It’s Not About Cake

Let’s put down the sheet cake, turn off the TV, take a deep breath and look in the mirror.

I’m talking to you, my sisters, the white, straight, middle/upper-class women who say that women and men should be equally valued in our world.  I’m talking to you, women who laugh at jokes that hurt our black and brown and poor and disabled and trans sisters EVEN WHEN WE KNOW THEY’RE HURTING.  I’m talking to you, my mystified fellow-travelers who can’t understand why no one except us wants to label herself “feminist” or join in our struggle for liberation.  Ever since women like us beat and starved enslaved black women to punish them for submitting to the rape of their white masters, we have allied ourselves with our oppressors in order to maintain our ascendancy over every group except white men.  Ever since women first allowed men to divide us against each other—white against black, rich against poor, virgin against slut, mother against worker, queer against straight, cis against trans—we “white feminists” have sided with the powerful against the powerless, with our own interests at heart. It has to stop.

Many of us wear the “feminist” label with pride, thinking of the long battles fought to secure not only women’s suffrage, but the access to education, jobs, status, political power and wealth that followed.  It’s time to look hard at that self-satisfied history and recognize how many women those battles simply ignored, dismissed or threw under the bus. Where were we when black women were turned away from the polls even after they were legally allowed to vote? Where were we when lesbian women were forced into conversion therapy or single mothers were banned from housing and employment? Where are we today when trans women are slaughtered in the streets, our infant mortality rate rivals that of a third-world country and Indigenous American women face intimate partner violence at a rate twice that of any other racial group?

We don’t lose any of our privilege by recognizing how it harms others. We don’t become less safe by acknowledging our sisters’ right to be safe too.  Our cultural and political gains don’t evaporate when we admit that in striving to share power with our oppressors we have become toxically oppressive ourselves.  What are we so afraid of?  Losing our place in a cultural hierarchy that we already proclaim is fundamentally flawed? Risking the disapproval of men? Exposing ourselves to the judgement of the sisters our (white, rich, straight) women’s movement cast aside? We can take it!  We are the women with the least to lose from speaking out.  We have nothing to lose but our fragility, our blindness and our fear.

These words aren’t directed to everyone.  I’m speaking to you if:

  • You advocate abortion on demand but you remain silent about the need for universal access to free, accessible, non-toxic contraception and pre-natal care including housing, food, education and comprehensive post-partum support.
  • You bemoan street violence but have nothing to say against mass incarceration, lead poisoning, community trauma or police brutality.
  • You gripe that you only make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes but you accept that black women only make 64 cents on that dollar and hispanic women only 54.
  • You want more women in corporate board rooms and political bodies but you aren’t demanding that schools in low-income neighborhoods get the additional resources they need to counteract the effects of poverty on their students’ learning.
  • You talk about the need for unity between women but you ignore the fact that marginalized women don’t feel welcome in your activism/organizing spaces, and you avoid activism/organizing spaces that don’t prioritize people that look and think and live and feel like you do.

If this is you, it’s critical to take a look at who we are and what we’re doing.  Since  Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, we’ve had a name for what we already know: that oppression in just one area (race, gender, class, ability, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) is a radically different experience from oppression in two or more areas simultaneously.  Black women—oppressed for being women at the same time they’re oppressed for being black—have to struggle not only with the practicalities of each, but with the fact that all forms of oppression reinforce each other.  A black woman faces active obstacles to her well-being from white men, white women and black men, as well as the institutions and systems which protect each of them at her expense.  The exponential, cumulative harm done to women enduring more complex oppressive experiences is beyond calculation.

The stereotypical white feminist has no oppressor save white men—and can often neutralize some aspects of that oppression thanks to class factors like education and wealth. Patriarchy doesn’t scare us in the same way as it would if we were poor or brown or queer, because we are confident that our class and race privilege will protect us. It does, too, which is why fewer of us are killed by our partners, fired illegally, misdiagnosed at the doctor’s office and silenced in courts of law.

Patriarchy has exacted a price from us, too.  We’re socialized to believe that our power lies in manipulating and controlling men—to keep them from using their dominant position to hurt us.  We’re told from birth that if we aren’t nice enough, compliant enough, accommodating enough, we will be valueless.  We judge each other mercilessly on our adherence to this propaganda, competing for an artificially-constructed prize that boils down to a trophy for doing what we’re told.  We all know this feeling, right? Thanks to the progress of women’s liberation in the last century, the daughters of the white feminist movement have unlimited access to information and education. We have the brains to do something with it once we have it.  But we end up placating the patriarchy instead, establishing ourselves triumphantly in perpetual second place and leaving our exhausted, angry, wounded sisters in the dust.

