Like every other pseudo-intellectual law student, I like to think that I am self aware.
The courses taught at my law school dealt with ideas I had never fully considered before. The prescribed readings on class oppression, alienation and exploitation of various kinds made me livid. I decided that I abhorred the vicious system called capitalism.
However, each time I enter a shopping mall, I walk right into stores that I know exploit workers in sweatshops or otherwise, and walk out carrying a bag full of goods and a heart that has mixed feelings of both pleasure and guilt.
A little introspection made this paradox clearer. The part of me that was self aware felt guilty, while the other part that pleaded ignorance convinced me to push this guilt away and focus on how great I would look in the clothes. Awareness may generate empathy, but empathy is not enough as it conveniently picks ignorance in order to soothe the conscience. Therefore, mere awareness is not enough.
I have been taught that when hierarchies exist, domination follows. The lower class is always the object of subjugation at the hands of the dominant class. The workers employed in workshops where garments distributed by these high fashion brands are manufactured are subjected to such domination. They are made to work long hours in inhumane conditions with minimal pay. The “surplus” that they produce can be understood in a manner synonymous with their exploitation.
As this exploitation has legal backing, there is no obvious coercion in the form of force. However, economic coercion is rampant and inherent to this system. By ensuring that the working class keeps manufacturing surplus for capitalists at the cost of their own exploitation, the gap between these classes keeps widening. This compels the workers to keep working for capitalists to ensure their own survival. Economic coercion, therefore, functions covertly and almost invisibly.
Despite being aware that I feed this exploitative system each time I shop at these stores, I am unable to resist. I know that the solution to this problem is to perhaps to stop purchasing from those stores. However, I find it rather difficult to make this choice.
It is difficult to reconcile two parts of myself, so divorced from one another. The part that is aware of my complacence is at war with the other part that pleads ignorance, begging the former to allow it to act carelessly, selfishly.
It is not possible to reconcile my ignorance and awareness; I see no compromise or middle ground. There is perhaps only one way to resolve this dilemma – to let my awareness guilt my ignorance to such an extent that it fails to tempt me to become a systemic pawn. The solution, therefore, is something beyond awareness. It is acknowledgment of your ignorance and the consequent guilt. The question that then arises is that how is acknowledgement different from awareness.
Awareness is unidimensional as it is in binary terms, the opposite of ignorance, such that the two cannot co-exist. Acknowledgment, on the other hand, is multidimensional as it allows the two sides of ignorance and awareness to exist simultaneously, and gives due consideration to both. This is important as it is not sufficient to just be aware, it is equally important to acknowledge ignorance. If I do not acknowledge my ignorance, it will never allow me to feel guilty of my actions and I will continue to be complacent.
It is incorrect to conveniently let ignorance overpower awareness, at the cost of a worker’s exploitation. It is at this point that my awareness stands a change against ignorance. Therefore, at this moment that I must capitalise (used ironically, of course) on my awareness and allow it to make me feel guilty. I must thus, acknowledge not just my awareness, but also my ignorance.
Only when I analyse my ignorance and allow myself to feel guilty about it instead of dismissing it, will I be able to actualise my empathy and act on it. I want to be able to feel guilty to the extent that I prevent myself from getting tempted the next time I look at a gorgeous dress. I want to feel guilty enough to not focus on how I would look wearing it, but think of the person who made it and what they went through during that process.
It is therefore necessary to acknowledge your ignorance and consequently your guilt, along with your awareness to give them the power to prevent yourself from choosing complacence.
Aishwarya Ramkumar is a law student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat
Featured image credit: Amauri Mejia/Unsplash