When activism becomes what it shouldn’t…

I want to talk about something that will poke a lot of my fellow seminary students, and maybe even quite a few people in the various social media outlets I’m on. There are a lot of posts about privilege and oppression out there. I agree, quite strongly, that these are important subjects and that people should learn about their various areas of privilege or lack of privilege in their own lives. But some of the ways that liberal/progressive (and primarily academic) culture makes me wonder if we’re doing more harm than good for those who are actually trying to learn.

Here’s something from a blogger names Hannah Wilder (emphasis mine):

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on. This is what I consider The Unicorn Ally phenomenon. […] The effect of these demands, for me at least, is to make me less likely to say, well, much of anything, except a) to correct other people who are clearly even more wrong than me, or b) on issues where I have direct experience of oppression.

This is something I see all the time. It’s happened to me on many occasions where I’ve said something that wasn’t correct or unintentionally stupid, and the reaction from the Activist was basically: “Sit down and shut up you vile oppressive idiot!” Usually followed by being ignored or even physically shunned. I’ve seen female instructors do this in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to the white males in their classes, cis or trans. Basically not “bothering” to call on them in class, even if they have powerful stories to tell. Most of these are men who are actively trying to learn about their role in patriarchy and how to change it. I’ve seen it happen in many groups where there’s the attitude of “Well, you’re not a Real Activist for X because you’re not Y.”

But there’s a difference between someone making an honest mistake and someone being intentionally hurtful or ignorant. For example, in the years since I’ve met and married my wife, who is transgender, I have made plenty of mistakes. Some that were hurtful to her, even though I didn’t realize it until she pointed it out to me. These were difficult conversations for us, but I learned. She didn’t yell at me, or shout “check your privilege!” at me, but she also didn’t hold back on the realities of the harm that what I said (or done) had caused. This also made me want to read more about the realities of the lives of transgender people on my own, which I have done. It has led me to do activism around gender in the Pagan community so that the Pagan community is a better place for my wife and others like her.

I have learned to be better because I have had people in my life who have been willing to educate me on this, and racism, and other forms of oppression and marginality. Do I always get it right? Do I always say the right things? That would be impossible: I’m a fallible human. But I didn’t learn anything from anyone who has immediately shut me down and told me to shut up.

And yes, there are those who are intentionally malicious and hurtful, or those who continue to hold bigoted beliefs even though they have been shown much evidence that their beliefs are wrong and harmful. Some people just can’t be talked to, and some people are just idiots (liked comment trolls…yikes…). I think, for these folks, it depends on whether you want to waste your time and energy beating your head against a brick wall.

Someone who is asking why something is hurtful and trying to understand a group that they just don’t have any experience in, however, is taking the leap to be better than who they are. They want to do the right thing and are trying to navigate a terminology and language they don’t understand that well. Their brains are being broken because they are seeing, sometimes for the first time, the system as it really IS and how they’ve perpetuated a broken and evil system. It’s new, internally icky, and hard. Being told to Google it or go read bell hooks when one’s brain is broken is like being told to knit a sweater in 5 days when you can’t even cast the yarn onto the needles. The average person is more likely to give up rather than learn how to knit and purl.

This doesn’t mean that the anger of being asked questions all the time, and about being the “token” marginalized person in groups isn’t a real thing. Hell, I get tired of it being one of the few Wiccans at a Christian seminary. Some days I just want to say “Oh, just go read the Witches’ Bible and go away!” But, I’m willing to be a person someone can ask questions of and get an honest answer from. It is something I have the will and energy to do.

The biggest thing to remember, I think, is that not everyone has the will or the energy to be all things to all people. An Ally may only have the will and energy to educate themselves and not be a jerk to other people in a particular community. The Activist may be in a place where they just don’t want to answer one more damn question about their marginality. And some people just want to live their lives in peace. Respect goes both ways here. Respect from the Seeker that the person they ask the questions of may not want to answer them, and may possibly refer them to other people and sources. Respect from the Activist to recognize that the Seeker is not being malicious and hurtful, but is honestly trying to understand. There’s a difference for the Seeker between being told “I’m sorry, but I can’t answer that for you now.” and “Go read a fucking book!” The first can be understood, the second drives people away. And for some people, it’s a matter of saying “Hey! What you said is not ok, and here’s why.” Sometimes, that’s all it takes for someone to get it.

And this leads me to community. We are not alone on this planet, and while some people may not have the will and energy to answer a Seeker’s questions, there are others out there who will. There are certain topics I just can’t talk about in a way that will do it justice, but I do know people who are willing and able to talk to people about their marginality in order to educate people. I will refer Seekers to the appropriate people who I know will be honest with them and not sugarcoat their answers, but also show compassion to the Seeker.

As a wise pastor once told me, “even the margins have margins…” and sometimes all we know how to do is to act like the oppressor because we don’t know anything else. We all know that this is a model that doesn’t work, so why, when we know about our privileges and oppressions, do we think that emulating a broken system will change it? I’d rather assume a more compassionate system and pray that it’ll work, even if I make mistakes.


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