Not too long ago, a decision was taken at my place of work which would have had a significantly negative impact on my environment. I did what any reasonable person would do, when faced with a problem – I used every reasonable method at my disposal to overcome it. I wrote emails, explaining the impact of the change on my environment, and why I felt that the decision was a bad one. I provided statistics and graphs and detailed point-by-point explanations. I had meetings, I spoke to my manager, I escalated. But I was ultimately overruled.
It is irrelevant here whether or not I was right. What is relevant is the sense of desperation I felt when, having exhausted every reasonable and acceptable means of communicating my concerns, my views were ultimately not considered. In that moment of desperation, I was ready to attempt less acceptable means of addressing my concerns. Preparing a melodramatic letter of resignation. Walking into the office of a senior manager and calling him or her colourful names. Calling a board meeting of senior executives to spell out in colourful detail why the decision was flawed, complete with slides titled “Y U Dumb!!!”
I did none of those things, of course, because even a terrible decision at work usually only means more work cleaning up the mess (which I would still be paid for) – not starvation, and not death, and probably only a tiny bit of suffering.
It’s so easy
But my point, ultimately, is this – it is cheap and easy to judge as improper those behaviours that arise from situations we’ve never had to face. And it is too easy to confuse situations that are merely difficult (which all of us have had to face), with those that are truly desperate (which few of us have had to face).
It is so easy to judge an adulterer, when we’ve never been unfortunate enough to face that temptation. We’ve forgotten the sheer force of attraction one experiences when one meets a ‘special someone’, and glibly decide that it would be easy to see off the threat if it ever arrived without warning in a relationship with someone that is not a spouse.
It is so easy to judge a thief, when we’ve never been faced with a choice between joining a gang or going hungry.
It is so easy to judge a taxi, when we don’t have to fear losing our livelihood for driving too slowly.
It is so easy to expect refugees to stay in their home country and fix things there, without having been in a situation that is so terrible, that sitting in a small boat with two tiny children in a storm without any nautical experience and no guarantees seems like the preferable option.
It is easy to be married, and to wonder why gay people would want to be (tell me again why you got married?).
It is so easy to tell students that their views are irrelevant because they are being ‘violent’ (though realistically, mostly inconvenient), without knowing what it feels like to be a hundred thousand rand in debt and with the very real risk that it will be meaningless debt (and two wasted years) because you cannot afford the final, crippling fee increase for your final year.
It is so easy to be devoid of compassion for a student who cannot write a final exam due to outstanding fees – they should should have budgeted better, right, or eaten more noodles, or asked daddy for more money – without knowing why it feels like to be the only person in the family at a university and without a cent available from anywhere because your mom is a nanny and your dad is a gardener.
It is so easy to tell a student that university is expensive, and that if she cannot afford it she should simply go do something else. You have a dream to be a lawyer? Fuck you and your dream – get out of the road and go be a maid, because I’m late for dinner.
When the rubber hits the road
My work situation is a terrible example of desperation, but it’s the best one that I, with my privilege, have got. I’ve never been afraid I might be killed. I’ve never gone hungry for more than a few hours except by choice. I paid my own university fees, but I was never afraid that I might not complete university – I always knew there were aunts and uncles and grandparents who could help if things got really desperate. I paid for myself, but my father stood surety for my loan. I was once worried I might fail a subject, but it was my own fault to begin with.
I don’t condone violence. I believe in the reasonable thought and the reasonable action. I believe in treating fellow human beings with respect. I believe in the rule of law. I believe that bad laws should be challenged and changed, but not broken.
But I know this about myself. If I am ever faced with true desperation – if I must ever choose between dying quietly – without inconveniencing civilised society – or throwing a brick to draw attention to my plight, I’m throwing that brick as hard as I can. If I must ever choose between starving – and stealing – I’m stealing the biggest thing I can lay my hands on. If I am ever faced with having to break the law to protect my son…I’m breaking that law good and hard. If I am ever sitting outside the border of a stable country, because if my son plays on the street in anarchic hellhole I call home he might step on an UNDETONATED FUCKING BOMB, I’m going to cross that border damn well illegally. And I will lie and cheat and steal to stay there, if that is what it takes.
And if you tell me you wouldn’t do the same…congratulations, you’ve never faced desperation. And no, South Africa versus New Zealand in the rugby does not count.