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: