I use Empire a lot in this article. According to Joyful Militancy by carla bergman, the book from which this article gets a lot of its data from, Empire is the name for the organized catastrophe in which we live today. It is not really an “it” but a tangle of habits, tendencies, and apparatuses that sustain exploitation and control.
The world has continued to evolve into a more complex entity. The social units that we once relied on in the past to make sense of the world and understand our place in it e.g the family, the community, religion, even the nation state have started to fall behind in how useful they can be to us. We are asking questions at faster rates than these units can answer, which has caused many to lose faith in them. Some have opted to create alternative ways of being and seek out different organizing principles to act as an anchor, something that stabilizes us and gives meaning.
When I was in my early twenties, I was greatly dissatisfied with the future I thought was compulsory to me. The seemingly compulsory pattern of go to school, get a degree, get a job, get married, have children and die seemed unimaginative and restricting, and I did not want those to be my only options. When I discovered feminism I was ecstatic to find an organising principle that I could put my weight behind. I was thrilled and grateful to have found something that attempted to make sense of the world and provide several alternatives of being. I could live my life in whatever pattern I wanted and others could too. There was enough room for everybody to exist and there was the possibility that we could all exist however we wanted as long as we didn’t infringe on anyone else’s humanity. It was a no brainer.
The more I learned about how Empire has been modelled to stifle the human collective imagination and to restrict us to a solitary way of being, the more I wished to get out under its thumb and help others get free as well. I connected with those who shared the same ideals and we began to grow as a community. I found my voice and began to write, using the knowledge and awareness I had to speak on things that I felt were important, and was always happy to hear that my words were resonating and that there was always someone who felt that way or had had a similar thought. Empire has made life so difficult that these small moments of joy in this community became greatly significant to me, and I fiercely defended both the community and the joy it brought.
So I’m not sure when the same place in which I had found joy and camaraderie became cloying and restrictive. What once was motivating causes extreme burn out, and not the kind of burn out that could be solved by taking a social media hiatus. I felt like I was falling short in so many ways, like I wasn’t doing enough. I was constantly on edge, like I was under surveillance and everything I said or did was being scrutinized. I felt like I was one statement, one stance, one position away from saying the wrong thing and losing everything.
I began to notice an almost puritanical way that things were starting to play out. There seemed to be a reduction of matters into a dichotomy of good and evil, and identities were either pure or corrupt. Rallying behind this cause was no longer about creating alternative ways of being but about vanquishing evil from our midst. It appeared to be taking on mythological dimensions – we, the victims have risen up against the perpetrators. We have taken up arms against a force of nature greater than ourselves and are the soldiers of the light leading the crusade against dark forces. Privilege has become a moral stain and all those who bear it are to be met with suspicion and contempt, because the privilege makes them morally suspect and inherently bad.
I wondered if I was being too harsh in seeing the parallels to a crusade. However I could not ignore the attempts to sustain that dichotomy of good and evil. Any attempts to humanize the perpetrators is met with a visceral reaction of ferocious rage that comes from the gut. e.g. at the mere suggestion of extending empathy to those who have caused harm rather than rendering them disposable. By doing so you take away something they need – the aggrandizing feeling of having your suffering contextualized.
If you take away this belief that the perpetrators are inherently bad and incapable of redemption it also means you are taking away the identity of the victim/martyr/savior. As explained in this Quillette piece on Understanding Victimhood Culture, victimhood culture is when your identity as a victim gives you status. It is not your virtue as a person but rather someone else’s treatment of you makes you virtuous. It leads to moral emaciation, because the focus on oppression narrows the range of moral discourse. When analysis becomes a trait that one possesses, rather than a collective process, it stagnates. When we are too busy pointing out who is morally lacking and not up to scratch we cannot think of solutions or create and live in alternatives that help us be otherwise.
We have adopted ways of combating the different ways that Empire manifests in our lives. Online spaces especially have given us tools to organise and spread information. We have found communities on these spaces and have taken them offline, to take action and to enrich our own spaces with those who share similar ideologies. In a society where homophobia, misogyny and other iterations of patriarchy seek to repress and control, we seek safety, security and certainty. Yet we are all influenced by these vices that make up Empire and even in the ways we seek relief from this oppression we can and most likely do end up replicating the very rigid systems that enforce Empire.
Let’s just say the truth – we all fall short. We cannot try to speak on the pervasive injustices of society without admitting this. It is the world we exist in. There are times where we are going to do and say oppressive things and we are going to hurt each other. Whether in overt or covert ways, we are going to be violent, collude in violence or accept violence as normal. Not a single one of us is immune from succumbing to the trappings of Empire.
Empire itself is self sustaining; any solution you think of to combat it can and will be subjected to repression. Surveillance, imprisonment, online bullying, doxxing etc lead parts of movements to be destroyed, co-opted, subdued and divided. A lot of those who exist within these spaces that combat oppression are well aware of the ways in which we are attacked and subdued just as any headway is being made, and how this makes us alert for any threat to that progress.
We learn to search for, anticipate and point out this pervasiveness, we train ourselves to search for any behaviour, past or present that indicate complicity. We are ever vigilant and suspicious. We sometimes feel helpless and unable to tackle the monolithic oppressive structures but convince ourselves that if we point out and root out those who are complicit, that that in itself is radical. Our sense of indignation grows and everyone is tainted. Oppressive statements must be dissected and attacked as soon as they are detected. Every week someone is being exposed. There is some sort of satisfaction that can be gained in this – in being the one to expose inadequacy.
When there is a monolithic vision of the right way of doing things, the right way of speaking, the right way of practicing your activism, the right way of practicing self care, it forces out the messiness of relationships and everyday life. We are forced to ignore the flexible changing ways that we actually exist and live our lives in favour of dichotomies of good/bad, radical/reactionary, woke/unwoke. In a society that fits everything into dichotomy you either win or lose.
We choose to see life as it is appears as something to be fixed, governed, disciplined and controlled and present that as a correct way of being. But that’s exactly why we found and grew these communities – to escape the prescribed way of being that society had told us was right!
This kind of approach is dangerous because it takes away people’s power. We are reduced to our statements and rigidly classified as either symptoms of the problem or causes of it, rather than allowing ourselves the complexity and changing nature that is our humanity.
“When politics become something that one has, rather than something people do together, it becomes like fashion:- it needs to be visible in order to function.” – Joyful Militancy
We begin to trade with a currency of good politics – good politics being the visible ways in which we show up; participating in protests and hashtags, public/online call outs, writing critical articles and Twitter threads, participating in social justice projects and being in a large connected network with other radicals. These are all important ways in which we create kinship and participate. But what happens when this is a key point of trade – that these practices must be constantly put on show? This is a way that capitalist notions of productivity are reproduced in the movement- if you are not doing something visible and tangible you are inadequate.
Transformative practices become measuring sticks for comparison and leads to woker than thou competition. It intensifies the climate of shame and fear: the shame of not doing enough, the mistrust of those who are not seen to be doing anything and the competition between those who are doing things – those who have been doing it for a long time and those that recently started and have yet to ‘catch up’. Even for those that do catch up, they might still be resented for not getting there soon enough and will be regularly reminded of the ways they once fell short.
This is something to examine especially in the wake of social media and its inclination towards public performance. To be seen to be doing things is not the same as actually doing the things. When we stake value in the things we are seen to be doing, when hypervisibility becomes (social) currency, what is not seen becomes irrelevant. And this is unfortunate because there are incredible ways in which we show up for one another, the ways we do things without any fanfare of need for recognition. We diminish these private acts when we stake value on how one appears to be doing the work.
At the same time, because invisible work does not count, invisible harm can also can be seen not to count either.
Many people while publicly espousing the right politics have had terrible interpersonal relationships. The placement of importance on visible work over invisible acts means that mistakes and transgressions are often rationalized within the framework of the cause. We buy into the dichotomy of hero and villain. We minimize wrongs against others because they are not systemic. They people champion the greater good, they have kilometres of credentials and have spearheaded this and that cause therefore can never be guilty of what they accuse others of. We are urged to put “petty differences” aside for the greater good. We are supposed to let abstract ideology get in the way of real messy relationships and interactions.
It bears remembering that we are all born into the same capitalist society, we are all marked in some way by violence and trauma. We are all very capable of replicating and passing it on to others, but it is our responsibility not to. Trauma is ubiquitous, we all bear some form of it, and therefore it can never be a viable excuse of bad behaviour.
“When the culture of any organisation mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve or are served by it, you can be certain that shame is systemic, that money is driving ethics and that accountability is all but dead.” – Brene Brown, Braving The Wilderness
“This is why I don’t believe in the concept of ‘self sacrifice’ where self sacrifice means that we do things that go against our needs, our desires, oh potentials and for the sake of our political work, we have to repress ourselves. This has been a common practice in political movements in the past. But it is one that produces constantly dissatisfied individuals.” – Silvia Federici
Too often activists and progressives that identify with a particular set of issues respond to their potential allies with distrust, especially when they hurt and disappoint us. We shut them out for having outdated politics or because they do not wield the same language. The overemphasis on changing behaviour, using correct language and calling out other people for not acting and speaking in the right way can lead us to look down at communities we came from. We distance ourselves from our past by criticizing everyone who talks like we did not too long ago.
To remain pious the priest must reveal new sins. To display good politics there has to be a contrast with someone who displays bad politics.
However many progressives in their respective movements were not always believers in its tenets. They held problematic views for most of their lives. There is an unspoken idea that we saw the light because we were better people, because we are the “good guys.” But this isn’t necessarily true. In all our problematic years, the information was available. There were people making these same points back then. Why did we remain unconvinced for so long? Why would we then paint anyone who is in the position that we were once in as irredeemably evil?
The alternative that many of us have taken is mastering the hypercritical language and one-upping one another every chance we get. When we position ourselves as the ones to spread the word to the unknowing masses, we can fall into the trap of positioning others as stupid and ignorant. There are those who pretend not to know how Google works and expect to have their hands held, and I’m not saying that you expend energy on them if you don’t want to. What I do mean is that when everyone is under scrutiny, it becomes hard to tell the difference between wilful ignorance and genuine curiosity. We close our ranks to those that don’t know because we believe they are naive, ignorant and in some cases we even frame them as the problem itself. In any case we end up excluding many of those who are supposed to be centered by anti-oppressive practices and others who haven’t been exposed to the constantly evolving language of radical communities.
“I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master’s house, that is, which set of theories we use to critique colonialism, but I am very concerned with how we build our own houses.” – Leanne Simpson.
The space a movement creates from the beginning is key—the tone and openness, or lack of it makes a big difference if one wants to focus on new relationships with one another. You cannot think of a problem, give voice to it, share it with others, if you fear that you will be dismissed, ridiculed, or told that it is not important. A space that harbours a climate of competition, comparison, mistrust, an emphasis on public performance and hypervigilance makes for a closed and eventually nasty space for those not fully familiar with it. People do not stay in movements that organize in this way as these practices isolate the movement from the very people it aims to liberate. If they do remain, it is with a strict obedience to hierarchy and adherence to a “right” way of being.
Sometimes these divisions get in the way and people hurt each other in seen and unforeseen ways. We are but products of the many messy relationships that shape our lives over time, and sedimented habits get in the way of us growing and moving forward together. However we do have the power of transformation within us. There are and have always been spaces where alternatives have been functioning. Seeking them requires difficult and sometimes painful conversations, but the ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking.
I would imagine that the points I have made are not unfamiliar to those who occupy radical spaces. These conversations do take place albeit in hushed tones; this is one of activism’s worst kept secrets. It’s easy to point fingers to specific people and be like “well THEY are like that, those people over there!”. First of all, no, because these are behaviours that arise in all of us. Secondly by doing so we go back to square one- of seeing a problem and pointing it out, of searching for the flaws in others, of being the one to provide answers. The best way to deal with this is not to attack it but to try and understand it and find ways to dissipate it.
“Perhaps it is more important to be in community, vulnerable and real and whole, than to be right or winning.” – adrienne maree brown
Friendships and kinship are the best ways to combat…well anything. With my friendships I have found support, love and care and have learned and continue to learn how to give these things back in kind. When we find support we are able to confront the things that we are up against, and life doesn’t seem as hopeless or as bleak as it does when we are on our own. Those we love can be our reasons to stay alive when we do not think we can go on. They can help us leave horrible situations, and also help us examine our own bad habits without shame or judgement.