It’s time to repudiate the legacy we represent.  It’s time to acknowledge and correct the core injustices born when white women embraced oppression as a stepping stone to sharing white male power, shutting their sisters out.  It’s time to stop believing only the narratives that make us feel good about ourselves, and start listening to AND BELIEVING those whose experiences of life outside our bubble are uncomfortably real and raw. Feminism to date has been overwhelmingly focused on getting white men to share their power with us.  Instead, let’s learn from our sisters who have spent lifetimes fighting and dreaming and writing and singing and marching for a a world where oppression has no place.  Their vision is more beautiful than ours. Their courage is more tested, their tactics are more proven. All we have to do is open our eyes and see.

It’s not going to happen overnight.  We’re creatures of habit, and our most shameful habits are the hardest to break. But we must start—today—to tear down our narrow, grasping activism and replace it with a vision that embraces not only all women, but all men. We must own that our so-called power today is nothing but a sop thrown to us by men who realize that we are impotent as long as we are divided against each other.  We must listen to, embrace, and learn from the criticism of those that we have harmed, or there can be no progress together.  We have to see how we have used our own oppression to intensify the oppression of others, and correct our course. The only way to heal the wounds that divide us from each other is to fling ourselves into the work of building trust and community where today there is bitterness and doubt.  We have to do it ourselves, not wait for our rejected sisters to approach us or do the work for us. We can use our collective power to unlock self-determination for every woman instead of settling for crumbs from the patriarchal table. It’s okay if it’s scary; it’s okay if our feelings get hurt. We’ll learn from it, we’ll deepen our reserves of strength and generosity and truthtelling, and we’ll emerge as strong, brave indomitable warriors. As long as any woman is chained by oppression, we are all trapped in the same patriarchal shadow. Let’s open our eyes and start setting each other free.

Calling Out and Calling In

The most painful critique I’ve seen so far of white people trying to get involved in anti-racism work is that we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Much like the other highly-competitive aspects of white culture from working to mating, we enter the realm of social justice looking for our own glorification. We seek gratitude for actions that are long-overdue and not especially helpful.  We demand leadership roles and recognition despite our ignorance of the realities of life outside our bubble. We expect our activism to be emotionally easy; after all, heroes aren’t supposed to experience struggle, doubt, failure, challenge, or rejection.  Most damning of all, we turn our backs on the very people we claim we want to help as soon as they express emotions we don’t like: anger, disappointment, skepticism, betrayal.  I see the justification for these criticisms every time I look in the mirror.  After nearly half a century of living in this country as a white person, it’s no surprise. But what’s to be done? How are we to disengage from our roles as oppressors long enough to truly hear what’s needed from us?  I think there are two pieces to the answer: changing how we respond to criticism and changing what we ask of each other as white anti-racists.

When I speak and act like an oppressor despite my best intentions, I have to change my response to being called out.  This isn’t easy.  My whole life I’ve been taught that merely intending not to be harmful is enough to protect me from accountability for the harm I do.  “I didn’t mean to,” is a magic mantra, perpetuating the illusion that harm is somehow not harmful unless it’s driven by personal malice. In conversations with men about feminism I use the analogy of a dude backing out of a driveway and running over a pedestrian he didn’t see.  Does “I didn’t mean to,” stop the bleeding? Even if the driver stops the car and gets the victim to a hospital and there’s full recovery, is that the same as if the damage was never done? We white people–whose privilege enables us to inflict serious harm with no consequences–have got to start realizing that we’re at the wheel of a dangerous vehicle every time we open our mouths. If we’re serious about reversing racism in our culture, we must first acknowledge our failure so far. If our ideas about annihilating racism were correct, racism would already be defunct. Since it’s not, our first and biggest step must be acknowledging that the knowledge and expertise we need is not our own (which has failed), but that of the people most harmed by the structures we’ve erected to protect our privilege.  That’s what we’re being called out to do.  As long as we insist that the crumpled bodies and lives in the wake of structural racism are less real than the self-congratulatory delusions of those (us) who benefit from the crumpling, we are legitimate targets for bitterness, frustration and rage. We can’t begin to earn credibility as fellow travelers toward justice until we acknowledge that our preferred worldview is as false as a flat earth, and start listening respectfully to the people who have known all along what is happening and why.

Once we embrace our new role as students of reality rather than students of our own comfort, it becomes immediately clear that we need to talk to each other in a different way, which opens up a whole new can of worms.  The task of engaging oppressors in dismantling oppression is not an easy one. White people, like any dominant group, rarely welcome the idea of giving up their privilege. Not only must we relinquish the beloved fictions that we’ve been fed under the guise of history, but we must face the brutal fact that racial injustice has been inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture since slaves first set foot in Jamestown 398 years ago. We have to recognize that there is no other factor as powerful as race in American inequality, and then take a long, hard look at the collusion in blindness that made that happen.  Conversations between white people on these subjects are laced with anger, fear and denial—all signs that they’re getting very close to a nerve.  How can we speak and listen to each other in a way that derails anger, fear and denial and promotes insight, curiosity and change?

