Laurie and I generally stay away from discussions about activism theory, sexism in interactions, and many other topics that engage us both, because this is primarily a body image and photography blog, and it’s stronger to focus on our own topics.
Every once in a while, something comes along that’s outside of our central themes, but also too good not to share. In this case, through the kind offices of Angus Johnston writing at Student Activism, Cole (who is 25) brilliantly takes down some of the common complaints of the white male progressive movement of our time. You won’t need much background, but if you want to delve deeper, the specific posts Cole (and Johnston) are responding to are here and here and are by Frederik deBoer.
Most of my post is Cole’s words:
It is completely bizarre to me to see all this concern about people being driven away from the left during a moment where we are seeing one of the largest and most sustained social movements in recent history. How can we have a conversation about the State of the Left without taking into context the Black Lives Matter movement? It is especially bizarre given that queer black women who helped lay the backbone for this movement embody the kind of unapolegtic radicalism that deBoer and friends take issue with. Like you all gotta understand how silly it looks to see a white dude talking about how the left is too mean and driving people away when in the middle of winter in Boston we are still having 1000+ people marches around Black Lives Matter. I frankly don’t even know how to process it.
She actually knows, I’m sure, that deBoer doesn’t consider #BlackLivesMatter the “real left,” because it’s not about him, and that’s the part he can’t tolerate. But she’s being kind.
it also is confusing given the scale of the problem. I can’t really say anything publicly, online or in organizing spaces without risking at least threats of violence and attacks. A simple request for men to be please be more aware of talking over women can easily escalate to male leftists screaming in my face and threatening to rape me. Fuck, I have even been shoved in meetings before. And then this has escalated into other forms of violence.
I find it particularly notable that deBoer says “I’m not censored or harassed or bullied. I’m just criticized,” without noting that this is not true of women or people of color on the left, though unless he’s been living under a progressive rock, he must at least be aware of the tribulations of women involved in Gamergate. And Cole herself is remaining semi-anonymous because she has recently been doxxed, something else that isn’t happening to deBoer.
Cole also incisively addresses class issues:
The idea that PC language is inaccessible to working class people needs to die in a fire. I’m poor, but I ain’t stupid and being poor doesn’t mean I’m more cruel than the cultured academic. If someone tells me that using a certain word hurts them, I stop. I’m perfectly capable of understanding the ideology behind various types of language uses — because in case you didn’t realize this, a lot of this ideology came out of working class movements. Academics chiding each other over inaccessible language has to be one of the most patronizing and belittling things I have experienced in my own organizing.
Beyond the fact that assuming poor people can’t understand this is bullshit, it is also a way for academics to not hold themselves accountable for shitty institutions they are involved in. Like you know what barriers I as a working class organizer actually face? Its not language or callouts — believe me, my family is old school Italian, I can handle people yelling. It’s the fact that for all paid organizer positions, you need a higher degree. It’s that for my org to get money, I need to navigate a grant system that is hostile to young, grassroots organizations and that requires a certain kind of language and presentation. It’s that feeing when you show up to a coalition meeting and you are the only one not dressed in business casual.
And she tackles the “each one teach one,” “be patient with us” philosophy of the privileged:
… let’s use one of deBoer’s examples — say this dude shows up to a meeting and claims there are innate gender differences. Okay, so what next? I could spend time, resources and energy educating him but there is no guarantee he’ll listen or how long it will take to get him up to speed and due to past experience, I know this could likely end in violence for me. But let’s say I take this task on. I would first have to figure out the best way to teach him, I would have to research and present materials, maybe I would have to dedicate whole meetings to this project — and if we are being honest, this project could take months to years. And at the end of it, there is still no guarantee he would accept leftist views on gender or that he would then be interested in long term organizing. How exactly is that a good movement-building strategy?
Or let’s say we don’t say anything and just let him organize with us. I’ve been in groups like this and I’ll tell you what happens. Over time, women will leave. Some will leave yelling and screaming and trying to draw attention to the issue while others will leave so quietly that no one notices. And before you know it, your organization has lost membership of people already on board with your message for someone who holds shitty beliefs, all for the sake of movement-building.
There’s even more, and all of it is as good as what I’ve quoted. Read it, think about it, bring it to your next activist project (or your classroom, or your nonprofit board meeting, or whatever you might happen to do with your energy to help change the world).
Thanks to Rich Dutcher for the pointer, and Angus Johnston for pulling Cole’s screed out of his comment thread. But most importantly, Cole, thank you.