Monday, January 31, 2011

So you're an activist. Now what?

Please pardon the absence, folks. It's almost February and it's my first post for 2011. Eek! But it was a much needed hiatus and re-evaluation. So Blogosphere - Fear not (Or fear muchly!) because FC is baaaaaaaack.

And thinking about activism.

As someone who spends 90% of her time doing activism of some kind, I've had plenty of time to ponder the pros and cons of left-wing-so-called-progressive circles. And I keep coming back to the same two gripes: egos and impatience.


The biggest problem I've seen in these circles is the issue of egos. Many of these circles view 'collectivity' and consensus decision making as the be-all, end-all of anti-oppression organizing. Hierarchy is seen as inherently evil and oppressive and the pursuit of a 'collective' is the marker of a 'legit' organization.

You can probably discover from my tone that I ain't buying it. Haters, hear me out.

I think it's an admirable pursuit - I really, truly, genuinely do. But I think it's BS in practice.

Much like white, Western folks espousing the virtues of communism without clearly reading a history book, I think the idea of 'collective or bust' is idealistic and quite frankly, ridiculous.

I want to believe in collectives, I do! I work in many such environments and when I read the stuff on paper, I get really excited about the possibilities. But then I actually step into them and see that these same collectivity-loving-folk are as hierarchical and power hungry as dudes on Bay Street.

Collectivity will never work until people get over themselves. Not to sound all "Back in the good old days..." but there really was a time when activism was about more than a photo op or having a popular Twitter feed. More and more lately, I've been seeing a shift towards visual markers of 'legit' and 'radical' which make people competitive. It's a dog eat dog game of trying to one-up each other with one person screaming "GOTCHA!" when they feel that they've really nailed the other person to the floor.

People are more interested in appearing legit and in being the "best goddamn ally the world has ever seen" than in actually being legit. And so on one hand, they are criticizing societal power structures and then re-creating them in their own way.

It reminds me of this girl I met once in my undergrad. (Which sounds pompous as fuck, I apologize). She had all the visual markers of 'legit'. She was a white girl with dreads, a nose ring, Blundstone boots, corduroy pants and a vintage cardigan. She was shooting the shit with another classmate when they said "Omg, you went to such-and-such alternative school?!" and she sheepishly replied "Yup." The other classmate was clearly impressed and they chit chatted back and forth until she eventually said "Oh, it was like every other school except that instead of bullying the kids who were goth or queer, we bullied the kids who read Seventeen Magazine and watched MTV".

See what I'm getting at?

This pursuit to be the ultimate 'radical' is actually extremely detrimental to the cause. Which leads me to my second issue.


Far too often, people come to a realization, make a discovery, get accepted into the organization/circle/clique and then act as though that knowledge always existed within them. They don't acknowledge that this is new, that they are newbies or that they are even struggling with it. Instead, they adopt the dogma and in turn, lack empathy for those not in the know.

Rather than admitting that they had their own racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic tendencies (either previously or currently, as we all do) they act as though their new found knowledge is old wisdom. And then a newbie comes along or someone from outside the activist circle who asks a genuine question or slips up and says something awful and rather than seeing it as a teaching moment or an opportunity to enlighten someone, it becomes "OMG, just fucking Google it, you jerk with unchecked privilege".
(I'm paraphrasing...)

How is that making the world a better place?

Call me naive, but I thought that was the whole point of this progressive-train we are riding. It sounds simplistic but isn't that our ultimate goal? To make the world less shitty? Well, how are we going to go about doing that when we create dogmatic politics that are inherently about who is good enough and who is not?

From my (albeit limited, I suppose) experience in doing feminist-social-justice activism, too many people live within the circle and ONLY the circle. Sure, it's nice and cozy and (sometimes, if you're lucky) anti-oppressive and safe. For some people, those circles are a means for survival. And that's a-okay. In fact, that's beautiful.

But sometimes, we need to step outside those circles or heck, even broaden them, open the door a bit, let some air in. We need to live in the 'real world' in order to change it. We have to at least straddle both sides. And we need to have a patience with those who ask the newbie questions that we've heard so many times that they've become nails on a chalkboard. But if we don't take the time to answer them, challenge those people in a respectful way and engage them in a dialogue, then we not only missed an opportunity to challenge someone, we perpetuated a stereotype about who we are.

Now I get it. We're exhausted and we're tired of having the same conversations over and over and over. I get it. (Seriously... I get it). But if it's getting to the point where answering a question, offering someone a good article or clarifying a point makes you rip someone's head off, then maybe you should do us all a favour and take a fucking break.

It's easy for the world to ignore us and our demands when we're written off as cliquish, self-interested and egotistical. And at this point, I'm not convinced we're not.