School's Out: Family Matters: Lessons from Reconciling Radical Politics with Not-So-Radical Loved Ones

This post is about exclusion and the ethics of disagreement. Not exclusion by a dominant society of marginalized populations, but rather the selective practices of alliance and exclusion in anti-oppressive political circles. The theme I want to use to think through these questions is one of maintaining family ties (chosen family, birth family, or otherwise). I wonder if the idea of "unconditional care" (not to say this is the actual experience of all or many families!) or the practice of making a distinction between thinking critically and being critical/making ethical judgments versus being judgmental might help to foster an ethics of disagreement within social justice communities prone to being divided by political differences. I'm thinking of examples from school-based groups, to civic community organizations, to online commenter communities like the ever-changing group drawn into conversation by Bitch.

In my last post, touching on males and feminism, there was a great comment conversation thread that highlighted another issue with which I am perennially concerned: getting down on people, maybe even dismissing them entirely, for not being radical enough or feminist enough or otherwise politicized in "the right way." I've had a number of tremendously disheartening experiences confronting the irony of this take-down culture (thanks to Shira Tarrant's interview with the F Word for introducing me to this term!) among the student-led queer groups at my university. You know what these experiences always made me wonder? If other students at the university—who are already privileged by a post-secondary or graduate education spent thinking and reading about queer and feminist politics in immense detail—aren't doing their politics radically enough for the satisfaction of these young radicals, then what do these young radicals do about their families? Or old friends? Or the people for whose emancipation they are agitating, but whose oppression means that they may not have the time or resources to think in such a nuanced, high-theory, complicated way about the politics of their own situation? How do people who get furious with other feminists, activists, academics, etc. navigate their social and familial relations who aren't even on the same page about the need for social change?

And questions like these aren't just for the self-appointed gatekeepers of "the right politics." When experiences and/or education radicalize us in particular ways, couldn't any of us find ourselves struggling with how to maintain our political commitments, while still, say, having Thanksgiving dinner with our racist grandma? While still respecting our heterosexist father who is "fine with your being that way" but introduces our gay lover as a friend? While still loving our best friend who doesn't think that sexism isn't that big a deal in North America anymore?

On the topic of language such as "feminist ally" or "queer ally," one commenter who goes by the handle Margarite Von Diter offered an excellent reply to my previous post: "I want to try to better inform myself as to what [terms like "ally"] might mean to others [but] it makes me a bit sad that we are at such a loss for proper language in these situations that even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. (I can't even begin to get into the awkwardness I have, as a White person, trying to discuss race respectfully. Every option seems as inappropriate as another.) Language is a reflection of our culture and values. When we don't even have appropriate language for discussion it further illustrates the extent of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc."

It completely gets me down, too, when, as this commenter describes, even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. I agree that simply claiming good intentions never excuses oppressive attitudes and behaviors, but I'm not really interested in the concept of "excusing," "giving a pass for," or being "right" in one's politics to begin with. I'm more interested in how we can model a politics of friendship and an ethics of disagreement (to use a favorite phrase of my friend Mohamed's), for younger generations of feminists and others with social justice agendas. Even the concepts of "inclusion" and "tolerance" currently popular in curricula dealing with the homophobic bullying of youth can often incite us fall back on simplistic centre/periphery models and binarizing notions of "us" and "them." I'm interested in what it would mean to take our commitments to radical democracy and solidarity seriously in our personal lives and in our politically charged interactions with other activists, thinkers, and organizers. I would love to see more discussions that acknowledge the problems of, for instance, what it does to claim the term "queer ally" or "feminist ally" for oneself without anger, without writing off differing opinions, and without cutting out controversial voices from the debate.

I'm not arguing that righteous anger can't sometimes be productive, nor am I advocating that we tolerate intolerance or give up hate speech protections. I only mean to suggest that we periodically renew our attention to practicing a kindness, a generosity of spirit toward others. Such attention works in the interest of building more expansive and effective coalitions and solidarities—coalitions and solidarities that thoroughly interweave through our families, friends, co-organizers, and others.

Previously: What *Does* A Feminist Look Like? Teaching Boys About Feminism, Activist Quandaries and the Benefit of the Doubt

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Comments

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shaming, exclusion, etc.

these are such important questions to ask and i definitely feel a lot of frustration and anger with "take down culture" (i've also heard this referred to as "call out culture") and really don't feel like it's the most productive way of engaging in a dialogue. i actually feel like this kind of self-righteous shaming of those who are deemed "less radical" (hello? we all have knowledge and opportunities for learning in different areas) can create such a hostile environment that otherwise sympathetic people just shut down altogether.

my only other comment about this article is that i found this really difficult to read because of the academic language it is couched in. i've got a university background but just feel SO much resistance to reading critiques that aren't accessible. i'm not saying you should "dumb down" your writing - just that i think it's important when talking about exclusion, as you put it, to consider how tone, vocabulary, etc. can also operate to exclude folks.

thanks again for raising these important questions!

