“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
– Howard Zinn
Recently, I’ve been reading a few blog posts from those related in some form or another to the “environmental community” that appear to make a tiresome appeal for nihilism as a response to our dire collective condition. Some of them couch their apathy in the coded language of empathy, but it is really a thinly veiled sadism. In other words; “I feel your pain but I’m not going to do a damn thing about it. Even if I could it wouldn’t matter, and there is nothing you can do about it either.” There is also a sad kind of apologism for the world’s injustices laced in much of this nihilism, albeit in false, New Agey interpretations of Zen Buddhist principles.
One blog post I read recently said:
“Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.”
In this line of “logic” the Holocaust, apartheid, war and war crimes, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Native American and indigenous genocide, mass graves, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination, economic oppression, willful destruction of ecological systems by corporations, animal cruelty, racism, misogyny, and other kinds of brutality are all just “wondrous expressions of everything.” And the leaders and benefactors of such atrocities were merely “doing their best.” In a time of resurgent and aggressive global fascism, this statement is beyond appalling. It is downright dangerous. Unsurprisingly, I have found that the vast majority of the people who espouse such viewpoints are generally white, male, hetero, with some economic stability, who comfortably reside in the West or global north.
The same blog lamented: “I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless.” So much for recognition of the valiant efforts of the resistance to the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavers. So much for any recognition of the mass movements for women’s suffrage or LGBT rights, or that ended the Vietnam War, or Jim Crow, or segregation, or child labour. So much for solidarity with those fighting for their lives and the lives of their children and the living earth today.
Today’s brand of nihilism is married to the rise of global fascism. They feed off each other in an insidious way that neutralizes opposition and dissent. When a people are denuded of their inherent value through constant demoralizing language, dispossession from the commons, and alienation from one another they become atomized, and thus fodder for the powerful to use in whatever way they see fit. Donald Trump is emblematic of this use of language. His scapegoating of vulnerable populations, ridicule, threats, and seemingly endless mendacity have the power to reinforce a quality of nihilistic passivity. Other leaders around the world are employing similar tactics to chilling effect.
Humanity is facing enormous existential threats, from the convergence of climate change catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, militarism, the degeneration of democratic norms, entrenched economic inequity, and biospheric collapse. And we as a species are not impervious to extinction. We are, after all, simply another species on this planet; one which is responsible for its current collapsing state. But this should not indicate that we are any less important than any other species either, nor should it allow for apologism for barbarity. Nihilism reduces evil to some fictitious philosophical puzzle. It is not. Therefore we should call this kind of rebranded apathy what it is: a cop out born of privilege, apathy and complacency. And its resurgence in an age of ascendant fascism is no accident either. It explains why activists and whistleblowers are being ridiculed, harassed, persecuted, and murdered around the world in record numbers by powerful forces who feel emboldened and unrestrained.
It bears reminding that most people of conscience do not enter into activism because it’s fun or glamorous. They don’t do it because they are saintly or because they will win either. They do it because they are forced to. Because of the endless litany of injustices meted out to them or those they love. Because they are conscious of what matters. And because they have literal skin in the game. They do it when their homes are being demolished by an occupying army, or when a corporation is building a dam that threatens their way of life, or when police are gunning down their sons and daughters, or when they see animals being mercilessly slaughtered for greed or status, or when a military is torturing or drone bombing their weddings or funerals, or when an oil company is drilling in their fishing waters, or when a forest or mountaintop they love is being denuded or removed, or when they are refused or charged for healthcare or decent housing or education, or when they are treated as less than human because of their gender, or skin colour, or religion, or physical ability, or sexuality, or when they are treated like slaves for the profit of a few.
We all feel nihilistic and misanthropic at times. Every day, in fact. I know I do. It is part of the human condition to feel that way. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming one does not know how to handle it. So we should express that frustration and despair, facing our grief honestly as a daily practice, crushing and demoralizing as it is. And we should take care of ourselves in that regard. But I remind myself that most of the world does not have the luxury to sit and pontificate on how “futile and fruitless” taking action is when their lives and the lives of those they love and the living biosphere are being threatened with immediate annihilation via organized systems of exploitation.
Those who suggest we make peace with some notion that everything, including our existence, is meaningless do not take into account that as human beings we are the ones responsible for adding meaning to it. Of course that meaning is relatively subjective in isolation. But collectively it has the agency to affect real change. Meaning is born of suffering and it can lead individuals and groups of people toward solidarity, resilience, and true transformation. It can alleviate unnecessary pain, provide a balm to the wounded, salvage sanctuaries where life can flourish, and stop imminent destruction, atrocity or even war.
Taking action is not “futile and fruitless” as those unaffected directly by injustice or oppression would suggest. And although it will not end injustice, brutality or suffering for all time, we should remember that it isn’t meant to. As Howard Zinn made clear, we possess an agency that transcends the brutality of our times. Indeed, “winning” is not essential to it, neither is achieving some fantastical notion of utopia. Our defiance to barbarism is the victory, and this is where nihilism fails on all counts.