2023 started with the continuation of violence on many levels: local and international alike. But in the face of so much global-local strife, all this escalation of violence against fellow human beings, there's room yet to talk of human agency.

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Is the bloom off the rose of 2023 yet? Though new years tend to instill an artificial sense of hope for change, January offered little to suggest a turning of the tide. In the US, it started with a new volley of legislation and state verdicts targeting marginalized groups, from unhoused to trans and queer people, to teens in a post-Roe era. And mass shootings. And police brutality. The killing of a forest defender in Atlanta. The fatal beating of a 29-year-old during a traffic stop. The killing of a double amputee apparently in flight near his wheelchair.

Meanwhile, in the world at large? Brutal back-and-forths continue to raise tensions and solidify hatred. Myanmar’s civil war, transpiring with relatively little media attention, has escalated with the use of air strikes on civilian populations. Ukraine’s ask for tanks from Germany, and Russia’s use of Belarus as a staging ground for its own operations, continue to push the definition of this war, as one officially between just two countries, to an obvious breaking point in the fiction.

And under Israel’s most rightwing leadership in recent years, the state has launched more aggressive actions in Palestinian regions, with complex fallout. On January 26, nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli Defense Forces that had arrived at the Jenin refugee camp to carry out raids. Seven of the dead were claimed by Palestinian militant groups. Operation Breakwater is a response to terrorist attacks last spring, and has itself contributed to the highest death toll of Palestinians by Israeli forces since the Second Intifada (2000-2005), amid mass arrests.

On Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a 21-year-old Palestinian then shot and killed seven, injuring three more, outside a synagogue. In the wake of this and one other attack by a 13-year-old on Saturday, Israeli police arrested 42 Palestinians and sealed and slated the shooter’s home for demolition. Netanyahu’s cabinet advanced measures to strip families of attackers of their own civil rights (e.g. ID cards, welfare, residency), reiterated its commitment to “strengthening” Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and promised to expedite gun permits to average Israeli citizens. International communities have raised concern about both the gun permits and heightened IDF activity in the West Bank, but gamification of this conflict helps no one: Suffice it to say, the year is starting with a huge uptick in hostilities in the Middle East.

February starts, too, with the grim reality that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will enter its second year without an end in sight, and with the very real possibility of escalation. Amid a hard season of fighting in the Donbas, wherein Ukraine has admitted that Russia is gaining experience and ground, Russia has warned the US and Germany about weapons sent in support of Ukraine. We also just had U.S. Four-Star General Mike Minihan share his gut feeling of a US-China war by 2025: views not expressly endorsed by the Pentagon, but which also serve the kind of gamified escalation of hostilities, similar to the sort that we saw in North Korean, Chinese, Taiwan, and US sabre-rattling last year.

Making sense of life on the brink

I recently wrote about the dangers of determinism, to which the secular world is every bit as susceptible as worlds shaped by spiritual cosmologies. The more we are immersed in ideas of total war, and the more that we habituate ourselves to seeing only aggressive and retributive responses to local and global violence as possible, the more difficult it becomes to avoid fatalist thinking. To avoid believing that we must continue to respond to terrorist violence, or imperial invasion, or military oppression, or police brutality, in X way and no other.

And yes, it is very possible that we who have been living on the verge of a more totalizing set of wars will step over that threshold this year. Maybe even this month.

But we lose our humanity in the act of consigning ourselves to eventualities, instead of holding in tension—always—the existence of other possibilities. Other ways through a total war, perhaps, if it comes to that. But also, other ways to shape our history entirely. To make our story of the current era instead one of having come up, again and again and again, to some very real breaking points—and having always pulled back from worse violence at the last.

One way we regain our humanity is by refusing to gamify human loss. A life is a life is a life. While scorecard thinking keeps us retributively driven in our pursuit of a better world, we need to be ready to imagine and pursue far more ambitious models of restorative and rehabilitative justice.

Another is by doing the hard work of holding human loss in tension across contexts, and looking for common denominators that can be addressed by other societal changes. Where has the sensationalism of immediate violence served to distract us from deeper economic and societal injustices? What are the givens in local, national, and international politics, and the financial arrangements underpinning them, that it’s maybe time for us to start questioning—and dismantling, if we can?

Lastly, we rebuild our shared humanity by seeking it out, and extending it, in the circles closest to us. Unless you are in a position to help broker a better peace directly with government officials, this is where you and I, as humanists across the cosmological spectrum, will be making our greatest difference. By acting with greater courage of compassion. By deepening in global-local outreach. By holding firm in the need for a better world, and also making space for others to have their own ideas about what’s needed to get us there.

World peace is not on offer this month, and year, and lifetime, alas.

But peace work?

Now that’s something we can always take up—today, right now—no matter how driven toward self destruction the world in which it’s needed yet appears.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.