The Limits of Awareness in Creating Political Action

The Limits of Awareness in Creating Political Action


A long tradition in the fight for human rights is to put awareness as the first step to justice. Be it the horror of the slave ships or the mangling of workers in industrial factories, the weight of the crime against humanity should surely provoke the general public to recognize their power in politics and demand a stop to the crime. Writing in reference to the U.S.-Mexico border crisis in Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (2017), Valeria Luiselli embodies this ideal progression:

being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.1

However, her statements conflict with a harsh reality. It is not that doing nothing “has become” unacceptable; it has always been acceptable. Horror and violence are normalized even if people are made aware of suffering and even if they have empathy toward the sufferer. For every successful human rights movement that has weaponized awareness, there are others using the same tools that have been denied their victory. Why is this? What makes people not care or engage in any political action when they’re aware of something wrong?

To be aware of something relies on the ability to perceive the object, to notice it as distinct and different from other objects, thereby giving it the attention to stand out. This, of course, implies a certain hierarchy: When attention is given to one object to let it stand out in our “awareness,” the other objects in the environment will not receive the same attention and will blur out of awareness. This is not an intentional process, but a consequence of the limited resources the human mind has in defining and paying attention to objects. It’s an argument that Walter Lippmann uses in Public Opinion (1922) to examine democracy and mass media in the early 20th century. Whatever is out there in the “environment is . . . too big, too complex, and too fleeting” for any comprehensive understanding or awareness.2 Therefore, to develop a comprehensive understanding or awareness of something in the environment, it must be reconstructed into “a simpler model before we can manage” it.3 Awareness is more than a process of attention, but of interpretation, of deciding why this one object is distinct from the others. The object cannot be understood in its totality. It can only be interpreted in a specific way as seen by the observer. This subjective act of interpretation is the creation of a fiction: a mediating variable between the observer and the object. It is fictions, or the pictures in our head as Lippmann would put it, that implies and maintains the awareness of the object.

Fictions are used to make sense of the world, aligning awareness toward particular objects and not others. To know anything in its totality is beyond any power of any human mind, so we rely on these simplified models. Every person creates them in order to interact with their environment. We may share one world together, but the fictions we carry with us make us “think and feel in different ones.”4 This can lead to one person having a wildly different interpretation of an object than another. In these cases, there is no way to prove that one fiction is better than another. The two may share aspects or focus on distinct aspects, and those aspects may align or provide comparisons or contradictions and paradoxes. Perhaps here is where the answer resides to why awareness fails to provoke action. When multiple people with multiple different fictions on what to be aware of in the world come together, the distinctness and individuality of the fictions, put together, cancel each other out. This could explain failure, but lacks an explanation for the cases when people do get together, unite their fictions, and move forward in some form of action. To explain advances in action, we must look at fictions “as an important part of the machinery of human communication.”5  Our greatest achievements come when people use and exchange their fictions with each other in order to build toward an ideal or fight against a horror.

A foundation for action happens when people come together and share their fictions: those created by their first-hand experiences and those given to them by others. We are often “told about the world before we see it” and “imagine” things “before we experience them.” 6 Our parents, friends, peers, bosses, romantic partners—anyone that we are socially connected to–share with us their life experiences; and we–who are at a different point in life, or of a different social status, class status, gender, etc., and who may never have that life experience—can only know of it through their fiction. This is how we communicate. As we are all fiction makers, we rely on our fictions of others’ fictions to connect. These fictions of fictions can create unity, as happens when one person shares the same fiction to thousands, or when shared aspects of what we think or feel make us feel connected to another. From these connections, social groups form, big or small, and fictions of fictions can create a life of their own: a culture. Here, each person contributes to the culture by their own fictions; and the culture provides a person with a set of fictions that make up its way of seeing. Aspects of an object that a person is unaware of can be hidden by their personal fictions but also by their culture. Aspects of an object that a person is aware of can also be intensified and given greater focus by their culture.

Given our awareness of the fictions we make and the fictions made for us by others and our culture, what issue shall we solve? Over which ideals, policies, and horrors of our realities do we unite under or against? Is our choice made with our own free will or are we told to confront one by our leaders, our media, or our culture? This question, I believe, is in each and every one of us; and limits us to fixate on only a couple of issues. Being aware of everything that is right or wrong in the world could be possible with enough time and information, but acting on everything that we’re aware of is impossible. To return to Luiselli’s appeal to action, being aware of what is going on and choosing to do nothing has to be accepted because we are not superhuman. It is our tragedy. Despite our best intentions and deepest wishes, when we involve ourselves in the world, there is always something that could have been done that wasn’t done, something or someone we leave behind. Even in our most inclusive fictions, there’s always a blind spot, an unintentional omission. There is only so much capacity in us to cry, to be emotionally involved, to rail against indignation and fight for justice. Modern technology may give us the knowledge of a god, but it does not give us the power of one. Every head of the hydra we choose to chop off will have others snarling in its place. We have to go on and normalize horror and violence because they are a constant presence that we do not have enough resources to completely counter. The question is not can we fight and win all of the time with all the awareness in the world; but which ones should we fight—which head of the hydra is the biggest threat?

There is an assumption underlying Luiselli’s work. Of all the horrors and abuses against humanity done, the border crisis, by its sheer weight of barbarity, should be more than enough to galvanize Americans into action. And there is validity in that assumption, backed by recent policies of child separation and poor conditions in detention centers to past actions like Operation Wetback in the 1950s or the scalp hunting of Native Americans and Mexicans in the nineteenth century. Despite this, the border crisis only receives occasional notice—popping in and out of our heads every few months or so. Part of this inaction may come from contradictory fictions about the border. In contrast to Luiselli’s focus on human rights abuses, conservative fictions have focused on stories of migrants as a threat to the nation. Migrants do not respect the order that a border has in separating one country from another. They do not immigrate into the country “legally.” They bring drugs and crime and gangs that threaten American households. They are an Other that is not welcome here. Both Luiselli’s fiction and conservative fictions contain distinct aspects of what we could call the border object that focus on a fiction of the migrant as either a threat or a traumatized refugee. Perhaps the reason why the horror on the border continues is that to the general public, the horror of the migrant as a threat, a stranger in one’s own home, outweighs any horror the migrants may have personally experienced in getting here. The solution may be to do what Luiselli does throughout Tell Me How It Ends: deconstruct the fiction of the migrant as a threat by making the public aware of and empathetic to their lives, and assert that the horror of the border outweighs any horror of potential gang members and drug dealers crossing it. And though that may be true, there may be a better direction.

To the average American, the border and what happens in it is a faraway fantasy, much like how Lippmann describes Americans being “aware” of “a war raging in France” an ocean away during World War I.7 Most Americans do not live near the border and have probably never visited the Rio Grande or seen the walls and deserts that make up the border. The media may provide pictures of caravans or children lost in the desert, but it’s impossible to imagine the hundreds of thousands of migrants that cross the border each year. Therefore, to be aware of it, the average American must rely on the fictions exchanged by the discussion of the border to answer the question, Who are these migrants and should we let them in? Because their daily lives do not provide much relevant experience—there are no MS13 gang members stalking them, they have not encountered a wandering child waiting to be picked up by Border Patrol—the competing cultural fictions hold equal weight. The migrant is never truly seen, even in attempts by liberal activists to create fictions in which they are seen. For every sob story that is shared, another featuring a criminal or gang connotation might be told. Since the average American has no contact with a migrant in their daily lives, nor do the actions of migrants and the federal government affect them; despite as much awareness they can have toward a migrant, the fact of the migrant as fiction rather than human can lead to their plight being ignored at worst, or into a political tool at best. In either case, the migrant crisis remains an abstraction for most Americans, not as pressing as something that affects their daily lives more strongly: concerns over the taxes they must pay, where those taxes go, job security, concerns over how their children are educated, medical bills, and so on.

