What Does St. Augustine Have to Do With Social Justice?

“[. . .] where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.”

Those lines are from “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”, by 18th century poet Thomas Gray. Now we both know the origins of the phrase; you’re welcome. There’s a reason those three words I bolded have survived and become a part of our cultural lexicon when the man who wrote them, and even the fact that they come from a poem to begin with, have long since faded away: we all know what it’s like to learn something we wish we hadn’t.

Kind of like when that image of what appeared to be a pink boa constrictor began circulating around the internet a couple of years back-


-and many people, when they found out what it was, said they would never eat another chicken nugget again. Which, let’s be real, can’t be a resolution that most of them ended up sticking with.

It’s easy to continue hitting up our dietary habits when it comes to Gray’s words; after all, don’t we eat every single day? Anyone who has seen the documentary Food Inc. may come out of it with the hot piece of trivia that corn makes its way into almost every item of food in American grocery stores, but the real question is whether or not they continue purchasing and consuming meat that has, in all likelihood, been produced by a factory farm.

To turn to yet another piece of literature [or the Word of God, as many, myself included, believe it to be], The Holy Bible says:

“It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”

– 2 Peter 2:21, New International Version

Which is all to say that Thomas Gray’s observation came about centuries after the Apostle Simon Peter had already made the same one, though the latter’s is more specific. Not only does ignorance free you from feeling bad, it also frees you of blame. Now this is obviously more or less true depending on the situation, but it’s also a defence children have used for time immemorial: “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.”

augustineThen you have people like St. Augustine of Hippo, who is most famous for his prayer “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” oftentimes shortened down to “Make me good, but not yet.”

Raised in a Christian household this was a man who knew the difference, at least within a Judeo-Christian perspective, of right and wrong, and yet decided he wanted to put a pin in it. Within that particular worldview to sin is to disobey the divine creator, which I think it would be fair to say is the wrong choice.

To step outside of Christianity, the thing is that not everything is so clear cut, so black and white. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of doing the right thing versus doing the better thing.

This has been a long and winding road, but the reason I bring this up is a conversation I had with an artist friend of mine not too long ago. Time and time again they came up against critics who lambasted them for doing a poor job properly representing their race or their gender in the work they were doing. Due to the amount of effort taken to portray various characters accurately, as well as the large potential of failure they described the situation by saying:

“its [sic] a lose lose sometimes”

Which I was quick to connect back to C. Robert Cargill’s take on why the Ancient One being White in Doctor Strange was the best case scenario [as well as, in retrospect, the idea that the easiest way to fix or not offend audiences is just making every character the default (ie. White)].

Having done that, I did agree with her that many of the expectations being leveled at her were unreasonable. Especially when it comes to being an artist, where all of your work acts as a representation of yourself, it’s hard not to see any and all comments reflecting on you personally. They also mentioned that-

“I think its [sic] just a natural thing I’ll eventually out grow,”

-which I ended up really latching unto, as it ties back to St. Augustine. There’s the knowledge of what the better choice is, but also the willingness to wait for a more ideal time to make them. As I said to my friend, I felt like her sentiment could be boiled down to: “make me woke, but not yet.”

Now I realize that the term isn’t as hot as it was even a few months ago, but it’s still a valid question. When it comes to many aspects of social justice, such as police brutality against Black people, this is very clearly an issue that should not have a pin put in it. If you know about the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their protests against the pipeline to be put on their land and do nothing that may actually affect lives in a very concrete way.

On the other hand, what about issues like increased diversity and representation in entertainment media? If an artist is aware that the industry fails in these regards and does nothing about it then how large an issue is it really? How much leeway do they have as far as saying “make me woke, but not yet,” or never even thinking it at all?

Every single one of us is aware of some way we could be living our lives that would benefit our environment and other people, both nearby and far abroad, or at least not lead to their being harmed. The majority of us know and choose to do nothing. When it comes to matters that are less corporeal, however, what I’m wondering is if the onus is as great. When it comes to social justice issues is there more of a grace period, if there is one at all, for people to be fully enlightened before finally acting-

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