The power of proximity

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 12:02pm

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Designed by Lizzy Rueppel

“Due to security reasons, the doors to this train will not open.”

The loudspeaker on Delhi’s metro blared the warning message during the ride I was taking to meet a friend one night in the south of the city after protests had settled for the day. I was afraid to step off the train in the district after dark, not knowing what I might see from that day’s unrest. To my dismay, the metro did not stop where I intended to depart.

As a researcher of international politics, I spend most of my time in the summer abroad: consulting archives, conducting interviews and collecting data. My research agenda, centered on conflict and peace, is driven broadly by activist goals of societal change toward the eradication of violence. My investment in social movements has thus multiplied over the years as my exposure has increased. My experience witnessing a social movement closely and intensely is limited, but on my most recent trip to India, massive mobilizations broke out opposing the passage of the Citizen Amendment Act, catalyzing what has become a spreading cycle of protests across the country.

I have only ever read about the way protests unfold, I haven't witnessed their outbreak or navigated their consequences. While there, friends, researchers and I gauged how police might respond to various districts and to different demographics on each day of the movement. Risks of violence were pervasive and caused us anxiety stomach-deep. We stayed in contact with one another to check in on the safety of friends scattered across the area and sprung to action when it was compromised. Police barricades blocked roads and armed members stood conspicuously, yelling when passersby strayed from the path. During the peak of masses taking to the streets, we lost contact as mobile cell service was cut off and restrictions were placed on travel. 

After two weeks, I returned to the United States. The brevity of my visit was a mere glimpse of a movement’s frontline. I cannot suggest that I know everything about the prolonged fear or empowerment that comes from an individual’s long-term participation in activism, only that a short period of time in the midst of its threats and dangers revealed to me how much bravery it requires to stay in the thick of it. 

In this increasingly small, globalized world we are implicated in caring for those issues which are not on our frontlines through connections forged by corporations, bodies of governance, internet communication and migration. How can we possibly hope to contribute, when gulfs still exist between us?

Having returned, I am becoming aware of how different my role is for causes unfolding beyond my borders. Being away has granted me freedom in conducting work for a cause that is not possible from the proximate position — without worries of physical survival or safety from the state, I can speak my opinions more freely, access unrestricted sources of information and generate dialogues to grow a network of the sympathetic. Contributing to collective memory, applying external pressure, information spreading and fundraising are all roles for those who are non-proximate to this issue. Research, record keeping and contact cannot be conducted amid internet shutdowns, but can from afar.

Still, those technologies that apparently bridge the distances between us through communication and travel can also be used to entrench distance, as they often do when used in contemporary conflict. 

I have a recurring nightmare where two young boys are gifted a video game by an elder member of their family who is an army general. The game is like any other in their repertoire, where bloodied cities are the end goal for players who tote guns, grenades and girls to accomplish the mission. The boys play this gifted game day in and out, sending pixelated bombs to places they cannot pronounce. In the dream, however, the simulation is not a game — it’s reality. The bombs they drop are not points scored but predetermined military plans. 

The dream mirrors contemporary conflict and modern technology, wherein trained officials use screens in distant countries to send conflict wherever they are instructed. I fear the reality of recruitment for children into these conflicts looks a lot like virtual gaming with promises of valor and victory, too. My nightmare and its subsequent reality remind me how the distance between warring parties — created by technology — in interstate wars have allowed Western nations to outsource death and violence anywhere they choose, without ever confronting its damages. We’ve built technology to plug into, and become invested in, any global issue but we retreat from it when the reality it creates is too painful to face.

I’d like to imagine that it is harder to commit the violence of war with proximity between those in conflict. The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 tells the tale of a field between World War I’s trenches where soldiers from across enemy lines agreed to a temporary ceasefire. In the field, they shared holiday songs, played a game of ball and exchanged chocolates and photos of family members back at home. Afterward, they found it impossible to return to war — eventually, the battalions were moved to another frontline in hopes that they could be convinced again to fight. They could not. 

The moment has been memorialized in opera and commercials and its depiction illuminates how hard it becomes to commit violence against those we understand through a shared tradition. The more we enact violence through computer screens the more it will seem to us a simulation and not a lived experience. But for those proximate to the real-life carnage, there is no shutdown button.

A handful of issues look different up close than they do from far away, and the way we approach our contributions might, too. Climate change will take away coastlines some of us have never seen before it reaches middle America, and economic inequality can hide from those in too tall of towers to see it. Still, to tackle these causes equitably, we’ll need to plug in and act out — no matter the place we sit. The doors to the train must open.