How can we move America from awareness to action? If fictions of the border do not affect the daily lives of Americans as much as other issues, and this leads to the border’s neglect as horrors continue, what can be done to make Americans feel the effects in their daily lives? Or, to extend this to a larger context, how can political action be generated to solve an issue or problem that does not readily present itself in the daily lives of others? The answer, I argue, is to let those affected be human. This is more than just creating fictions about them; the affected must act within the fiction producing and exchange processes as humans. If a person is talked of, rather than talked to, that person is not human to anyone’s social group or culture; but is a fiction to be exchanged for whatever use it may have for those aforementioned groups. In the case of the border crisis, migrants must enter the conversation in their own words. They must come to the average American with their fictions and interpretations of their life and speak for themselves. They must join with Americans in the construction of new fictions of fictions—create new social groups and cultures by which to unify around and fight for. And the recognition by the average American of the migrant as a contributor in that development, being human, is what will provide the necessary awareness and empathy to embolden them to fight for the migrant’s humanity in the border crisis. However, the burden of proving their humanity cannot fall squarely on the migrant. We Americans must prove our own humanity too. We should find and listen to the migrants and their fictions. We should not seek to dominate their fictions because we’ve lived in this country longer or whatever other excuse. We must accept that the only constant thing in this world is the changes that occur in our ways of seeing; and that the fictions and culture we may have now will not necessarily serve us well in the future. We must create new social groups and cultures that include both Americans and the migrants equally, with our respective fictions at play.

This conclusion is not only limited to an analysis of twenty-first-century America. Such failures of awareness can be seen in Harriet Jacobs’s nineteenth-century narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs’s narrative is one of only a few about the life of an enslaved Black woman compared to the many more slave narratives from a Black male perspective. This is due to an intersectional impact: not only is Jacobs a woman, subject to all the fictions of a patriarchal society, but Black, which comes with all the fictions of a racist society. Her struggle is double, and due to the lack of resources or care by the general public to empower such a perspective, her narrative was largely forgotten until attention and awareness for the Black female perspective began to arise in the mid-twentieth century. And this lack of resources or care wasn’t due to a complete absence of empowerment. There were some who cared immensely and poured resources into her narrative so she could speak. At the beginning and the end, there are testimonies by Jacobs, her editor, a social activist, and a formerly enslaved Black man that begs the reader to accept Jacobs’s narrative and recognize her humanity. Believe me, says Jacobs. Believe her, my woman readers, says the editor. Believe her, white America, says the social activist. Believe her, those of you who cared for me, says the Black man. Jacobs puts herself into the conservation through her narrative, and those with her demand that she be allowed to speak and be listened to by appealing to the identities they may share with the potential reader—providing the bridge by which a conversation can be facilitated. The failure in Jacobs’s narrative to make America aware of the Black woman’s perspective does not come from her lack of effort, but from those who, despite all the pleas to be aware, chose their fictions over her humanity.

The barriers that Jacobs faced to speak for herself, such as literacy and social exclusion, have parallels in the twenty-first-century border crisis.  Fictions cannot be shared between people if they cannot speak a shared language or are unable to enter the conversation through other means like writing. Though there can be moments where others can speak for those who cannot speak, such moments are fleeting. A leader, or someone who shares their fictions to thousands, can only do so much to retain awareness and empathy from those listening, as well as can only do so much to prevent the people they claim to represent from being seen as fictions. It is not in one person alone, or in a few, who decide to cross the border, linguistically or socially, migrant or activist, that will lead to greater awareness and political action. It is not by the great leaders of history that political change is achieved. It comes from the little interactions between ordinary people, those who do not aspire toward political action, but instead wish to share a little part of their life to another that is the bedrock for political change. The ability to change the world for the better by an exchange of fictions is in each and every one of us, a fact that others and ourselves may choose to shroud in fiction to remain unaware of this power.

  1. Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press, 2017), 29, Kindle Edition.
  2. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Macmillan, 1949), 16.
  3. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 16.
  4. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 20.
  5. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 12.
  6. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 90.
  7. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 12.
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