The Elephant and the Mouse: Ethical Positioning in Times of Protest

By Professor Bregham Dalgliesh


What do we do as standing witnesses to acts of violence from the establishment against the marginalized?

Graphic by Jules Scholler


As the world emerges from a state of emergency that quarantined our freedom of movement, we might take a moment to imagine living permanently immobilised in a state of exception.


While the former confers temporary powers on the government to manage a crisis, the latter allows the sovereign to suspend the rule of law altogether. Fortunately, most of us reside where rights are respected, but within each society quasi states of exception give carte blanche to persecution. For groups perpetually locked down in marginal zones by norms that nurture prejudice, exclusion undermines any sense of belonging to the collective imaginary and gnaws its way through self-esteem. Yet deviation from the norms that uphold social order is often inadvertent. We might be excluded due to what we are (black under a pigmentocracy), our lack of fit in an order designed by others (foreign students in a national university), or a deficiency in the cultural capital necessary to live up to the norm (women under patriarchy). Although exclusion ranges from the ethical quandary of recognition to the political violence of a knee on the throat, the generalised form of structure is the common denominator. It links protests in Hong Kong against the sovereign remit of the state and Japan regarding the rights of refugees, with demonstrations in Indonesia over the stigmatisation of sexual minorities and Latin America, the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia against gender violence.


With Black Lives Matter, for example, protestors constantly refer to “systemic racism.” Likewise, Indian Muslims (as well as those in India) speak out against “Hindu nationalism,” while silenced employees endure “organisational culture.” These are all shorthand for structure. But why did it disappear from our explanatory repertoire in the first place? A neo-liberal discourse that transforms structural constraints from a collective challenge into a private problem is one reason. The political has evacuated structural norms from its remit through the promotion of individualisation, which both compels us to choose and abandons us to face these forces alone. Structurally anchored norms are liberated and free to impose the direct or symbolic violence that characterises exclusion under a state of exception. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to rehabilitate structure in the form of a benign global biopolitics to stave off a virus that is indifferent to the apparel of the human body. COVID-19 induces an emergency, but it is also an event that cajoles us to revaluate our norms in preparation for the mother of all emergencies, that of the earth’s clothing and constitution. At the very least, COVID-19 trains us to stand firm against the gerontocratic patriarchs of America, China and Russia, as well as their wannabee friends and allies in the North, who will be the first to rail against the quarantining of movement when the global state of emergency over our planetary future is declared.


For some, structures also spell the death of freedom. Their norms induce performative acts that shape who we are and seduce us to see determinism in the structural order. Yet performances also contest, which makes structures more akin to a Foucauldian apparatus. It is less a determining cause than a condition of possibility, where strategies of power and forms of knowledge overlap to constitute our modes of being. The apparatus is us, but we are also it. What recent events underline is that the next time somebody tells you have to accept things as they are, it is likely they have a vested interest in the structural dispensation that also blinds them to how its norms produce exclusion. It is why students are taught to be critical; learning to question sheds light on exclusionary norms and detaches them from structures, which can then be renovated. Just as the right of women to access elite universities in Japan has existed since 1946, so black lives have mattered in American law since 1863, yet the lack of progress proves the rule that laws which depend on reason are no match for norms that circulate via prejudice. Norms rule the roost and can only be shaken up by a Gramscian war of position, or critique that targets cultural hegemony. Otherwise we remain pinned down and unable to speak out, except when it is too late, and we gasp “I can’t breathe!”


There’s the rub! Norms ensured the law turned a blind eye until the smartness of the phone forced it to see. Out of sight, out of mind, the excluded do not warrant a blink of the moral eyelid for the self-entitled who surf structures. Yet the events of 2020 proffer cautious optimism. A mobile, issue specific politics of affinity is the harbinger of change in which every act is a singular rupture and a contribution to ethical coexistence. Students-cum-citizens reveal the anomalies of structures that condition our possibilities. They engage to resync norms with law, or to produce law to regulate norms. Choosing to act on the public stage is a question of who you are in relation to how you recognise others around you (and they you in return). Engaged in the things that matter for the lives of others is the ethical commitment par excellence, because when “an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” (Desmond Tutu). Whether we become a bridge between the ethical and political depends on our conviction: do or do not do, and even if we fail in the doing – like the tight-rope walker above Zarathustra – our down-going would have answered a calling beyond ourselves and in so doing made a vocation of danger on behalf of the over-going of the next generation.

© 2020 by Komaba Times