Thanks for these comments,

Thanks for these comments, kpee! "Call out culture" - that's a good one. I get a little thrill every time I hear a complex concept condensed (but not reduced) into a manageable phrase. I suppose this relates, too, to your suggestion about language. Point taken, for sure, and it's not the first time I've heard it. I find that I fall prey to clunky language for subjects I'm trying to really explore and grapple with, but for which I don't have a lot of pre-packaged concepts or about which I haven't yet read much or talked about much. (I suspect that certain patterns of thinking/speaking/writing are idiosyncrasies of mine, too - my mum says my first word was "oviparous." She claims I was referring to octopi, but I'm pretty sure she's lying about the whole thing). I often wonder about what accessible language means with regard to nuanced political concepts. I'm in favour of rich, varied, and specific language, that asks people to make new connections and learn new meanings, but at the same time, language fails if it doesn't communicate. Anyhow, I will continue striving to express myself in words that would resonate with every reader, and I appreciate and take seriously reminders to keep trying!

@kpee -- You raise a point

@kpee -- You raise a point I've been pondering recently. Gender binary, slut-shaming, gaslighting, microaggressions, fat acceptance. These are all terms I've seen commonly used in academic and feminist circles, and they're very helpful at condensing complex concepts into manageable phrases (to borrow Sharday Mosurinjohn's words -- I love that explanation). I believe that's why they're used. Instead of having to write 20 words to explain a pattern or belief, in order to be able to then discuss the pattern/belief itself, we can use 1 or 2 and words to identify the pattern and then get on with the larger issue.

These terms also give us greater power in being able to express ourselves. Ironically, I thought Sharday Mosurinjohn's comment about not having sufficient or clear language was in itself succinctly identifying the problem:

I find that I fall prey to clunky language for subjects I'm trying to really explore and grapple with, but for which I don't have a lot of pre-packaged concepts or about which I haven't yet read much or talked about much.

That is the problem I often face. There are times when I can clearly see a particular behavior is wrong or biased, but the issue is so large or abstract that I can't adequately communicate why and how. Frequently this means the aggressor/oppressor/privileged gleefully dismisses my argument as unfounded. Resulting in making me feel even more angry and upset at the irony of the injustice. So I gratefully cling to these new terms because I feel they give me powerful tools.

However, getting back to your point -- I sometimes worry that in using these terms I may be alienating or intimidating others who are not familiar with them, but could benefit from hearing the message. I worry that all they hear are meaningless buzz words and they tune out, either out of confusion or dismissal. Then I've done the opposite of what I've intended: shut down communication instead of encouraging it.

It's a difficult balance, largely because these are complex and difficult topics for which we've lacked easy simple language. And the new language that is emerging isn't yet widespread -- which in itself is indicative of the problem. Language evolves to suit our needs. If we haven't had language to discuss these issues it's largely because there hasn't been enough discussion in the first place. It's a surreal catch-22 from my standpoint.

my only other comment about

my only other comment about this article is that i found this really difficult to read because of the academic language it is couched in. i've got a university background but just feel SO much resistance to reading critiques that aren't accessible.

I forgot to add that I can completely relate. I often find myself having to re-read a paragraph 2 or 3 times to try to parcel out the meaning because the language or phrasing is unfamiliar to me. Or because the flow is far more academic than conversational. (Not just here, but anywhere there is an essay on feminist or social issues.)

I think to myself, I'm having to really grind and work to comprehend the writing, and I'm actively interested in these topics... what about the people currently perpetuating privilege differences or sexism? I doubt they'll stay past the first paragraph. Which means the people most in need of the message (least socially or personally conscious) are least likely to get it. So where does that leave us?

My current answer is to think in terms of ambassadors and advocates. The people writing these articles and essays are like the ambassadors to the knowledge. They provide insight and awareness to people like myself who are directly interested. Then readers (like you and I) can serve as advocates in daily casual interactions, perhaps expressing these issues in a sort of shorthand that might be accessible to others.

That's more than I intended to write. I haven't yet found away to distill that into something simpler. Just some 2cents to throw out there.