One method is replacing “calling out” with “calling in.” Instead of pouncing on each other when we blunder into racist habits, what if we invite each other to deeper inquiry? Instead of labeling each other as “racist,” what if we ask each other “How do you think you could take your analysis a step deeper?” Instead of competing with each other to see who is more “woke,” what if we serve each other as rearview mirrors to show each other what damage we’re doing or about to do?  This takes a different kind of discourse than typical political argument.  On the one hand, it refrains completely from personal judgement. No one gets called names or attacked.  On the other hand, it requires a kind of quiet, intractable persistence that challenges our expectations of how conversations are supposed to go.  To call each other in to deeper analysis, we have to get good at listening to what people actually say.  Then we have to formulate meaningful, provocative, open-ended questions that allow for nonjudgemental exploration.  We have to trust that people are capable of figuring things out for themselves. We have to remember that the goal is not to win an argument but to create uncertainty and openness in place of entrenched and unexamined opinions. For me this means biting my tongue sometimes; I bless the people who bite their tongue for me.

Being called in isn’t easy, but it is a far less painful experience than being called out. When skillfully done, it propels me directly into learning mode. It reminds me that feedback is incredibly valuable in my journey, particularly when it challenges my assumptions. It frames the caller-in as a collaborator in my growth, not an opponent or a judge. It focuses my energy on potential weaknesses in my thinking rather than the need to defend myself against attack. Being called in reinforces my commitment to dismantling my assumptions. It makes me ready to be called out the next time with a more open mind. Calling someone in reminds me of how far I still have to go with my own racial blind spots. It may inform or deepen my own analysis because of new insights my partner reveals. Because calling in demands vulnerability and openness on both sides, it allows for mutual exploration and growth.

White anti-racism activists love to call each other out, and I’m no exception.  Maybe it feels good to be on the giving rather than the receiving end for a change. We must, however, look further than the immediate rush of catching someone in a microaggression or a glib racist cliche. We must recognize that each of us is a part of the vast cloak of white supremacy that enfolds our society, and we must work together to fling it off.  Calling each other in can be enormously powerful between white people as we come to terms with the magnitude of the work that lies before us.  As we experience the therapeutic discomfort of being called out by those most harmed by our failures, we can call each other in to the ongoing work of transformation.  By holding each other firmly accountable for the things we say and do, by owning our own mistakes and letting others help us explore them, we prepare ourselves to enter the struggle as we truly are, not merely as we’ve imagined ourselves to be.

I’m a White Feminist and I Was Wrong

As I read the flood of attacks on white feminists for ignoring, dismissing or actively sabotaging their sisters of color, I feel all the emotions, starting with a big fat dose of defensive anger.  What about ME, I think? I may be late to the party, I may have made mistakes and been insensitive, but I’m here now, right? Doesn’t that make it okay? I see now, though, how cringeworthy that response is, and how it diminishes the agonizingly real experience of women who suffer more under the iron fist of patriarchy than I ever will. The attacks on me and my white sisters are warranted; we earned them.

I don’t have to like it. I get to feel my feelings, even the ugly ones. But I have to own that I am part of the problem, and—more importantly—find a way to throw myself deeper into the struggle. My feminism must move beyond a simplistic view of myself as the victim, and embrace my dual role as as oppressor and oppressed, with the power to strip others of their freedoms while I reach for my own. This is hard to do.  My brain is still new at this, and I am protected from the truth by layers and layers of buffering privilege. I have no idea how to imagine a truly just world.

If society is simply a mirror of the souls of its citizens, the greatest risk in social revolution is that it will merely re-create the old injustices in a new form.  Today’s struggle within feminism is a clear and depressing example of this; when meaningful numbers of white women take their long-overdue place in the ranks, we immediately establish the old paradigms of white supremacy as our unspoken ground rules. At first we can’t help it.  We don’t know any different, at least until we encounter meaningful critique, which has been swift, widespread and crystal-clear.  When those who fight beside us tell us directly how we are harming them and we make specious rationalizations instead of changing our behavior, we are being racist. It’s as simple as that.

Of course it doesn’t feel simple at all, when I’m the one doing it. It feels like free-falling, panicked, through waves of ugly, vulnerable pain.  It feels like being gut-punched. When I read or hear someone dismissing my efforts to make the world a better place, I bristle.  When I read or hear someone saying those efforts are actively harmful, I start to flail. That’s how deep my privilege is rooted.  Because of the color of my skin, I’m trained to expect nothing but praise and appreciation when I step outside my comfort zone to work for change. I’m not taught that criticism is valuable and necessary.  I’m not taught to evaluate my actions by their impact, rather than my intention. I’m not taught to listen carefully to voices at the receiving end of injustice, particularly that from which I benefit.  Because my education didn’t include these things, I am dangerous rather than useful in this fight, a loose cannon in the arsenal. That has to change.

