Is It Fear of Uprisings or Altruistic Punishment?

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. – Frederick Douglass, 1857

As the uprisings are spreading around the world and in the United States, there are many who feel fear, reticence and intense skittishness about what is transpiring. Yet, this anxiety, rather than surprising, is well cultivated by the contemporary hegemonic forces that govern our lives.

What is most important for us to understand is that we, as a people, are most conditioned to fear when populations reclaim their social agency and collective power and rise up against the unjust policies of the state. Here, I am speaking of protests that are generally aimed against economic and social policies of repression that are directly tied to the interests of the powerful ruling class. As much as US rhetorics would like to pretend we are a classless nation, such protests are forms of class struggle.

Moreover, as an educator, what I see is that the hegemonic pedagogy of the West socializes us all to be self-centered individuals and to fear or hold suspect communal life. Along with this, we are conditioned to fear “the wrath” of the masses, if and when they should rise collectively to counter the long-term political betrayal of our leaders. This causes even good liberals to worry incessantly about the dangers of mass protests.

This is partly because by the time people throw caution to the wind and mount collective action on the street, they are responding not only from a place of reason, but also from their emotions, their hearts. The result is a reclaiming of humanity and public space – both well domesticated and controlled under contemporary Western rule – when the people finally refuse to permit the oppressive forces of injustice to be reasoned away or for repressive public policies to press upon our souls one more moment, without responding.

No historical transformation has ever been possible without the consolidation of the passion or Eros, as George Katsiaficas reminds us, of the people on the streets, collectively directed with their reason toward their pursuit of justice. But we are also taught that to enter collectively into this state of uprising is dangerous, for, in many instances, it may result in violence with impunity by the state, in an effort to regain control of public life.

What is often dismissed, as Paulo Freire reminds us in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” is that violence, more often than not, is initiated not by those rebelling from oppression, but by those who refuse to step down or cede their power when the people have called for change. So, in many ways, we can also think of uprisings that call for the ousting of government heads and officials as forms of “altruistic punishment,” a term used by Stephen Hall to speak of a collectively loving act of faith by the people, rightly exercised with their “flesh and blood” for the greater good.

In Western societies with a heavy cultural emphasis on dispassionate reason and unrelenting individualism, such values function to distort the inherent communality that even neuroscientists now conclude is actually hardwired in human beings for our collective survival. However, Westerners, who often have so much less to lose as compared to the people of Bahrain, for instance, tend to be even more fearful of collective action, given their deeply conditioned cultural belief that cool individual reason is superior to passionate collective action. This misguided notion is reinforced by the fact that mass action with stirred emotions is only considered legitimate in the exercise of war, not democratic life.

Again, all this works well to temper mass action, particularly in the West. Hence, it may not be easy for many to trust the uprisings in Wisconsin and around the world today, given deep, unexamined insecurities and fears, intensified by a lack of faith in the people and an accompanying anxiety that things could get or be worse. That said, it should not be surprising that the more disconnected a person or class may feel from the passion that stirs the collective action of disenfranchised masses, the more concern they are bound to express for their individual well-being.

Thus, as we have seen time and again, the privileged will attempt to use their cool reason and social apparatus of wealth to separate themselves from the collective action of the disenfranchised, who through their passionate uprising threaten the privileges and entitlements, which the elite have enjoyed undisturbed for so long. What we should fear then is not the uprising of the masses who call for justice, but the fearful reactionary and violent responses of the powerful when they realize that they cannot effectively thwart the “altruistic punishment” of a people grown weary by the impunity of political-economic oppression and a government's betrayal of universal human rights.