Stoic advice: what do I do with my rage at the injustice I am witnessing?
M. writes: I’m a 27 year old, lesbian, African American woman, so I’m used to being the minority in every aspect. Even so, I still face daily struggles that do seem overwhelming at times. Stoicism of course helps me keep my negative emotions at bay. In times like these though, with so much inequality when it comes to my people (whether it’s people of color, LGBTQ+, or women), how do I make a difference and support what I believe in without being overtaken with rage when I see the things being done to us? I know Stoics were very active in politics, but how can I feel like what I do politically matters when their President is encouraging the military to fire on those who only seek justice? I guess I’m just in a very disheartening place and I would appreciate any modern, practical Stoic advice you’d have for me.
I am contemplating how to respond to this after having seen the police arresting some protesters literally in front of my apartment building in downtown Brooklyn last night. My wife and I are watching and reading the news aghast at what is happening, most certainly not for the first time in the history of the United States. And yeah, President Trump is most definitely not helping. Moreover, you are absolutely correct that the sort of injustice we are talking about, directed at black people, women, and LGBTQ+, is recurring and legitimately enraging.
So what is a Stoic to do under these circumstances? It’s possible that you will not like the first part of my answer, but please at least consider it. The first thing to do is to stop thinking in terms of “our” people (or “their” President). We ought to think like true cosmopolitans: our people are the people of Earth, regardless of ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They are all our brothers and sisters (and other kinds of relations). Including every policeman. Including even President Trump.
Cosmopolitanism is a crucial tenet of Stoic philosophy, and one of the most difficult to practice. Epictetus reminds us of it:
“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Discourses I, 9.1)
And Marcus Aurelius echoes:
“If the intellectual is common to all people, so is reason, in respect of which we are rational beings: if this is so, common also is the reason that commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of a political community.” (Meditations IV.4)
I realize that it’s easy for me, a (increasingly older) white male, to tell you this. Nevertheless, it is what Stoicism teaches us. Cosmopolitanism does not deny that certain groups of people suffer systemic injustice. Nor does it imply that we should just lay down and take such injustice. But it does remind us that the sort of injustice we are talking about stems precisely from people thinking in terms of groups and classes, which inevitably leads to an “us vs them” mentality. Until we overcome this, there will never be an end to the injustice.
If you distrust the advice of a white male, then consider what Nelson Mandela did when black people in Apartheid South Africa suffered greatly. During his 27 years of imprisonment Mandela had to struggle with the kind of rage you are experiencing and that, frankly, any decent human being should be experiencing right now.
But he decided not to act on that rage, and instead to take the opposite path: that of understanding and reconciliation. He was aided in this by the reading of one of the foundational texts of Stoicism: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which fellow prisoners on Robben Island had managed to smuggle in.
He decided that he wanted the future South Africa to be a successful nation, and that such a nation could not be built on the basis of hatred and revenge. To begin to pursue such project he did things that his fellow inmates considered misguided, to put it mildly. For instance, he learned Afrikaans, studied the culture of his oppressors, and began forming friendships with his jailers in order to practice cooperation.
Mandela’s approach was crucially distinct from — and far more realistic than — that of Gandhi in India. Gandhi proposed to convert Hitler by way of charm; Mandela knew enough about how the world works not to indulge in such fantasies. Gandhi thought that rejection of anger necessarily implies pacifism; Mandela realized — with the Stoics — that non-anger does not entail non-violence. Violence may be necessary, under extreme circumstances, and when strategically deployed.
Even after he was successful in overthrowing the Apartheid government, himself becoming the first black President of the new South Africa, Mandela went against his own allies in the African National Congress to continue his policy of cooperation and reconciliation.
Perhaps the best known example of this is the episode concerning the national rugby team, which had been a symbol of racism. While other ANC leaders wanted to disband the team, Mandela went down the opposite path, encouraging and backing up the team, which ended up winning the World Cup. (The story was dramatized in the movie Invictus, with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.)
When he was accused of being far too willing to see the good in people, he responded: “Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings, not because you think they are angels,” a phrase that could have just as easily been uttered by Marcus Aurelius.
How is this helpful in practice? Because it may direct you toward doing whatever you can, in as positive a fashion as possible. Depending on our financial situation, on how much time we have available, and on our skills, there are many things we can all do. Voting at the upcoming elections, and volunteering for organizations that help get the vote out, is an obvious start. You may have noticed that many Republicans, and Trump in particular, are afraid of increased voter turnout. For good reasons: if more women and minorities vote in November, Trump will be thrown out of office, and Republicans may lose control of the Senate.
Another obviously useful thing to do is to send financial support to organizations that work on these issues. I support the ACLU, for instance, but as you know there are plenty of very good choices out there, and you can specifically focus on groups that work on behalf of minorities, women, and LGBT+. Some of these organizations also provide opportunities to volunteer for them, especially if you happen to have skills that are in demand in those sectors, such as knowledge and practice of the law.
My daughter works for the New York chapter of Amnesty International, and that organization has a number of how-to guides for activists that are full of practical suggestions. Joining local groups that coordinate action on the ground, including protests, is yet another way to make yourself useful.
But, you say, none of this seems to be making much of a difference, and one becomes disheartened. But is it really the case that our actions don’t make a significant difference? Of course no individual can “solve” the problem of racial or gender discrimination. However, Marcus wrote:
“Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.” (Meditations, IX.29)
Don’t wait for Plato’s Republic was an ancient way of saying don’t wait for Utopia, or for perfect and complete solutions to problems. It’s not happening. But the part that strikes me the most is the second one, where Marcus reminds himself that no matter how small an effect we may have right here and now it matters, because it is meant to help other human beings who are suffering.
Ultimately, as Stoics we understand that the only things that are up to us are our chosen values (injustice needs to be countered), our judgments (it is good for the human cosmopolis if I do something about it), and our decisions to act (along at least some of the lines described above). Outcomes are not up to us, because they depend on the judgments and actions of other people, as well as of circumstances. Hence Cicero’s famous metaphor of the archer:
“If a person were to make it their purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, their ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all they could to aim straight. … Yet, although they did everything to attain their purpose, their ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’ (De Finibus, III.22)
You are the archer of the metaphor. You want to hit the mark, to make a dent in the injustice you are witnessing in our society. But whatever you do, you also realize from the get go that to actually achieve a particular outcome is not under your complete control. Only your effort is. And that’s where you need to focus your energy and resources, expecting that in life sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. But when we lose, there often will be another occasion to do battle.