Change of this kind is a spiritual act, a shifting of the soul into self-alignment. It requires that most radical of thought-experiments, “Let’s assume I’m 100% wrong, and go from there.” Laying down the security of being pre-labeled right about everything by the world in which we walk is scary as hell.  The wall between us and the reality we were born to ignore is built of heavy, sharp-cornered rocks of delusion. We heft them at our peril; there will be blood on our hands before we’re done. The remembered comfort of the status quo drags at us, even at our thoughts.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to go out to dinner and talk about something else? We can, you know.  There is no outward punishment in store for us if we shirk this work.  The cops won’t attack us, we won’t be stigmatized in the mainstream media or stripped of our dignity by employers or colleagues.  We allow others to endure these injustices while we balk at having to change our minds.

There is no greater privilege than to feel safe in having and expressing our emotions. As white women we are pinched between being denied our own authentic self-expression by the patriarchy and denying our sisters of color the right to their anger, their pent-up frustration, their bitterness.  We know the incomparable value of being free to speak our truths to each other; we feel the distance that sexism puts between us and our fathers, sons, lovers and brothers. We must acknowledge that even as we mourn the rifts that separate us from those we love, we are creating those same rifts between ourselves and the women who know more than anyone—more than we do, because they are disadvantaged in other ways that exacerbate it—the price of being female in this world.

It’s not just women of color, either. Mainstream feminism, dominated by white, straight, cisgendered women, routinely marginalizes everyone else.  Women who love other women, women who started out in life looking like boys, women who reject motherhood, women who refuse to seek approval of their appearance, women who prefer lots of partners or no partners at all, women who rejoice in their sexuality—these are all treated with some degree of contempt.    Can we blame these groups, who are targeted so much more brutally for every kind of degradation, for being pissed off at us? I think not. We have failed them, oftentimes at the same moment that they were organizing and fighting to resist the same oppression that we are just noticing today.

So what do we do, white women? Do we let our angry, embittered sisters speak their truth to us and acknowledge that we have been complicit in their oppression even as we sought our freedom? Do we welcome the flame and steel of their words to burn and carve away our blindness so that we can see the world through their eyes?  Do we accept that rage is a legitimate response to the world that our sisters live in, and to our failure to fight on their behalf? Do we understand that the pain we feel at being called out is just a tiny glimpse of the constant pain our culture inflicts on those who don’t conform to the white, cis-gendered heterosexual standard of “human being” in America? Until we do, we can’t engage fully in this struggle.  As long as we fail to acknowledge our role as oppressors in the struggle to end oppression, our power is at best diluted, at worst dangerous.

The spiritual change I mentioned earlier is not easy.  It requires abandoning our sense of entitlement: to be right, to be respected, to lead.  It requires letting discomfort, embarrassment and shame be part of our emotional repertoire, to be processed and released without defensiveness. It requires opening our ears to new voices that may not speak in ways we like or understand very well, and it requires believing them. We’ll have to learn a whole new language, from naming our emotions to labeling our own actions and the power structures in which we are defined as oppressors. We’ll have to seek out new information even when we know it’ll be painful. It may take a new kind of self-care to nourish ourselves during this process. We may need more time alone, more sleep, more prayer or meditation, more time with trusted friends and mentors. It’s worth it, though.  This work is critical to the final vision of the world we’re fighting for. It’s the backbone of the struggle to dismantle injustice instead of rearrange it.  We don’t need to be comfortable.  We don’t need to be applauded.  We are tough enough to let people be angry at us and work beside them anyway, learning from their criticism how best to proceed.  It is up to us to buckle down for the long haul, to step up to bear burdens because of our privilege rather than avoid them.  So far we’ve failed to earn the respect of those who have been fighting for centuries without our help. It’s time to earn it now.

Putting the Teeth in the Tiger

As the river of toxic spew from Washington DC grows deeper and wider by the day, so does the frothy scum of hand-wringing outrage from white liberal progressives. We lash ourselves into a sweaty ecstasy of sound and fury, from which we emerge exhausted and despairing, only to re-boot the cycle with the next headline, the next revelation of just how far the world is from how it ought to be.

While understandable, our natural desire to strike out at those immediately responsible for our pain is not especially helpful.  Nor is it useful, as many progressives suggest, to blame ourselves individually for failing to alter the course of this election, this particular flowering of deep-rooted cultural and political forces.  These tactics ease emotional discomfort temporarily, but do little to promote reflection or lasting change. They leave us essentially as we were, except tireder.  What we need is a response to this moment that transforms us into the people that can improve it.  What will that response look like?

