With the U.S. celebrating Independence Day — carnivals, fireworks, BBQs, parades and other customs that have, at best, only a tangential connection to our “independence,” — we thought it an opportune moment to return to its source in search of some situationism. No doubt, the Declaration of Independence is typically thought of as containing a dispositionist message (though few would express it in those terms) — all that language about individuals freely pursuing their own happiness. Great stuff, but arguably built on a dubious model of the human animal.
That’s not the debate we want to provoke here. Instead, we are interested in simply highlighting some less familiar language in that same document that reveals something special about the mindset and celebrated courage of those behind the colonists’ revolt. Specifically, as Thomas Jefferson penned, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Part of what made the July 4th heroes heroic, in our view, was their willingness to break from that disposition to suffer evils. They reacted, mobilized, strategized, resisted, and fought because they recognized that their suffering was not legitimate — a conclusion that many in the U.S. and abroad vehemently rejected.
Situationist contributor John Jost has researched and written extensively about a related topic — the widespread tendency to justify existing systems of power despite any unfair suffering that they may entail. As he and his co-authors recently summarized:
Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people – regardless of their own social class or position – accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world.”
If we truly want to emulate and celebrate the “founding fathers” of this republic, perhaps we should begin by taking seriously the possibility that what “is” is not always what “ought to be.”