In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel
I confess I’ve never reacted all that well to the recruitment posters created to enlist soldiers in the First and Second World Wars: Lord Kitchener, Uncle Sam, John Bull. Chalk it up to my distaste for a certain flavour of male demand or a generational mismatch in messaging, but the infamous propaganda tools inspire jumpy nerves more than motivation.
Still, when I step out of my own time and ponder what that great tool of recruitment was attempting to achieve, I find that I admire its effectiveness in awakening the everyday citizen’s desire to serve. That loud pointing finger called forth a deep hope of nobility that beats unbidden in each one of us, and instead of gesturing toward some vague moral high ground, it provided a pathway wherein one could take responsibility and act in a battle for good to prevail in a troubled world.
Much has shifted since the mid-twentieth century. We no longer have the clarities that gave such propaganda power: an agreed-on enemy, a known good worth protecting, a patriotism without caveat or a cultural code that said you were better than nobody and nobody was better than you.
Instead, the terms of good and evil have proliferated and moved inland, finding potent expression in domestic politics and creating a mess of heated rebellions along the way. We live in an era newly awash in moral language of the systemic and the social, but instead of deploying it to frame the battles occurring on other shores, the moral lines are here—on our turf, in our relationships. Our history is being told and retold by a wider array of voices. Hearts once content are being challenged to expand.
It could all be very hopeful but for the timing: A society steeped in “my truth, your truth” is poorly equipped to navigate fuller tellings of social truth. The pervading frameworks for “what’s really going on”—white supremacy and systemic racism, illegitimate political authority and a corrupted elite—are at once vast and pointed, each one requiring a humility and robust moral vocabulary that we seem to have lost. It doesn’t bode well that structures of power are dominating our mental maps while odes to self-care seduce our souls. Whatever happened to conceiving of agency as something more than the individual’s rights and desires? Where is forgiveness in our calculus of what is owed?