Mourn and organise: On the power of truth in a world awash with lies

This article first appeared on ABC Religion and Ethics.

Upon learning that he was about to die, the Swedish-American labour activist and songwriter Joe Hill wrote a telegram to Bill Haywood, the founder of the Industrial Workers of the World. It read: “Goodbye, Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”

The (para)phrase “don’t mourn, organise” received a boost in popularity when a collection of Hill’s songs were released under the title “Don’t Mourn — Organize!: Songs of the Labour Songwriter Joe Hill”. The phrase was subsequently used by the Boston Globe as the title of an article honouring the American playwright, philosopher, and socialist thinker Howard Zinn when he died in 2010. More recently, it was used as a rallying cry for protests against Donald Trump in 2017. The phrase remains popular in labour and activist circles.

But, as I have argued, the phrase does not apply to activism around ecological collapse in the same way it applies to the labour movement. For mourning is the inevitable and proper response to the truth of ecological collapse.

Understanding the truth is the first step in any movement; it must proceed any organisation. And so we must not avoid mourning, which is bound to follow from the ongoing phenomenon of ecological decline, just because it is ongoing — it keeps hitting us. Grief is a powerful aid to any serious movement on climate and ecology; it is how we draw energy from this decline.

The power of mourning

For the sake of the truth, we need people to break cover. Whenever someone with any insider knowledge of the system retires, they should tell all. Better still, scientists and politicians and regulators and fiduciaries and insurers and many more should break cover now: disclose, or whistleblow, or become “double-agents”.

In fact, all of us can contribute to the task of truth-telling by, at minimum, emotionally disclosing. Every parent, every teacher, who tells the world of their fears, their grief, their anger, and their love is one more nail in the coffin of the collapse-trajectory of this future-eating civilisation.

If we seek to live in truth, just what will the movement and action that emerges now in response to climate collapse look like? As I’ve already suggested, part of the answer can be found in overturning the old labour-movement slogan, “Don’t mourn, organise!” We need to face reality, and that requires us to mourn. If we didn’t feel profound grief for what is, for what is lost, and in relation to much of what is coming, we wouldn’t be human, we wouldn’t be facing authentically up to our time.

The consequence of such mourning — provided it is given a context of agency or empowerment — is an imperative to organise. To achieve what can still be achieved. Which is less than some would have you believe: we can’t magic our way out of the consequences of the decades of destruction and inaction. And yet, simultaneously, what can still be achieved is far more than is even dreamt of by most: when we face the truth, and allow ourselves to meet it fully in our humanity and animality, as emotionally-real Earthlings, such things become possible as dreams are made of. We have only begun, in the last four years or so, to tap this great power.

This power is the power of truth — what Gandhi called “truth-force”. There is a simplicity to truth, that has sometimes been lost sight of in academia and in academically influenced versions of activism over the last couple of generations. For instance, in relation to climate-denial, full-scale post-truthism is deadly. And certain academic trends such as post-modernism have been accommodating of and supportive of absurd deadly ideas such as post-truth.

Against the ignoble lie

In terms of where my approach stands in relation to the history of philosophy, it can be simply placed. I stand opposed to the influential tradition, introduced by Plato, of the “noble lie”. My reasoning is simple. There’s a problem with lies, however “noble”. The clue is in their name. They’re lies. (Unless they are self-consciously presented as fictions or myths, in which case the harm of their sting is withdrawn.)

An influential recent example of a “noble” lie is the 3.5 per cent theory that was presented as “scientific” truth by Extinction Rebellion (XR). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the claim that all we need is to get 3.5 per cent out on the streets and we will suddenly achieve our full demands for change is pseudo-scientific hopium. XR was a magnificent uprising that I was proud to help launch; it has been at its best when it emphasised that we act with determination out of love and truth, no matter whether we win or lose.

My book Do You Want to Know the Truth? Is centrally concerned with such an attitude. It is about how telling the truth is the right thing to do in any case, and that it is effective. There is actually a win-win here. The underlying philosophical impulse that led me to write the book comes from my teacher Cora Diamond, who introduced me to the philosophical consequences of George Orwell’s work, and to the Polish logicians of the Second World War, whose slogan was: “For truth and Poland”.

In the darkness of this time, renewed interest in and commitment to the power of authenticity, truth-force, is a bright light. The more it shines, the more of a chance we have. To organise, for a future.