Being politically aware — which is to say being nominally conscious and critical of political processes, social movements and oppressive systems — isn’t too far off from opening Pandora’s Box. In fact, it’s probably the closest real-world equivalent that we have to myth.
Truly, having a political consciousness sends you down an icy ravine of helplessness and hopelessness. There is a suffocating sensation you experience when imagining the distance between yourself and a frontline nation experiencing the brunt impacts of climate change. The feeling’s severity compounds when the suffering communities are separated from you by a road trip, or a plane ticket, or a week off work. As a high school student watching the uprisings in Minneapolis, Minnesota over the police killing of George Floyd, I couldn’t outrun the faint idea that I had some idea to be there, providing aid and energy on the ground – clearly impossible for someone whose knowledge about the world is a grain of sand in a sprawling desert.
This in mind, it makes sense that many of the most politically conscious individuals in our lives are either miserable or a little bit insufferable to be around — I’ve definitely been both simultaneously. One often wonders, “Would I be happier if I had just kept my eyes and ears shut?” Even if trying to answer the question of whether or not ignorance is bliss leads you to a paradox — you can’t really un-ignorant yourself — I’m resolutely certain that life wouldn’t be qualitatively better if people rejected political consciousness for a worry-free life. Take this from someone who is still trying to climb out from the depths of political nihilism: Choose joyful awareness.
While it is true that consciousness kicks the amount of things to get upset over into overdrive, I don’t necessarily think this warrants despair. The assertion that being aware breeds unhappiness is, after all, ignorant of the fact that millions, if not billions of people on Earth suffer the consequences of politics without having knowledge of the specific mechanics oppressing them. Being poor, lacking access to education, living in crumbling physical and bureaucratic infrastructure, being persecuted on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion and more are conditions in which you cannot escape politics, even if you don’t know the reasons for which they exist.
In a wealthy Global North community, consciousness seemingly limits the ability to seek joy and absurdity in life; in Global South as well as poor Global North communities, the reverse is true: knowledge is a tool, a weapon against oppressive social conditions when systemic underinvestment in education is the norm. Awareness and critical analysis give way to a boundless radical imagination wherein the solutions to social and political oppression, even if early in development, make themselves available for interpretation and debate.
Deliberately apolitical people — excusing the fact that posturing as “apolitical” or opposed to politics is itself a political position — are limiting themselves to a base level of analysis, especially when they come from a position of social privilege. In fact, they block out the joy of a liberatory imagination, of freedom dreams envisioning a healthy, equitable, abundant and sustainable world. Although it’s entirely reasonable that visualizing massive systemic oppression and human suffering causes mental paralysis, this is the largest hurdle guarding the gate in front of meaningful political action. Such action includes community discussions between marginalized peoples, providing food, job, housing, and substance use assistance when the state cannot provide it, as well as harnessing creativity to produce powerful art. My first mutual aid table, in which I distributed food and care items to folks in Hartford while learning from their experiences with economic and racial injustice, fueled me through the tangible positive results of being politically aware.
In reality, being the annoying politics person is only one end of the spectrum; opposite the hectic social justice infographic-slingers are the joyful practitioners of social struggle. Through a few short years of engaging in political organizing and education, I’ve met countless people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and confront huge, doom-and-gloom issues with revolutionary optimism. This optimism is cultivated through tear-jerking conversations with your politicized friends, as well as the experimental process of doing community work.
Joy and awareness are true bedfellows when we overcome the alienating distance between different communities driven by a competitive, capitalist society where disturbing headlines dot our news feeds like seeds on fertile soil. To embrace the truth that we are not alone and can be uplifted through political consciousness will reveal a new world of possibilities from which a better future can be born.