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:

The constant threat

[Content note: sexual assault, victim-blaming, Julian Assange]

With the news that Julian Assange will now be questioned in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s taken refuge since 2012 after Swedish prosecutors tried to question him over allegations he sexually assaulted two women, we’re having the same debate we’ve always had. Whether it’s Assange, or Roman Polanski, or another Super Rugby team, it’s the same thing again and again. On the one side, women, feminists and their allies, talking about the attitudes and messages which ring loud in our society: that this woman is untrustworthy, this man is being persecuted, this assault wasn’t really a crime. On the other, typically, a lot of men and their allies saying we’re overreacting, those messages don’t really exist, you’re just playing the victim.

It’s bloody exhausting on the feminists’ side, to be honest. On the one hand there’s trying to explain, simply and above all unemotionally, things which are staring us all right in the face. How else do we explain a country where Tony Veitch still gets work? Where sportsmen accused of rape get sympathetic front covers on “women’s” magazines? Where supporters of Graham Capill sincerely argued that his sexual attacks on girls under the age of 12 weren’t that bad because they didn’t meet the “biblical definition” of rape? Where a survivor is painted as a political opportunist because she criticises the government’s mishandling of her case and happens to vote Green?

Those could just be a hell of a lot of coincidences, I guess; a number of perfectly random cases where the narrative about him versus her versus whose fault was it and who should we believe stacks up identically, every time.

But time and again we see an avalanche of excuses and weasel-words and outright attacks against complainants. In the case of Assange, the complainants can’t be trusted because they’re CIA plants. Assange is only being accused because of political persecution. The ideas that help people to redefine “rape” into meaninglessness – that you can’t really withdraw consent post-penetration, or that consenting to sex one night means you must still want it the next, or that you can’t really be a victim of sexual assault if you don’t report it to the police within five minutes and act appropriately traumatized – are all getting a lot of play.

I’m tired of having this same argument over and over. But more than that, I’m tired of trying to make people see that they’re part of the problem.

On the one hand we have the horrific levels of sexual and family violence in our society. It’s estimated that one in four women in NZ will experience sexual violence or abuse in their lifetimes.

Knowing that is enough to make me, as a woman, worry for my safety. It’s not paranoia when they are out to get you, and it’s not hysteria to be aware of the stark reality of sexual violence.

But beyond the simple statistics there’s the threat.

Susan Brownmiller shocked – and continues to shock – people with her definition of rape, in Against Our Will, as “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

The word “conscious” I quibble with. But “process of intimidation” keeping women “in a state of fear”? There’s something in that.

What else can we call it when every article or post or discussion about sexual violence is met with a rush of the exact same responses from a dozen quarters: that’s not really rape, that was a set-up, it’s her fault, we can’t believe her, he can’t be a rapist?

How is a woman not meant to feel intimidated, threatened, and downright unsafe, when her society makes it very, very clear that the only “just” way to deal with accusations of rape is to distrust and interrogate the victim?

There’s a concept called “microaggressions“. Microaggressions aren’t out-and-out cases of discrimination and oppression. They’re the tiny, needling things that happen every day which emphasise that you’re an outsider, a less-important human being, whether that’s because of your gender or ethnicity etc. They don’t “hurt” in the way that being physically attacked hurts, or “harm” in the way being denied housing or a vote or a job harms. But they are an ever-present reminder of the fact that if real harm were to befall you, your society wouldn’t really care, and would find ways to erase that harm from the record.

These conversations we have, about Assange or Polanski or whoever, these instances where people come together to reiterate all those lies about sexual violence, they’re an ever-present reminder that you could be raped – and it could be by someone you know, in your own home, while you were wearing your muckiest tracksuit, on video – and you would be doubted.

I say I get tired of trying to make people see how they’re part of the problem. When it gets pretty bleak, I find myself wondering if they do see it – they just don’t care. Because they don’t have to. They don’t live under the constant threat, not of real violence, but of the total disregard for your welfare or safety. And they don’t care that their behaviour drives women out of the spaces they inhabit. Some of them see it as a bonus.

I applaud the people who have been fighting in this latest round of the Assange discussion. I haven’t got the spoons to bang my head against that brick wall this time, hoping a few more flakes will shake loose.