Anita Varma (@anitawrites) is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University where she leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative. She is also a visiting lecturer in journalism ethics at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. Views are her own.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, calls for unity, reconciliation, and “reaching across the aisle” abounded from political elites’ social media accounts. Civil rights organizers and members of marginalized communities responded by pointing out that hasty calls to unify amount to an attempt to erase years of struggle, fear, and fight that it took to bring the country to this point.
Rather than seeking unity, rallying for reconciliation, or heeding calls to depoliticize politics (often from politicians, curiously enough), we should strive for solidarity in public discourse.
Solidarity is a commitment to social justice that translates into action (Varma, 2020). Social justice is dignity for everyone in a society. In other words, in a truly socially just society, no one’s dignity is left behind in the name of progress or political power.
The demands of social justice aligned with upholding people’s dignity are ultimately quite modest: basic food to survive, basic shelter to live, and basic safety to no longer live in fear. If everyone does not have food, a place to live, and basic safety, then we are living in an unjust society—which needs to change.
Political parties, among a range of other institutions, are supposed to be a means to achieve social justice. Instead, we see unabashed power mongering, personality politics, and an abject disregard among some elected officials of their duty of care to their constituents.
Presidents, even newly-elected ones, are not saviors. Nor are a host of other individuals who have been idealized as saviors in dominant histories. Solidarity shifts our public discussions away from “Who can save our society?” to “How do we save our society—together?”
At this point in our national arc, the language of civic and political solidarity holds tremendous value. Civic solidarity, also known as social solidarity, has been on display since the start of the pandemic with calls to flatten the curve and to wear masks. You may not be personally in harm’s way, the narrative went, but you have an obligation to consider the ramifications of your actions for other people in your neighborhood, city, or region—particularly the most vulnerable. The same logic holds when we urge privileged people to consider people who live nearby but battle steep precarity.
Political solidarity, on the other hand, moves us from primarily considering our neighbors to considering our commitments in the face of undeniable, often violent violations of basic dignity. Wherever these violations happen, political solidarity helps explain why people recoil and push back against injustice beyond their line of sight.
For example, if we agree that no one should be shot and killed while praying in a house of worship, then regardless of whether we are part of the community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, or Oak Creek, Wisconsin, we would support action in political solidarity (not personal experience) against gun violence, in the service of restoring basic safety.
Enacting solidarity in public discourse means centering the perspectives of people who, often for generations, have been subjected to unjust conditions. Instead of amplifying people who live outside of these communities yet claim to speak authoritatively on their behalf, solidarity starts with people who live the struggle.
Asking anyone whose communities live in enduring injustice to reconcile with those who seek to obstruct justice is not only unlikely—it’s undesirable. Instead of setting aside our differences, let’s take a long and undistorted look at those differences, not to shame or blame but to envision lasting ways to address them together.