Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[Note: been there, felt that, got the t-shirt.]
Posted by Frances Lee on July 13, 2017 at 9:36am PDT
There is a particularly aggressive strand of social justice activism weaving in and out of my Seattle community that has troubled me, silenced my loved ones, and turned away potential allies. I believe in justice. I believe in liberation. I believe it is our duty to obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism. And I also believe there should be openness around the tactics we use and ways our commitments are manifested over time. Beliefs and actions are too often conflated with each other, yet questioning the latter should not renege the former. As a Cultural Studies scholar, I am interested in the ways that culture does the work of power. What then, is the culture of activism, and in what ways are activists restrained by it? To be clear, I’m only one person who is trying to figure things out, and I’m open to revisions and learning. But as someone who has spent the last decade recovering from a forced conversion to evangelical Christianity, I’m seeing a disturbing parallel between religion and activism in the presence of dogma:
There is an underlying current of fear in my activist communities, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical. I actually don’t prefer to call myself an activist, because I don’t fit the traditional mold of the public figure marching in the streets and interrupting business as usual. When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.
I feel compelled to do the same things as an activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions or pushback on leftist opinions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me. Ultimately, the quest for political purity is a treacherous distraction for well-intentioned activists.
Postcolonialist black Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book Wretched of the Earth writes about the volatile relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and the conditions of decolonization. In it, he sharply warns the colonized against reproducing and maintaining the oppressive systems of colonization by replacing those at top by those previously at the bottom after a successful revolution.
As a QTPOC (queer, trans person of color), I have experienced discrimination and rejection due to who I am. I have sought out QTPOC-only spaces to heal, find others like me, and celebrate our differences. Those spaces and relationships have saved me from despair time and time again. And yet, I reject QTPOC supremacy, the idea that QTPOCs or any other marginalized groups deserve to dominate society. The experiences of oppression do not grant supremacy, in the same way that being a powerful colonizer does not. Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.
Telling people what to do and how to live out their lives is endemic to dogmatic religion and activism. It’s not that my comrades are the bosses of me, but that dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do. This is especially prominent on Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon. I know that much of the media posted there means to discipline me to be a better activist and community member. But when dictates aren’t followed, a common procedure of punishment ensues. Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing. Discipline and punishment has been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us? We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Why do we position ourselves as morally superior to the un-woke? Who of us came into the world fully awake?
There are also some online publications of dogmatic activism that could be considered sacred texts. For example, the intersectional site Everyday Feminismreceives millions of views a month. It features more than 40 talented writers who pen essays on a wide range of anti-oppression topics, zeroing in on ones that haven’t yet broached larger activist conversations online. When Everyday Feminism articles are shared among my friends, I feel both grateful that the conversation is sparking and also very belittled. Nearly all of their articles follow a standard structure: an instructive title, list of problematic or suggested behaviors, and a final statement of hard opinion. The titles, the educational tone, and the prescriptive checklists contribute to creating the idea that there is only one way to think about and do activism. And it’s a swiftly moving target that is always just out of reach. In trying to liberate readers from the legitimately oppressive structures, I worry that sites like Everyday Feminism are replacing them with equally restrictive orthodoxy on the other end of the political spectrum.
Have I extricated myself from a church to find myself confined in another?
At this year’s Allied Media Conference, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza gave an explosive speech to a theatre full of brilliant and passionate organizers. She urged us to set aside our distrust and critique of newer activists and accept that they will hurt and disappoint us. Don’t shut them out because their politics are outdated or they don’t wield the same language. If we are interested in building the mass movements needed to destroy mass oppression, our movements must include people not like us, people with whom we will never fully agree, and people with whom we have conflict. That’s a much higher calling than railing at people from a distance and labeling them as wrong. Ultimately, according to Garza, building a movement is about restoring humanity to all of us, even to those of us who have been inhumane. Movements are where people are called to be transformed in service of liberation of themselves and others.
I want to spend less time antagonizing and more time crafting alternative futures where we don’t have to fight each other for resources and care. For an introvert like me, that may look like shifting my activism towards small scale projects and recognizing personal relationships as locations of mutual transformation. It might mean carefully choosing whether I want to be part of public disruptions or protests, and giving myself full permission to refrain at times. It may mean drawing attention to the ways in which other people outside of movements have been living out activism, even if no one has ever called it that. It might mean checking in with myself about how I have let my heart grow hard. It may mean admitting that speaking my truth isn’t justification for being mean. It might mean directly dealing with my religious hangups so that I can come to a place where the resonant aspects of theology or spirituality become part of my toolkit. It means cultivating long-term relationships with those outside my (not that) safe and exclusive community, understanding I will learn so much from them. It means ceasing to “other” people and leave them behind. It means honoring their humanity, in spite of their hurtful political beliefs and violent actions. It means seeing them as individuals, not ideologies or systems. It means acknowledging their agency to act justly. It means inviting them to be with us in love, and pushing through repeated rejection. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I can sustain this work for the rest of my life.