Consider the tiger.  Is there a more formidable warrior in the natural world? Armed with teeth and claws, powered by unmatched muscle and speed, driven by the ravenous hunger of a large predator, even her name makes us tremble. Yet her teeth and claws aren’t weapons in the human sense, to be picked up and laid down; they are simply a part of her, like eyes that see in the dark, ears keen enough to hear the stir of a leaf, and great, silent paws.  Her purpose, to eat and mate and sleep and raise cubs, is inseparable from her existence.  She is implacable; even before it’s unleashed, we find ourselves paralyzed in the face of such raw, unequivocal power.

Martin Luther King envisioned a moral force as fierce and authentic as a tiger’s attack when he outlined his principles of nonviolence.  He saw nonviolent resistance as the transformation of fearful, angry people into committed, unwavering champions of justice, drawing upon profound spiritual commitment the way a tiger draws upon instinct.  He understood that violence-begotten power struggles between groups of damaged, grasping men only prolong the arrival of legitimate peace. His genius proposed a deeply counterintuitive path to justice, wherein every participant “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”

WTF? Is this even American? Doesn’t God Himself tell us to repay our enemies an eye for an eye? Shouldn’t the punishment for bigotry, hatred, oppression and murder be more of the same? Aren’t we entitled to inflict suffering on those who wish to inflict it on us?  If we’re struggling for justice and peace for the world instead of merely redistributing oppression, the answer must be no.  We must allow ourselves the moral simplicity of being wholly aligned with our purpose. We must understand that our power is grounded in our refusal to be turned aside by coercion, intimidation, or the comforting moral upholstery of privilege.  Our courage and strength, untainted by hatred, are the moral equivalent of the tiger’s teeth. They are the means to humanity’s survival, practical and moral.

Those who embrace conflict as an opportunity to gain power over others like to mock nonviolence as cowardly, and dismiss its ultimate goal of the Beloved Community as naive.  We know better.  King described nonviolent resistance as “mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek.”  No one understood or exemplified better than he how radical an idea this is, how dangerous to any regime based on frightening its citizens into compliance.  King quoted Gandhi as saying, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King’s willingness to shed his own blood for justice while sparing that of his enemies is partly what made him so incomprehensible—and thus so unpalatable— to the establishment in life and in death .  Yet it is exactly this kind of courage, at once aspirational and immediate, that we must seek and cultivate within ourselves.  We must ask ourselves why we sheathe our moral teeth and claws, why we tolerate this execrable backwash of history’s ought-to-be-forgotten.

The answer, if it’s a true one, will give many of us pause. At best it will reveal our fear, our complacency and our selfishness. At worst it will show us that we are no better than those we revile and who revile us.  No wonder we expend such energy avoiding the question, pretending that justice can be achieved by pointing fingers and spreading blame.  It is only when we take this halting, resentful first step, though, that we can begin to see what King was getting at. By looking squarely at our flawed and shadowed selves, we can acknowledge the flaws and shadows in those who oppose us.  We can understand that we are all participants in a long moral and historical unfolding of forces, and direct our actions “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”

Which leads us to the great question: what do we do? King gives us a blueprint in this sentence from Letter From Birmingham Jail:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

Many of us are able to complete the first two steps reasonably well; the second, in particular, is made easier by the refusal of many in power to negotiate.  It’s the third and fourth steps that require the most difficult, outside-the-comfort-zone work.

First, we must continually explore and expand our awareness of ourselves as transformed and transforming agents in a struggle that far exceeds our lifetime.  We must honestly appraise our own comfort with the injustices from which we benefit. We must listen to voices we prefer to silence and be open to lessons we prefer to avoid. We must exercise great care with our tongues and keyboards, which so often mask well-rationalized versions of the same fear and prejudice that inspire our opponents. We must actively cultivate courage, hope, confidence and unfeigned love of our fellow human beings by whatever means we can find. We must discern and uproot our internal obstacles to peace and justice, including shame and fear.  We must find others to share the journey and revel in the joyous energy of common endeavor.  We must learn and re-learn how to listen, how to be accountable, how to deepen our analysis and assist others in deepening theirs. We must clear our paths to spiritual clarity and keep them open and well-lit.

When our inner eyes are clear, it’s time for direct action.  These may help:

198 Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion

Indivisible Guide (methods to influence elected officials directly and via locally-organized groups)

Michael Moore’s Easy-To-Follow 10-Step Plan to Stop Trump

Large organizations like the ACLU are actively promoting grassroots and higher-level resistance.  Local organizations, particularly those led by marginalized groups, need increased support to make their voices heard. Elected officials need to be pressured, un-elected, and replaced. Neighborhoods need to be united and organized for the protection of the most vulnerable. Churches, clubs, schools and businesses need to be engaged.  We need to educate ourselves about the history and scope of the problems that face our racist, sexist, capitalist culture, as well as the best ways to fight poverty, environmental threats and the decline of education and public discourse.

