise from a movement which started with

roughly seven guys, sitting in a pub, then surely those who fight for his

antithesis can make do with the raw material to be found in Generations X and

Y. Surely we can inspire as well as he.

And all of us can play that role. A few years ago, I was approached by a

student at San Francisco State who said he had seen me on television, and that

in the five minutes I’d been given to explain why whites should challenge

racism, I had changed his life. At first I thought he had the wrong guy. It

never occurred to me that a few words between commercials could have such

impact. But the look in his eyes indicated he was sincere, and it’s a look

I’ve seen elsewhere since. And who knows whom those inspired by me, may

themselves inspire in the future? What great things might they do? All I know

is, it’s worth my entire being to be part of it. Recently, I spoke at the

University of Oregon, and gave a workshop in the Ben Linder room of the

student center; a room named for a man who, in April, 1987, in Nicaragua, was

murdered by contra forces, armed by my government, and his; killed for helping

bring running water to rural villagers.

And as I sat there reflecting on how I’d felt upon hearing of his

assassination, I remembered why he, and the revolution of which he was a part

had to be crushed. They both posed, as we used to say, the threat of a good

example. And that’s when I realized that Ben Linder’s life and death sum up

why I do what I do, and what’s required of us. I can think of nothing more

rewarding, after all, than to serve as the threat of a good example; and no

higher calling than to be prepared to die for your principles if need be, but

even more, to be unafraid to live for them.

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and lecturer, and the Director of the

newly-formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). He can be

reached at tjwise@bellsouth.net.


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