Sometimes talking IS the work

This post was inspired by recent events in online/NZ/Twitter-based conversation, but it’s also part of wider thinking I’ve been doing about activism and policing other people’s behaviour. Remember: if it’s not about you, it’s not about you. If it is about you – that’s on you.

It confuses me when people attack activists for “just” sitting on Twitter doing “nothing” but talk.

I’m not puzzled about the inaccuracy of it – no one I know “just” confines their activism to Twitter. Besides, activism doesn’t always mean organising a rally or printing a zine or starting a hashtag. In a society which is doing its utmost to drive you mad or kill you – and that’s the reality for many people – surviving and thriving is political activism in of itself. But that doesn’t matter to the Twitter-deriders: their goal is to shut down criticism and demonize the people who dare to say “you screwed up”. Even if it’s a load of tripe.

I’m puzzled because they’re erasing the value of talking.

At its most basic: how do you build any kind of action without talking? Without discussing the situation, defining the problems, creating solutions and spreading the word?

“Just talking” is probably the single most important step in activism. Even if you’re “only” talking to yourself – even if surviving a society which hates you is the grandest goal you have. Even more so when you want to change the whole world.

There’s a passage in Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time, a history of (part of) the second-wave feminist movement in the USA. (Big disclaimer: there are many things the second wave messed up on.) Brownmiller talks about attending her first “consciousness-raising session” run by New York Radical Women in the late 60s:

Saying “I’ve had three illegal abortions” aloud was my feminist baptism, my swift immersion in the power of sisterhood. A medical procedure I’d been forced to secure alone, shrouded in silence, was not “a personal problem.” My solitary efforts to forge my own destiny were fragments of women’s shared, hidden history, links to past and future generations, pieces of the puzzle called sexual oppression. The simple technique of consciousness-raising had brought my submerged truths to the surface, where I learned that I wasn’t alone.

For those feminists, talking was the most powerful thing they could do. When society normalized ideas about getting married and having kids, and pretended no one else ever got divorced or had abortions or questioned their paycheck, just talking got the ball rolling.

And when they began to organise “real” events, what were they? Speak-outs. Talking. Lifting their voices in public on issues like abortion and sexual violence.

Talking wasn’t just part of the work. Talking was the work.

TWhen you talk, others hear. And hopefully, some listen. Because no one ever changed their mind about how society oppresses other people, whose lives they will never experience, without some kind of external stimulus.

I don’t believe I’m perfect (another dismissive line that gets thrown around.) But there are things I’m conscious of which others aren’t. And as a more-privileged woman, I can call my peers up on those things – not leaving it to women of colour, or people with disabilities, and so on, to always do the work of correcting others.

These aren’t problems I face. I didn’t intuit their existence. They are issues other people talked about, and when I listened, I learned.

I say “when” because believe me, there were times I did not listen. I have been the ignorant ally who said “well actually” to trans women. I have been the person getting personally offended because yes I know some white women try to compare their hair issues to black women’s but I don’t, tell me I’m good!

… And I am so, so sorry about that.

But me being sorry isn’t the point. The point is that, eventually, I listened. I got better. Not perfect. Better.

But that would never have happened if all the trans women, queer women, women of colour, indigenous women, or women with disabilities had sat down and kept quiet because I always deserved the benefit of the doubt. If their real allies – the other white cis women who probably re-explained everything to me because I was too pigheaded to believe women outside my peer group – had just said no, Stephanie’s one of the “good” people. If I had been given a pass each and every time because I meant well and everyone who knew me thought I was really respectful and right-on.

When we talk, we create solidarity. There’s massive value in knowing that out there in the world is someone else who totally gets why you’re angry or how you’re feeling or what you’re going through. That kind of bond doesn’t just build movements, it literally saves people’s lives.

If you don’t think that counts as constructive, righteous, progressive social justice work, you need to go back to a dictionary and look up every single one of those words again.

Some recommended reading on related themes and those recent events:

Living in a bubble

This was going to be a tweet, or probably a series of tweets, but you all know how I get.

It’s been going on for a while, but especially after the results of the first flag referendum, I’ve seen various comments along the lines of:

HAHAHA, sucks to be YOU, Red Peak fans, looks like you’re not so cool after all! You and your stupid Twitter bubble are powerless! More like Red PIQUE am I right? Stop thinking you’re so important because you never get anything done and your flag is stupid! Neener neener neener, you lost, BOW BEFORE ZOD!!!!

