Saturday, February 4, 2017

Resisting Division: Critiquing Fellow Activists

This article is part of a series that addresses attempts to divide oppressed populations and pit us against one another. This insidious tactic is being used to bolster fascism in a precursory strategy to institute a white nationalist and totalitarian vision of the United States. As a transgender/queer person, my critiques are built on socialist/communist/anarchist principles through the lens of queer theory and critical trans politics – schools of thought deeply indebted to critical race theory, Black Feminist Theory, and decolonial theory (see Dean Spade’s “Normal Life” for more on critical trans politics).

Today I need to talk about division among activists. There is a prevalent dynamic, especially among well-meaning progressives/liberals/leftists, wherein those of us with less privilege experience violence from our fellow activists with more privilege for “calling out” their problematic behavior. Within our mainstream activist culture, this dynamic becomes more complex, as the very act of critiquing is viewed as a divisive action antithetical to the (un)equalizing ethics of unity.

In order to resist division between ourselves, we need to be able to critique each other without worrying that we will be attacked. While some may view this worrying as trivial, I can't stress enough that this is actually a form of violence. This dynamic forces us to live under the constant stress of policing our own language, reactions, and emotions because we can't even trust that our fellow activists are safe. In other words, the very dynamics we are working against are manifesting in the relationships and work environments we invest in under the pretense of at least some semblance of safety.

When I bring this up, I'm often met with the idea that our criticisms should be compassionate, positive, or productive. This not only misses the point, it uses "professionalism" (a set of norms rooted in whiteness, cisheteronormativity, and ableism) to silence us in a world that is already predicated on our silence.

We need you to work with us as we resist division by addressing this dynamic. We need to build and strengthen our movements by normalizing critique, reflection, and readjustment. In a Marxist sense, we need to encourage a dialectic of critique that is intersectional in nature; a practice and environment that engages varying levels of privilege and oppression toward synthesis, rather than violence and valid responses to that violence.

With this in mind, I want to discuss ways to begin to shift toward such a culture.

First, we need to recognize that our very conceptualization of division is contributing to these problems. We often view division as a top-down tactic used by those with “more power” than us. However, sometimes division isn’t the sudden descending of an axe, but a thousand unyielding weeds our fellow activists allow to develop between us; thoughts and behaviors growing through a foundation we were made to lay in the first place. Our first step toward changing our understanding of division is to realize that it is a dynamic that flourishes in the absence of critique.

Second, we must examine the ways in which we actively encourage its growth. This occurs most often when we respond to critique with defensiveness and hostility. These reactions discourage critique by enacting violence on the person who had the courage to speak up. Drawing on Lipsitz’s research into whiteness, this can perhaps be better understood as a “possessive investment” in privilege and power at the individual level.

This defensiveness and hostility is another expression of the problematic behavior critiqued, and it goes unrecognized when we view division as an intentional act that cannot happen when we are oppressed in at least one way. Under the banner of “unity” I discussed above, these reactions can be understood as appropriate, or even encouraged, which brings me to my third and final point.

Unity, like equality, falsely presumes that uniformity exists in both oppression and justice. It eschews collective liberation for single-issue – meaning partial community – advancement. And when a critique is finally acknowledged as valid (which requires the victim and/or critic to prove its validity), there is a mandatory, yet unspoken obligation for those with less privilege to perform the emotional labor of educating the activists called out on their terms. This dynamic is more than a mere problem among activists; it is a form of community-sanctioned violence.

We need to resist this pervasive form of violence uniquely experienced by those with less privilege in activist circles. If we claim to be intersectional, if we claim to care about those we organize with, we must take seriously the narrowing nature of our privilege, and confront it intentionally. We need to approach critique with humble resolve, not self-righteous disbelief.

Until we change how we understand division, how we are encouraging it, and its place within the ethics of unity, we will never create a unified left. More important, we will never create the safe spaces and sustainable institutions that underlie our desire to do this work.

No comments:

Post a Comment