I haven’t written much here in the past year. It is not for a lack of things to say, but rather a search for words adequate to meet so much misery. Syria’s refugees; Europe’s xenophobes; Brexiteers; Trump. And these are only the headlines. I hear daily from friends and colleagues – an endless onslaught of tweets and Facebook posts – about numerous other outrages the world has largely chosen to ignore, but which reverberate in the echo chamber of my social media feed.
I don’t want to write only for an audience already in agreement with me. But how do you find words to speak to the 52%, to the people I never talk to, whose anxieties and fears are mine, inverted? How do you find words that aren’t just clever technical expositions, words that will move mountains not minutiae? How do you find words that aren’t just empty? There has been so much talking in the past year. Yet after at least three international conferences, a hundred charity drives and ten thousand op-eds, more refugees are drowning than before.
But this is not just a case of writer’s block. The past year has also been an abrupt introduction to the new anxieties of parenthood, fears that throw new shadows on a world turned upside down. A year ago, I returned to work in the same week that photos of Alan Kurdi – a toddler dead on a Turkish beach – shocked the West into a brief spasm of humanity.
It was impossible to escape. Acquaintances who had never shown any previous interest in refugees or migrants wrote about their outrage: for a few brief days, everyone cared. Yet a small part of me wished the world could have chosen another time or another photo with which to wake up –momentarily – to the cruelty of our refugee policies.
I was overwhelmed by my uselessness in the face of such enormous need. How are you supposed to solve a refugee crisis on 20 hours childcare a week, long-distance from San Francisco? Pushed by sleep-deprivation and hormones and fear of failing, anxiety overtook me. It does not, require that much insight to realise that when you check on your soundly sleeping baby and are – momentarily – convinced they are dead, because they are lying on their mattress just like the little boy on the beach, you need some rest. Over the past year, not-writing has at times been simply an act of self-preservation.
A year later I am no longer so anxious. The failings of so many with power and with privilege make me angry instead. I have also become better at recognizing when I need to look away — and better at forgiving myself for that, and for the fact that I am not on the humanitarian frontline. Instead I’ve started to see the contributions I can make: ideas, arguments, writing.
Yet motherhood has changed my work: I care with new urgency about what the world will look like in thirty years time. It is harder to think of politics without also thinking of faces. I am more emotional.
And at first, I though this emotion was something to be mistrusted. After all, research is all about critical reason; policy is all about pragmatism. The academy teaches its students to think, not to feel. How often have I told my own students to “engage in critical analysis; don’t engage in emotional advocacy”? Academia privileges facts: datasets and methodology win tenure. We write our ideals and our beliefs and our politics in the footnotes.
Yet look out at the world: appeals to pure reason are losing. In this terrifying age of post-fact politics, engaging with emotions may be be our best hope of turning back a rising tide of xenophobia and violence. Watching Brexit and Trump dismiss “experts” and win plaudits for doing so, I do not think that the case for migrants’ rights will not be won by technocrats. It will not be won by calculating contributions GDP, or the value of remittances. We do not need more statisticians: we need more philosophers. We need experts, yes, but experts who are also capable of also trading in emotion.
A year’s silence has been good for me. Silence lets you hear the other voices around you. Keep shouting, and you may never notice that no one else is listening to you. But ultimately, change doesn’t come from silence. Right now the world is a dark and terrible place, but parenthood means I have to believe it’s still worth fighting for. So it’s time for me to leave the echo chamber: it’s time to write again. We don’t need more words: but we do need better ones.