While talking to one of my philosophy students recently, the topic of his four years behind bars came up. He told me that, while incarcerated, no one told him what to do. The statement intrigued me. I knew that in prison, prisoners have little to no autonomy. Their lives are controlled by the schedule they are forced to follow, and the orders of the Correctional Officers (C.O.). But my student still proclaimed that why he was there, no one told him what to do. "When I heard a correctional officer five cells away tell a prisoner to make up his bed, I made sure mine was made before he arrived at my cell. As a result, the C.O. would pass me by," he explained. "He didn't tell me what to do. If I was in line and heard the C.O. at the head of the line tell a fellow inmate to tuck his shirt in, I was sure to have mine tucked in by the time I approached the head of the line. In that way, no one told me what to do".
While my student was in prison he did not take part in a hunger strike, riot, write letters to Congress, or galvanize a large in-house protest. Instead, he was a rebel of a different kind: a psychological rebel. It was ingenious, psychologically empowering, and it achieved the goal of him rebelling against a system that aimed at limiting his agency.
When we think of fighting oppression we tend to have a narrow view of it. The first thing that comes to mind is a massive public rebellion or protest. In slave history we hail Nat Turner and Toussaint L' Ouverture as great rebels because of their armed resistance. However, we never mention the slaves who rebelled on the plantations by breaking tools, slowing down production or who stole from the master as an expression of protest. We put leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in our history books, but ignore, for example, black entrepreneurs that started businesses not merely as way to make profit but also as a way to resist racial discrimination in the workplace and as an alternative to supporting the larger white economy. Throughout history there have been multiple ways to resist and fight against oppression. Just because a person does not resist injustice in one particular way, does not mean that they are complicit with oppression.
In 2012, legendary actor and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, responded to what he considered a lack of social responsibility by particular black musical artists.
"I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyonce, for example..."
Recently, Jay Z responded to Harry Belafonte's critique in his song, "Nickels and Dimes," by saying:
"I'm just trying to find common ground/ 'Fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a n*gga down/ Mr. Day O, major fail/ Respect these youngins boy, it's my time now/ Hublot homie two door homie/ You don't know all the sh*t I do for the homies."
While it has been "the boy" part of the verse that has generated most controversy, I think that if we focus on this we risk missing the point Jay Z is trying to make. Jay Z claims that Harry Belafonte is unaware of the things the iconic rapper has done to help fight oppression in his community. It could be that Mr. Belafonte's comments are due to the lack of public protests Jay Z has led or participated in or the lack of media attention Jay Z's private charitable acts have elicited. But I think the point is clear; we have a certain view of what "social responsibility," or fighting oppression, is and as a result we either fail to acknowledge those who are currently rebelling against injustice, or bash those who we think are not fighting against oppression at all.
Regardless of one's wealth, status or lack thereof, we should respect the multi-dimensional view and ways of taking a stand against injustice and not force everyone to resist or speak up in the same way. For example, The Miami Heat showed that a picture of teammates in hoodies could be as powerful as any political speech.
Even through social media people are able to organize and resist. One of the recent examples of this was the use of Twitter in the 2011 Egyptian revolution and more recently the use of Twitter by Genie Lauren to block the book deal of Zimmerman Trial Juror, B37. However, even in social media there is no one way to fight oppression. Disseminating information, articulating that one is angry at injustice, or making another person morally accountable through a message can be a way of fighting oppression.
Last week President Obama made an 18-minute statement about the Trayvon Martin tragedy and about race relations in America. While some people responded to his remarks as necessary and applauded him, others critiqued him for suggesting that there is nothing he can do about cases like it, because it is the responsibility of state and local governments to create certain laws. Critics wanted Obama to do more. But why weren't his comments enough? Obama rebelled against the silence and taboo of talking about race and started an important conversation; one that identified and empathized with African American's racial oppressive history in the U.S and whose words may have helped many who once could not understand African Americans' moral anger against injustice, gain a better understanding. Perhaps freedom fighters and politicians will pick up where he left off, but it is not to say that his comments did not have political or moral worth as well as the ability to illuminate the problem and also attack the problem as a result.
Before we begin to set an agenda for celebrities or politicians to do something about oppression, or before we look down on people in our communities for appearing to be less concerned for their lives because they failed to come to the latest rally, I think we need to recognize the variety of ways that we can fight oppression. We also need to allow people to be free to rebel in their own ways without articulating self-righteous critiques or describing others as apathetic.
We should be careful not to dismiss subtle forms of fighting oppression, for they are no less valuable than street fights and mass strikes. Just as there are different types of artists, there are different types of rebels. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can allow each person to do their part to fulfill a larger goal: freedom for all.