However our society emphasizes heterosexual pairings and does not stress the same importance on deep platonic friendships, or even friendships within the familial units we grow up in. We are taught to make friends based on flimsy connections. These friendships that are more often than not based in leisure are easy to abandon as soon as something unfavourable happens. There is little to no incentive to actually think a division through and move forward.
Some of the unsustainable bonds we make are through common enemy intimacy – the enemy of my friend is my enemy, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. A lot of emphasis on the enemy. We hotwire a sense of connection by hating the same people and disliking the same ideals. We inherit beef that we know very little about to show loyalty. These connections can be wildly intense and gratifying, there is so much outrage and anger and pain we can discharge this way. These are not sustainable nor is there any real connection – just an unspoken treaty to hate the same people and things. When it’s all over you’re very likely to suffer from what Brene Brown calls a integrity hangover. You ask yourself questions like “did I really participate in that? Did that move us forward? Am I engaging in the same behaviour I find loathsome in others?”
When all that binds us is what or who don’t like rather than who we are and our potential, changing our mind or challenging the collective ideology is risky. We have to foster relationships strong enough to hold us when we go up against the institutions that oppress us. We should roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict and pain as if our lives depended on it – because they do!
While we can decide to focus on cultivating our own gardens, it is hard to create alternatives in isolation. The real work is reaching across the scars that oppressive systems have left us with, making kin across these divides, and repairing and maintaining trust.
Kinship across the divides is indeed important, too important not to get it right, or at the very least try. We cannot continue to reject diversity of thought precisely when it gets difficult. How can we demand nuance when talking about broad spectrums of gender identity, sexuality etc yet double down on binary interpretations of good and bad, with us or against us? If we are interested in building mass movements to destroy mass oppression, our movements must include people not like us, people with whom we will never fully agree and people with whom we have conflict.
Those who have caused harm can be understood simultaneously to have the capacity to transform lives and as perpetrators of violence. To admit to the former is not to deny the other. We must be open armed in our quest for justice – we can name the violence we have suffered under others WHILE leaving room for those who have caused harm to be accountable and come back into the fold. Ultimately according to #BlackLivesMatter founder Alicia Garza, building a movement is about restoring humanity to all of us, even to those of us who have been inhumane. Movements are where people are called to be transformed in service of liberations to themselves and others.
“When you know better, you do better.” – Maya Angelou.
I am in no means saying that now you lower all your boundaries, make friends with your abusers and forgive those who have trespassed against you in order to be woke. In a world with so much interpersonal violence openness and vulnerability are incredibly risky. Love and friendship can also be weaponized and the risk of betrayal makes us wary of forging new connections or getting too deep into one.
“For joy to thrive, it must have sharp edges.” – Joyful Militancy
Strong boundaries are the most important thing in all this. It is vital that we know when to put them up and when to lower them, when to update those that are porous and discard of those that no longer serve us. It is respecting others boundaries as much as you want yours respected, and asking when you are unsure of them.
In a culture that requires you to fit in and conform, asking questions is seen as malicious antagonism rather than being valued as learning.
If we wish to transform we have to continuously question the things we do, the spaces we inhabit and what our capacity within them is. Firstly because there is nothing wrong with asking questions and seeking alternatives. But also because questions are open ended. They imply that there is wiggle room, and that nothing is finite.
If anything the entire movement towards seeking justice is questions – what can we do together? How can we support each other? How do we create room for disagreement and difference without a total shutdown? How do we create spaces where people can be vulnerable and safe but still not create complacency? How do we prioritize relationships over ideologies without losing our integrity? How do we undo the culture in which both survivors and perpetrators are rendered disposable while institutional violence continues to thrive? How can we direct our anger and pain in ways that topple power relations? How do we build, maintain and repair trust?
Being the one to provide answers to ways of being creates limitations, and that is the opposite of what we strive for. We should not allow complacency of thought – to ever think that we are “done” and have identified all the ways in which we experience and reproduce oppression. To avoid this complacency is to always be mindful of what we are responsible for, whom we are responsible to and what we can be held accountable for.