What Just Is
When justice became social instead of economic, when the personal became political, we lost the ability to let parts of life just be.
The other day, on the bus, I sat behind a young family and their two very loud children. The parents were playing with them, laughing as the kids laughed. That laughter then encouraged the children to laugh louder, and then to scream in delight.
Together, the four of them made enough noise to fill a small playground.
It was evening, and the bus was full of people going home from work. The woman next to me, not much older than the young parents, looked quite unhappy about all this. She kept pushing her earphones further into her ears and pressing herself against the window, as if to somehow escape the din.
Close on to the twentieth minute of the bus ride, the woman next to me finally lost her temper. Snarling in French loud enough for the entire bus to hear, she said, “you are bad parents to let your children disturb everyone like this. You’re not the only people on this bus.”
Predictably, the mother of the children became quite offended. The rest of the passengers shifted in their seats, awaiting her response. She said nothing, though. Instead, she merely cast a “fuck you” glance at her critic, and then continued playing with the children.
I guess we’ve all been in such situations, especially in public transit. Those children were really quite loud. Their parents were clearly indifferent to the unspoken social norms that insist others shouldn’t be subjected to such noise. The children, on the other hand, were oblivious to the displeasure of the other passengers, caught up in their relentless play. And, of course, many of the passengers on the bus were quite tired from their work days and likely quite disturbed by the children’s explosions of screaming laughter.
Time was, I’d be quite annoyed by such noise, too. I can readily remember all those who once irked me: the loud person on a phone, practically shouting a conversation that could quite clearly have waited until after the bus ride; the teenagers listening to music without headphones, insisting all the world experience their poor music tastes; the couple arguing with each other, the rest of the bus as witness to their relationship problems.
It’s been years since such things bothered me, though, and I’ve not really thought much about why that change came about. Perhaps years living with my husband has something to do with this. Whenever he’s feeling particularly sad or particularly inspired, he’ll play opera as loud as is humanly bearable, on repeat, until he feels better. Loving a man who does that kind of thing definitely teaches tolerance for noise.
Maybe also it’s my otherwise very quiet life. I work at home alone, and rarely see others except for trips to the gym, or for groceries, or when my husband returns from work. I’m surrounded by pastures and forests and very few people, so human noise is really quite rare for me. And anyway, I’m known to squawk back at my neighbor’s geese and to moo back at the cows behind my house; perhaps I’ve now a different idea of communication.
I think it’s something even more than that, though. I was sitting just behind those really loud children, and was also a bit tired. Still, at no point did I find their noise worth more than my passing attention, no more than the attention I gave to the stress of the woman next to me, her irritation building to rage. It seemed quite inevitable she’d soon explode and say something quite mean, but this was none my concern.
If I needed to explain my reaction, which was really a non-reaction, I’d say that everything happening in that moment was what just is. The children being loud, the parents encouraging their play, the irritated passengers, me, the bus itself, the roads along which it drove: everything was what just is, and that was all.
Everything was happening, going about its own existence in a complicated dance with the existence of everything else. Children were playing, their loudness bothered others, a woman reacted, another woman responded, and life continued just as it always does.
I’ve long been fascinated by an insight from Giorgio Agamben in his book, Homo Sacer. Towards the end of it, he asserts that we no longer have a sense of non-political life, of being outside the realm of the civil and of society:
Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.
For Agamben, the political has essentially colonized our understanding of ourselves, such that we also politicize everything. Writing about his observation in Here Be Monsters, I described what this looks like for us now:
Agamben’s observations about the political having captured all of life seem to give a shadow meaning to the feminist slogan “The personal is political,” pointing to a general tendency we see in radical thought (particularly online) to define every identity as a matter of politics.
One incident from a few years ago in the United States will illustrate what I mean. For a little while, the very expensive grocery store Whole Foods sold pre-peeled oranges in plastic containers. When news of this product became widespread, there was a maddening debate about it: on one side were those who saw it as ridiculous and hyper-capitalist; on the other side were those who insisted that critics of the pre-peeled oranges were ableist. The latter group asserted that since a disabled person who might not be able to peel an orange on their own would benefit from the product Whole Foods was selling, those who thought it was wasteful were against disabled people.
The curious fact that an orange could become a terrain of political struggle and conflict demonstrates what Agamben meant. In a way, we might say that the political has colonized every part of our life: our thoughts, our belief systems, our perceptions, and even what we eat. It is as if there is no “outside” any longer, no realm beyond the reach of the polis where wolves roam and political ideas have no power.
That pre-peeled orange debacle took up quite a lot of people’s mental space for several months, because it was happening at a peculiar time in the United States. The incident came to everyone’s notice in March of 2016, during the heady and contentious days of the US presidential primaries and the constant social media circus leading up to the election.
Back then, I remember noticing a really strange shift in the way we all thought about things. Not only was everything political, but it seemed you could immediately find an essay (or six) on why anything you thought, were, did, said, or felt was oppressive to someone else.
These were the heydays of sites like Everyday Feminism and The Establishment, which pumped out daily viral posts explaining how “Your Hatred of Comic Sans is Ableist,” how telling people you are on a diet is oppressive to people who aren’t, and how using the word “narcissist” was harmful to actual narcissists.