Survival isn’t about certain death. It’s about keeping your head down.
– 12 Years a Slave
I just watched 12 Years a Slave over the weekend. This quote, and the whole film, really, reminded me of a conversation I had last year with one of my professors. We spoke at length about groups being complicit in their oppression. Women, racial minorities, indigenous people, and religious minorities, are all “guilty” of complying with their oppressors.
We talked at length about female genital mutilation (FGM), which the WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million worldwide have undergone. While feminist discourse describes such a practice as being patriarchal, it is carried out and controlled by women.
A 2013 study published by BMC Public Health found that in The Gambia, both women and men defend FGM by arguing that “it is critical to preserve ethnic and gender identity, protect femininity, ensure purity and virginity, guarantee the ‘family’s honour,’ assure marriageability…” That such attitudes are held by women about a practice that is physically harmful shows just how important “keeping your head down” is to survival.
While the pressure to comply with oppressive norms is understandable- after all, it’s the instinct of every species to do what it takes to survive- it is not without rocking the boat that any social change is achieved.
The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century took place as a result of the proletariat’s discontentment with “keeping their heads down,” especially after Enlightenment thinkers ideas about personal freedom gained exposure.
Although there are countless example in human history of revolution and social movements, skipping ahead roughly two centuries, the United States’ 1960’s civil rights movement is another example of human beings no longer content to silently comply with legislation and social norms designed to keep minorities, in this case racial minorities, as second-class citizens.
Even more recently, the Arab Spring, set off by Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolating in Tunisia started off a chain of revolution throughout the region by those no longer willing tolerate human rights abuses at the hands of their oppressive leaders .
While I’m not arguing that all of these social movements have been raging successes- the human rights situation throughout much of the Middle East is still precarious, and racial discrimination still exists in the United States- their occurrences indicate that a life of silently complying is not enough. Keeping your head down is merely a means to survive. Social change is about creating a way to thrive.