Every day we must re-gird ourselves for love’s battle against hate.  Every day we must find not only the strength to turn the other cheek but the courage to place ourselves in the path of that first blow.  The forces of injustice seduce us to join them; we must put the teeth into the tiger of our resistance if we are to be victorious in this highest of battles.

©Mary Braden 2017

Vilification Is Not Resistance

I find myself more and more repelled by the rhetoric used by my fellow opponents of the President and his administration.  We sound like peevish children, not stalwart defenders of liberty, justice and equality.  We mock his skin and his hair, we point and giggle at his “tiny hands,” we label him as narcissistic, coke-addicted, an abuser.  How clever we think we are, with our nasty memes and snarky insults.

Even if every iota of each accusation is valid, how is it helping us to resist the authoritarian agenda proliferating nationally? Doesn’t it bring us—those who say we are devoted to principles, not personalities—down to the level of the objects of our derision? How is our belittling and dismissal of someone clearly unfit for the role to which we assigned him any different from his mockery of the disabled, the female, the Muslim and the immigrant?

I can’t help but wonder what kind of world the resistance—among whom I proudly count myself—will put in place if our efforts prove successful.  Based on my fellow liberals’ social media descriptions of our neighbors across the political divide as “white trash, toothless deplorables,” it’s not clear that dissidence will be tolerated any better in our brave new world than in the one we’re trying to change.

Even as our President bashes the free press as “fake news,” the white male talking heads of the Left dismiss the lived experience of black and brown people, women, and queer Americans as irrelevant.  What’s the difference?  Are we really naive enough to think that a better world is possible before those of us whose power is inseparable from our privilege do a better job of amplifying (and believing) voices whose power is forged in the crucible of intractable, daily oppression? I don’t get it.  Where is the long pause for remorseful, painful self-assessment by the folks on the Left who were 100% wrong about who was going to be elected President of the United States? Where is the humility of defeat and the rebirth of genuine curiosity about how to achieve victory?

I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing lots of people creeping, striding or blasting out of their comfort zones at the grassroots level.  I’m seeing some heroes—I’m looking at you, @altnps, @altEPA and @RogueNASA and others—standing up at great risk for the values we all claim to believe in. I’m seeing people scrambling to educate themselves and to put pressure on their elected officials.  And I’m seeing the deep, powerful groundswell of activist leadership from marginalized groups who have been fighting this fight mostly by themselves for a couple of centuries.  But I’m not seeing deep changes at the top.  I’m not seeing white people suddenly asking themselves if their unthinking perpetuation of a white supremacist culture might have contributed to the election of a man who thinks all black people are friends with each other. I’m not seeing men responding to nationwide attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights by asking themselves how their cradle-taught misogyny might have sown the seeds that are now blossoming so foully.  I’m not seeing white feminists asking themselves if their historic dismissal of the intersectional burdens of black and immigrant and non-Christian and queer and trans women might be the reason it’s now so hard for everyone to just work together.

I get it, my fellow liberals who think being rich, white, straight, employed and college-educated are “normal.” I’m right there with you. My analysis of these issues is new, shallow and staggeringly inadequate. I have to do it anyway.  If I don’t, then the highest goal of my resistance is a return to the world as it was on November 7. Remember that day? We woke up in a country with an infant mortality rate for black babies more than twice as high as that for white babies, where deportations of undocumented immigrants were already skyrocketing, where health care costs were beggaring the working poor, where 1 in 5 children lived in poverty, and where there was still no political consensus around climate change. Never mind the gobsmacking inequities of mass incarceration, functionally segregated education and unfettered neoliberalism. That’s not the star we need to be hitching our wagon to.  Our vision has to be higher, clearer, braver.

To fight a higher battle, we need higher weapons. We need to move past insults, mockery, and shaming because the agents of autocracy are impervious to them. We need to stop our playground swipes at the man who symbolizes everything we fear and dislike, and start fighting against the powers he represents.  We weaken and dilute our energy for the struggle when we vent our spleen at a single person.  Attacking him verbally, unpleasant and dangerous though he is, allows us to ignore the much larger, much older forces at work that our complacency has unleashed. Our real enemies are tyranny, totalitarianism, and insatiable, ravening greed, all grounded in a desperate fear of losing white male supremacy and the unearned privileges it bestows.  These enemies will persist long after the President is no longer with us, unless we focus our energies on containing and neutralizing them.

There’s another reason to lay off the personal criticism; it’s toxic to our moral health. Seeing our enemies simply as targets for attack is willfully false. They are not things. While they may disagree with us in every political and cultural particular, they are still more like us than not.  They experience love and fear and shame as strongly as we do, and they choose what to believe and what to dismiss with tools as powerful as ours. We must, if we are to succeed in building something better than what we’ve created so far, acknowledge that our battle is a painfully necessary struggle of principles between us and our brethren, not a brute contest for domination of superior over inferior.  If we are to emerge with any deeper understanding than those we resist, we have to resist the temptation to see our adversaries as mere objects between us and our desires. Until we can fight each other with our eyes wide open to our fundamental and common humanity, we have no moral claim to victory.  Comrades on the Left, we must avoid the most obvious pitfall of all: succeeding in our efforts only to behave as badly as those we defeated.