Margarite Von Diter,

Margarite Von Diter, sometimes I think you're in my head! And then I see wonderful phrases like "ambassadors and advocates" and I know you must be in a better place than my head, because your comments offer such clarity. Your idea of knowledge-sharing, which mirrors your image of process in your comment below, really makes sense to me. I think this concept offers a way to make sense of all of our necessarily different positions in common struggles. Not everyone can be everything when it comes to research creation and knowledge sharing. Sometimes our strengths in one area translate into weaknesses in other areas, but it takes all kinds. And in a democracy, we want to affirm the value of all kinds.

Also - microaggressions! Amazing new term I'm adding to my stockpile. And what is gaslighting??

I popped back in this thread

I popped back in this thread to link to it in another post, and just noticed your reply now. Thanks so much for the nice sentiments. And seriously, ditto! Right back atchya. It's always a joy when I stumble on someone else who helps me better understand issues or clarify my own feelings. And I appreciate hearing that my ramblings also offer some clarity to someone else. :)

To answer your question -- Microaggressions is a term I recently learned and quickly adopted because it so perfectly sums up the experience of daily biases that get dismissed as "irrelevant" or "over sensitive," but actually contribute to the greater issue of sexism, racism, etc. You may be interested in the Microaggressions Project (another link I recently found).

Gaslighting is another one I hadn't previously been familiar with. But as soon as I learned about it I had a "lightbulb" moment, recalling all the times I've been gaslighted and the anxiety it produced. (Also: Ingrid Bergman. Awesome ;) ) There's an article in Psychology Today that discusses it in the context of daily interactions.

I've been bookmarking these things as I find them, in a "feminism" folder, to help me in discussions or debates on the subject of feminism or sexism. Or simply to help me understand the issues and the language surrounding them. Hope that helps.

I would love to know tips

I would love to know tips around navigating one's personal politics and having dinnertime conversations with family. Much of my life right now revolves around peer support, politics, and trans* advocacy. I'm into radical feminism but have no idea how to have respectful discussions with my family around politics when they come up because they put down my opinion. Written into these discussions is a lot of ignorance around other cultures and in particular, trans* identity. Practicing my active listening skills only gets me so far, you know?
Maybe it will "get better" after I move out? (Dan Savage has made that such a loaded phrase.)

I'm not sure if these will

I'm not sure if these will ring true for you, Leon, but a few strategies that have helped me in dealing with family have been:

1.) To ask questions as a way to forestall prejudicial ranting that doesn't invite discussion. So, one issue that seems to keep coming up with a certain family member are horrific stereotypes about Indigenous people, and totally misinformed ideas that the government needs to stop "helping" them because we're all equal now and they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I ask this person
where her information comes from and I try to use what historical knowledge of settler colonialism and empire I have to put things in context. I use a technique I stole from my social worker best friend and I say "it's so interesting that you say this - are there experiences you've had that make you feel this way?" etc. Finding a common ground for discussion sometimes takes more conceding than I find conscionable, but sometimes it works.
2.) I look for the ways that they allow stereotypes to define themselves in their lives, too. I'm thinking, for instance, of many older couples I've observed in a certain family context whose humour is almost entirely based on gender-based insults to each other and modes of self-deprecation. This gives me a little perspective, to understand that, as Miranda says in her posts linked below, in (I hope most cases...) what lies at the heart of prejudice is not pure evil so much as ignorance. And also, having been hurt by many of the same cultural norms and systems in which they're now so eager to participate. Thandie Newton, of all people, gave a beautiful TED talk on this subject that gives me temporary relief every time I watch it.

Usually the people in question end the conversation by trying to change the subject, leaving the room, or saying "we can agree to disagree" - which maddens me, but on my better days, I

3.) view each instance as just one phase of my subversive little project to reduce hate.Although a lot of people have said "just ignore the haters," I would feel like I was only doing very selective work if I didn't consistently address discrimination in my personal contexts. I think I would feel as though I was undermining my own belief that activism doesn't just mean talking to those who are already open to it. I'm sure my brand of dinner table shit-disturbing isn't available to everyone, but it's part of what I've tried in my life so far.

And if you haven't already, check out Miranda's awesome links below!

ethics and 'others'

I love this post. I think our ethical behaviour is put to the test when we are confronted by those who disagree with us. However that is the time when it is most necessary. People need space to change, they need to feel like they have a choice and freedom to explore when they are unsure.

There is definitely a huge

There is definitely a huge difference between call-out culture online and in face-to-face interactions. I think that, in most cases, call-out culture is virtually non-existent or at least a lot more docile in "real life." Calling out people for their "wrong" or not-radical-enough view points is so easy in anonymous, virtual environments, but when it's a lot harder to confront people about these things in person.

