The Politics of Exigency

Fierce Urgency & Democracy Rooted in Deep Principle

Exigency is an immediate state of pervasive intense demand on our attention. “Exigent circumstances” are considered to be both emergent and critical enough to override one’s normal free will and moral decision-making. Under extreme pressures, the argument goes, one is less able to “live up to” the best of what we expect of ourselves and each other. This leaves one with less agency, less sovereignty, and less capability for doing anything other than tending to whatever actions will allow for survival in the face of a threat. In that sense, whether we know it or not, “exigent circumstances” are by far the most commonly used excuse for deviating from what would normally be considered acceptable or ethical behavior.

Overt acts of deep injustice demand an immediate and intense emotional response. The intensity of that emotion, however, is not always the clearest headed or most effective way to right a wrong or to extricate ourselves from the exigency of the threat in question.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of “the fierce urgency of now”. He was referring both to the mounting intensity of a generalized sense that long-running injustice could not be allowed to continue—so the moment calls for organizing and action—and to the more basic fact that the injustice itself was exigent, calling all people of conscience to serve as agents of conscientious change in the social and political sphere. He was talking about the need to get involved, take matters seriously, work diligently with others to effect positive change, and to end injustices that had no reason to be part of anyone’s experience.

Injustice is so connected to feelings of immediate revulsion or offense that the sequence of the two can be reversed.

Dr. King wanted to remind us all that the pursuit of justice requires that we hold the truth of action and emotion in sequence: When faced with true injustices, see the injustice for what it is, take offense in the deep way appropriate to such an injustice, and then take action in the way that will secure for everyone a world with less injustice. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he reminded us. So, we should work to overcome even the worst injustice or the most severe threat to our personal or collective wellbeing without deepening or spreading injustice. This is why Dr. King was committed to nonviolence.

The character of a person will determine whether they use the idea of exigency to call others into coalition or to make excuses for vicious tendencies. There will always be those who deviate from Dr. King’s call to a higher sense of principled, collaborative urgency, and seek to use exigency as an excuse for their own extremes or failings. When people of this tendency assume high office, it is acceptable, and necessary, to be vocal about what is inappropriate and unacceptable in their way of working against universal values, and one can do this without being exclusive or factional or ruling out collaboration from those of differing views.

The deviant political actor who uses exigency as an excuse to grab power or to justify harm against innocents should never be assumed to be a regular or central element in any legitimate political coalition. The political space can be viewed, and harnessed, as a shared opportunity to counter exigent challenges and overcome difficulty together. This is how we get to the structure of an open and adversarial democracy. We challenge each other to be better than our factions demand, to rise to the level required of us by the call to be just.

We are now living through a politics of exigency, when many who are threatened by economic disruptions are demanding that the pressures they face be relieved through extraordinary actions. Some of the rhetoric that furthers this new politics of exigency goes as far as to call for the dismantling of institutions and support for authoritarian actions. We must come together to support a more genuine defense of our basic shared right to live free from harm and protected by an institutional commitment to liberty, equality and justice for all people.

[ The Note for October 2016 ]


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