The 45th President of the United States is a symptom of our national malaise, not a cause. The same is true of his cabinet and Supreme Court picks, his loyal base of supporters and every other individual and group that we on the Left love to vilify. Instead of echoing the puerility of his tweets and his public appearances in the safety of our social media echo chambers, it’s time to focus on righting the wrongs that empowered them. That’s going to mean abandoning our stance of moral superiority and condescension and embracing our complicity in creating the unwelcome challenges of the world we live in. It’s going to mean learning how to shut up and listen,  and how to take direction instead of giving it. It’s going to mean acknowledging just how wrong we’ve been and for how long, and showing some overdue contrition. We’re going to have to step up with our bodies and our hands and our feet and our wallets. We’re going to have to earn our credibility.  And every time we feel that our discomfort entitles us to get personal, we must find a way to do without.

©Mary Braden 2017

Waging Peace

Like so many of us, I’ve felt emotionally exhausted and destabilized by the political turmoil of the last few weeks.  Despite sound self-care practices and decades of practice keeping my spiritual balance, I have not been handling the stress well, as my body keeps telling me with insomnia, headaches and one late-night back spasm that scared me silly.  I’ve been doing okay with activism—making daily calls, writing postcards and letters, marching with my peeps in Washington DC and boosting the signal of relevant news and thought as much as I can on social media. But my soul is hurting, I ain’t gonna lie, and if this is what the next four years are going to be like, I need to find a shortcut to some peace.

At the suggestion of several women whose judgment I respect, I recently read The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute.  Although the book itself is couched in an allegorical format that doesn’t suit my taste, its core premises resonated deeply with my own convictions about conflict, pain and connection.  Although there is much of value in this little book, what struck me most deeply was its insistence on the fact that the fundamental choice we have in each of our interactions with others (including those that are carried out only in thought, as in when we see people on TV or read about them online) is whether to see them as objects or as people.  When we see them as objects, the authors argue, our hearts are in a state of war, seeing them as obstacles or accomplices to our will rather than human beings with desires, needs and sufferings of their own. When we see people as people, however, our hearts are in a state of peace, grounded in the recognition that they are, in their essential humanity, no different from ourselves.  No matter what the outside factors may be, whether interpersonal or international, the authors tell us, when we greet each other from this place of peace and agree to solve our common problems together, healing and progress are possible.  From a place of war, where we ignore the essential humanity of our opponents and see them only as additional obstacles to us getting our own way (or as potential allies to be manipulated into helping us achieve our ends), no lasting peace is possible.

I’m not going to dig deeper into The Anatomy of Peace today, although I highly recommend it as a road map to understanding how transforming oneself can contribute to both inward and outward peace. Its main gift to me is the idea that I can make a choice about how I see the people whose actions cause me pain, and that the choice I make is not only relevant to my inner landscape but to the outer one I want to change.

Another idea that bears fruit in tumultuous times for me is that of moral injury, namely the damage I inflict on myself by acting badly toward another.  When I am exhausted, confused and afraid, it’s terrifyingly easy to be cruel and unkind to other people, especially the ones I am holding responsible for my discomfort. The idea of moral injury reminds me that the last thing I need if I’m already off my game is to damage myself further. Being kind to others—seeing them as people whose need to be heard and understood is identical to mine—morphs from a form of sacrifice to a form of self-protection. If I can teach myself to recognize other people as people rather than objects, I can recognize and avoid opportunities for committing moral injury upon myself.  I can even use this task as a way to ground myself in the midst of political cacophony that is designed specifically to thwart it. The media, including our self-generated social media conversations, is not trying to help us recognize each other’s humanity; there’s no commodity to be gained by emphasizing that we all have the same needs and the same core desire for connectedness.  Most public narratives frame events in terms of war; groups of people strategizing to defeat each other, snarled with their opponents in a web of policy and tactical disputes where every action is met by an outcry of “injustice!” and a call to see the perpetrator as evil.

There’s a very real possibility in today’s political crisis that the perpetrators of many of these acts are, in fact, evil. Pondering this fact doesn’t make me feel peaceful, though.  It fills me with sorrow and despair and makes me question whether anything I do has any purpose or potency.  This is not how I want to live. It deprives me of creative energy, makes me closed and unwelcoming to the people who love me, saps my ability to experience the very real joy the world continues to offer, and wears me out. To untangle myself from the apparent paradox here—I must fully and truthfully acknowledge how bad things are if I am to function in reality BUT the pain of facing such toxic, execrable horror makes life unlivable—I have to go back to the core question. Am I seeing people as people or as things?