Not to self-promote, but I wrote a series in my blog about calling people out who are in your family (http://mean-bones.blogspot.com/2011/09/thats-racist-how-to-respond-to.html) and people that you are fiends with (http://mean-bones.blogspot.com/2011/09/thats-racist-friends-are-family-t...). It's not as academic and more light-hearted than this post, but it answers some of the same questions. I think that in most cases, the way you call out someone is the most progressive and useful tool, because if you choose to harass someone for their beliefs, that person will shut down and refuse to change his/her way of thinking.

There's so much in this post,

There's so much in this post, and the comments, to digest. I feel I haven't gotten my head around it sufficiently to express my thoughts on it. But I wanted to quickly pop in to say thanks to Miranda R for sharing those links to your blog. I went through and read some of the other posts too.

Thanks for sharing these,

Thanks for sharing these, Miranda! Your posts conjure up images of so many family gatherings...

Originally when I read your first paragraph, I thought about how the bullying I've experienced through campus organizing wasn't virtual, but then I realized it actually was. The thing was, every attack was launched through email or facebook and then when I or whomever else was involved asked for a discussion and a face-to-face meeting, we were met with answers like "it's not the job of the oppressed to educate you" (but yet they'd say that embodied knowledge is important, so I wonder how else do we get access to each others' knowledges?) or we'd meet and it would be stilted, awkward, and mostly succeed in skirting the issues ("apologies only make you feel better" one organization of which I was a part was once told when we followed up on a complaint about community accountability).

I came to think of the bullies' interventions and my responses as "dead letters." They would just sit in cyberspace, provokingly, while various parties would stew at home, privately.

It was a big lesson about the sensitive nature of the call out! (But my new-found understanding didn't help when the bullies claimed that facebook letter writing was a fair option to stick with because maybe they didn't feel comfortable having face-to-face interactions with other members of the community).

As someone often accused of

As someone often accused of being too critical, I am very interested to see how this works in practice. How do we respect each others' differing opinions while still holding each other accountable? How do we do this without falling into cultural relativism or losing sight of the dynamics of oppression? I've been told that the way I say things is often too "hard to hear" for people so they aren't interested in the message; but it's my experience that this stuff is never easy to hear, and a lot of responsibility is on those of us with more privilege to make sure we are listening with all our might. I want to find new ways to discuss issues around feminism and anti-oppression work with people who aren't so well-versed (IMO) in this stuff, but I'm not interested in softening my point to save the feelings of someone who is only looking for a pat on the back because gosh-golly they sure had good intentions. Where is the line here? At what point is it no longer about communication but instead just oppression dynamics playing out on an individual scale?

jp, you said it perfectly.

jp, you said it perfectly. Every question here is part of the labyrinthine process of trying to reconcile so many inconsistencies and trying to avoid hypocrisies...
There seem to be plenty of people who, far from hoping for a pat on the back for good intentions, appear to be actively and self-consciously doing obscenely unethical, oppressive things. How do we say "yes, radical democracy, every voice matters, let's have dialogue" when there are people who flat out reject the idea that there's anything that needs to be done? (I met someone the other day who said he didn't believe in sexism or racism, that there was such a thing as normal, and if anyone was so concerned about it, then they should just tell normal to fuck off. I don't know if I was successful in explaining why not everyone can just choose to cut themselves off from their environment in this way.) Or worse yet, what about people who reject anti-oppressive work not just out of complacent apathy but because they want to maintain the unjust relations that benefit them? And what about the many such folks around the world who are, because of these asymmetrical power relations, fairly well untouchable by community, legal, or other sanctions? (Transnational megacorporations, I'm looking at you...)

I mean this with zero irony, this is one formulation of the question that plagues me constantly. When so many people can't be bothered to give a damn, when some of those who do also have lots of their own pet prejudices, and when even the activists fall prey to infighting, what is the point? I keep asking myself...

What is the point?

I think it's common to get to a place where it feels like "what is the point?" For me, I think that the point is the process -- because the issues are too big and too widespread for any one person (or even one group) to resolve completely in the present. But by questioning our own actions, examining ourselves for biases, and attempting to avoid hypocrisy we better ourselves. And that gets us, the human race, a step closer to the goal of equality and acceptance we hope for.

I see it as more about evolution. Evolution is a slow process, it occurs gradually over generations. Sometimes we get jump starts (suffrage, marriage rights for gays), but the microaggressions are still there regardless of legal changes because you can't police how people think. So in the big picture it's the long slow road of evolving instead of eradicating.

Activism can be part of the process. Though activism can take place in many forms. In the worst case, even bettering how we treat others and striving to be a better example of humanity adds to the end goal. Leading by example. When we can't affect change on others, sometimes that's all we can do, but it does matter.