I paraphrase.

The thing is, I’m a Red Peak fan. I even spend time on Twitter, and I live in Wellington. I’m exactly the kind of person I think that kind of person is addressing their scorn to.

I’m also very aware of the fact my social circle, like everyone’s social circle, is a bubble. Even in the internet age, the people I “hang out with” are usually going to be a lot like me – from similar backgrounds, with similar tastes, and yes, similar positions on the political spectrum (make your own “some of my best friends are rightwingers” joke here).

This is true of everyone. We all hang out with people we have a lot in common with: work, geography, faith, fandom – whether that’s sci fi or sports. And even the most ardent Highlanders fan can acknowledge (probably through gritted teeth – I may be an Auckland-Wellington transplant but I know Highlanders fans) that not everyone in New Zealand is a Highlanders fan.

The people I most often see slamming the Twitterati/Red Peak Clique/Thorndon Bubble’s belief that we represent the entirety of New Zealand opinion and are the only people worth listening to … are people who are really invested in describing, and decrying, the Twitterati/Red Peak Clique/Thorndon Bubble. People – individuals – who need to push the idea that there’s a difference between a community of people with like minds and an interest in discussing political matters, on a social media platform designed to create such communities, and … well, whatever Borg-esque hivemind they’re railing against.

borg assimilation

Resistance is futile.

I haven’t seen many people say “yeah, Red Peak should be our flag because Twitter likes it!” I’ve seen people joyously post pictures of the Red Peak flag “seen in the wild”. I’ve seen people discuss what it means to them and whether it resonates with them (for some, even in my bubble, it doesn’t.) I saw Red Peak’s designer and supporters run a really savvy campaign to raise its profile online.

But ultimately Red Peak lost, this time. That’s how democracy works. (And that’s also how it’ll work if the second referendum goes to our current flag, you folk who think it’s unfair for us to vote “no” to your awful blue Lockwood logo.) People are disappointed, and tweeting about it. That’s how Twitter, and being a human being, works.

There are undoubtedly people within the liberal/Pākehā/Twittering/lefty population who do overestimate how much their opinions are shared by the New Zealand population as a whole. Because there are people like that in every single political group. Brian Tamaki thinks he’s representative. ACT Party leader after ACT Party leader has convinced themselves there was a massive silent voter base just waiting for them to come along. On the other end of the spectrum, there were the massively inflated predictions for Internet/MANA in 2014.

It’s pretty much a fundamental point of human ego to assume that our subjective, flawed, self-contradicting beliefs are normal, rational, and widely-accepted.

But just because you saw a few people on Twitter rejoicing that Red Peak made it onto the ballot, or now you’re seeing a few people on Twitter feeling grumpy because that blue Lockwood design is bloody awful … it doesn’t mean there’s some special, extra-presumptuous, extra-unrealistic groupthink going on.

It probably just means a bunch of people on Twitter liked Red Peak.

red peak

The myth of language policing

This post has been sitting in draft for a while, but it’s one of those topics which comes up again and again, and will continue to do so for eternity: the idea that people who are interested in social justice, and point out bigoted or offensive language, are being bullies, or trying to silence everyone who doesn’t agree with them, or have nothing better to do with their time.

First off, I obviously have to link to the canonical xkcd cartoon on the subject of free speech.

The thing is, these incidents are always presented in isolation. One guy gets criticised because he used “chicks” to refer to “women” and suddenly the accusations are flying: you’re overreacting! You’re taking this too seriously! It’s just one word!

That’s the problem right there. It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

And yes, it’s not just men saying those things, because all of us are swimming in patriarchy. We’ve all internalized the language and the attitudes, and yes: sometimes women are even worse. It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t disprove the existence of sexism. It just shows how much we’re forced to act against our own interests in order to survive. (Those on the left may consider the comparison with working people who get offered lump sum bonuses if they leave their union. Yes, it’s anti-solidarity – but your kids have to eat.)

The point is, it’s never just one guy saying just one thing. And if you think it’s terrible having half-a-dozen people on Twitter saying your wording was wrong this one time, imagine what it’s like having an entire society telling you your existence is wrong every day of your life.

~

Note: everything in this post will apply to other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia, but as I experience neither, I don’t want to speak for those who do.