The 20th Century was more than a literal graveyard for almost uncountable millions of people, it was also a mausoleum for the idea of taking on the hardest targets. Overthrow a tyrant by force of arms? Here come a bunch more. Never again will there be genocide! Well, until the next one. The war to end all wars! Right.
The overthrow of exploitative capitalism. The elimination of poverty. An end to disease. No more malnutrition. Equality of opportunity. Transparency in government.
Even more modest reformist goals sound increasingly forlorn at this end of modernity. Reduce corruption and inefficiency in government? Less police brutality? Better public education? Maintain the infrastructure? Don’t torture people? Don’t be hateful. Don’t be cruel?
All the institutions and systems involved in what seem to be the most awful, oppressive or unjust dimensions of everyday life in the 21st Century seem to be vulnerable to nothing but their own frailities and contradictions. The powerful are mostly behind walls, inside fortresses. They have the money and the influence to outlast or overwhelm most legal challenges. They don’t particularly fear mass protest, not that there seems to be much danger of protests being genuinely massive in the United States as they have been in many other countries. The political process is drowning in oligarchic money, and even if reformers get elected, they often find it nearly impossible to challenge entrenched interests or do much beyond tinker with the status quo.
Most targets are hard, both in the sense of “difficult” and “protected”. So what has happened in a lot of what passes for democratic politics in the 21st Century, particularly in the United States, is a preference for soft targets: institutions that have to remain ‘open’ in some sense to protest and dissent, or individuals and groups who are compelled for some reason or another to remain accessible and responsive to public criticism. Universities are perhaps the most important example of a soft target. Another might be celebrities, pundits, or indeed any individual who has an active presence in social media.
If protest or critique were aimed at these soft targets because of actions, policies or practices which are native to them, that poses no issue beyond whatever range of debate there might be about the subject of that critique. Protests concerned with the dwindling of public support for education, with issues of access and justice in education, with the eroding of academic freedom, with the safety and security of matriculated students, with the need for open-access publication: all of those could and should target educational institutions and speak to those who work in them, who regulate them, and study in them. (Although, complicatedly, when you’re attacking a soft target for something that is genuinely important to and strongly invested in the real operating life of that institution, it tends to turn into a hard target.)
The problem is when the soft target is used as a proxy for the targets which are too hard to reach. For me, the most important example of this is fossil-fuel divestment. If pushing universities (and other civic institutions) to divest from fossil-fuels has any usefulness at all, it is only as one very small part of what has to be a very comprehensive campaign to bring pressure on fossil-fuel companies and their government supporters. What I warned our local student activists about when they started the campaign here is that a focus on getting the college to participate was likely to very quickly lead to confusion about the instrumental objective of the whole campaign, as the college itself was not the ultimate political target nor was it in any sense actively colluding with that target (at least not to a degree that distinguished it from any other institutional or private user of energy). Pretty much as I predicted, college administrations around the country became almost the singular target of the entire campaign, and the institutions were rhetorically accused of being the fossil fuel companies simply because most of them declined the invitation to join the campaign in the particular way that one group of activists had chosen to pursue it.
The reason to target colleges, if you’re a student activist whose concerns are essentially directed at objectives that are not local or native to higher education, is that many of them are compelled in various ways to listen to and consider the demands that students, alumni and faculty make. Not in any sense, of course, to adopt or pursue those demands. When student activists say that they are not being listened to, what they mean is that they’re not being agreed with, since most of them choose to assume that if someone really listened to them, agreement would be the only rational and tolerable outcome.
This is really another example of the downside of thinking in terms of increments. When a “soft target” is ostensibly chosen because it’s an early step in a long incremental chain of approaches to a hard target, but is in fact actually chosen because of its convenience and accessibility, it becomes very easy to mistake the soft target as a proxy substitute for the hard one, and thus to forget the ultimate point of the critique. It is also seductively easy to misrecognize or misrepresent any opposition in that first “soft” step as being de facto the same as the resistance that the ultimate target might offer. But soft targets understandably resist being cast as proxies for other institutions and actions, and often have difficult missions of their own to tend to which are not necessarily enhanced or advanced by endlessly offering themselves as an accommodating first step for ambitious projects of political and social transformation. A professional association might quickly lose sight of its professional mission if it were constantly being used as an expressive platform for causes with tangential relevance to that mission. A university might have no way to legitimately decide which of the potentially infinite number of causes held dear by some of its students or employees deserves institutional sanction, and might spend a great deal of time and energy deciding how to decide that.
But again, at least incremental thinking is better than no thinking; at least choosing a soft target because there’s some sort of strategic vision about how it relates to a harder or more protected target is debatably valid. Sometimes we choose soft targets because otherwise there’s nothing at all to focus on. We hashtag someone or build up a three-day outrage on social media because the pain and frustration that the targets stand in for are otherwise too diffuse, too distributed, too everywhere and nowhere. The hardest targets are the ones that are in the air, in the water, in the everywhere of the world around us. But making some individual stand for these kinds of wholes, no matter how worthy of scorn that individual might be, loses general support and sympathy, bleeds out political energy, because it mismatches the proportionality and gravity of the structure, the distributed social fact, to the available, vulnerable individual appointed to represent that ubiquitous but ephemeral reality. We end up talking about the fairness or unfairness of targeting that person with a hashtag or a meme rather than the thing itself.
Sometimes soft targets are the bars on the cage. You grab them and rattle them and howl because they’re the only thing you can grasp. But if there are hacksaws or other tools around, it would be a shame to keep rattling the bars rather than patiently filing through them, one millimeter at a time.
(One part of Grasping the Nettle.)