Turns out that I hurt less when I make the choice to see people as people, even if it also requires a mighty cognitive effort. When I look at the faces of the men and women who actively want to destroy the lives of their fellow citizens to secure their own wealth and power, it isn’t easy to separate their humanity from the egregious, monumental arrogance and hate of their opinions. But it helps. Make no mistake, the opinions lose none of their toxicity. The actions remain as unthinkably bigoted and ignorant as they did before.  But the person no longer remains an object of loathing or of hatred—or an object at all—and the part of my brain that is hard-wired to desire the destruction of my enemies is switched off.  With no desire to inflict personal harm, I am spared the possibility of moral injury and with it the nauseating, grinding pain of impotent anger. The work before me isn’t to hurt the people who are trying to hurt me and my fellow citizens, no matter how much inflammatory language is thrown around.  The work is to defeat their efforts. It helps me to think of my own energy being spent to protect the vulnerable rather than to obstruct the powerful, although my actions will be the same.

Peace is hard to come by in our world of 24/7 invective on all sides of every argument.  I think this is part of the plan, to be honest. Anything that seduces us away from our own selves makes us vulnerable to manipulation. The interests that stand to benefit from that fact surround us and bombard us constantly with things to get upset about. And if we surrender our peace in response, we become pawns, responding automatically to messages about what to think, what to say, and what to buy.  The purest, hardest diamond of resistance in this brave new world is to stand firm in the face of the shitstorm.  Remember that every single person in today’s political maelstrom is a human being. Focus on making that counterintuitive choice to see them that way; feel the urge to correct or discipline them shift to an urge to stop the damage they are doing. Feel yourself gather focus and calm energy as you start looking for solutions instead of weapons. Feel your creativity light up as you seek ways to help those in harm’s way instead of ways to lash out at those who are eager to harm. Your actions may look the same from the outside, but you’ll be coming at it from a place of peace instead of a place of war.  You will be sparing yourself the moral injury that comes with seeing people as dispensable, as Other. Your self-care practices will become a sanctuary for deepening your ability to make that all-important choice: to see people as people instead of things. And your energy to stand up for justice will be amplified by your freedom to focus on fixing what is broken.  We are all fighting for freedom; the battle will be to those who know it cannot be born of hatred.  As we feel buffeted by the winds of panic and despair, we can take comfort in working to reverse and prevent actions we know to be harmful; we do not need to squander ourselves in internal violence against our better natures or external violence against our enemies.  We must wage peace even as we raise our hands and voices to struggle against injustice; our work must endure.

©Mary Braden 2017

Silence

Silence is getting a bad rap lately.  At best it’s labeled as indifference, at worst it’s straight-up complicity with evil.  We’re constantly exhorted to speak up, to raise our voices, to add to the noise.  If we’re not talking, the thinking seems to be, then we’re either in league with the devil or we’re nothing at all.

I have a bone to pick with that thinking.  Noise, by itself, does little except disrupt, and it works directly against the internal processes of reflection and analysis.  It makes listening difficult, if not impossible, and it complicates any attempt at quiet response. Perhaps the political wasteland we currently occupy can even be understood as the direct result of too much noise in too many living rooms for too many years. 

Our big brains and slow-moving bodies weren’t designed for an environment of incessant inputs.  We evolved for the mostly-peace of scrounging for food with our families and our tribes, with occasional interruptions of stark terror that goaded us into figuring out language and weapons and agriculture.  At a neurological level we associate raised voices with fear, violence, threat. Throughout history we’ve shouted our funerals, our revolutions, our wars, our struggles against oppression and injustice. For millennia we have raised our voices to call each other to action when we needed to defend ourselves, to steel our courage, to wail our grief to the heavens.  We pierced the silence of the night and the open field and the filthy alleys with our cries, and we were heard by listening ears.

Nowadays, though, our lives are full of voices. In many homes the voices of strangers persist in our spaces even while the occupants are asleep.  We wake to music, we work and drive and exercise and socialize with the TV or radio or a podcast playing, we fall asleep to more music or a guided meditation or an audiobook.  As we fill our lives with the voices of strangers, our own physical voices are used less and less. Face-to-face conversation has been challenged first by the telephone and then by the text message, our cries for common action have become timeline posts, mass emails, tweets. 

What does it mean to be silent in such a world? What does it mean to speak? How do we discern when to raise our voices, when to listen, when to retreat into the stillness of our own hearts? When does speaking cause more harm than silence? These are the questions that we tend to brush aside, not only from the reflexive egotism that tells us our voices are essential, but from the equally reflexive core fear that they are not.  As we wrap up a year in which ill-chosen, ill-considered speech held much of the world’s attention, let’s pause for a while and think about what our voices are actually for, and how to use them wisely in a world where noise has become the only constant.

©Mary Braden 2016