A Response To The Give EF! A Kick In The Ass/ Anti-Oppression Discussion At The 2012 OC Winter Rendezvous
By Elizabeth Robertson with many thanks to Clarie Urbanski for her contributions.
We are most powerful when we are connected. Consider this for a moment in the context of your own life. I know that for me, when I have let loose my heart with my tongue. When I have voiced the unspoken words I felt crowding the room, or I’ve let down my defenses long enough to actually hear the voice of another resonate with my own experiences. When I overcome fear to express uncertain love or to stand up against oppressive behavior, these are the times when I have made the most powerful connections of my life. These are the times I have felt most alive, most seen, most cared for and appreciated, and when I have made the biggest difference to others. This is because kindness and love are not divisive, they are expansive.
It seems a strange kind of argument to me, that those who adhere to the philosophy of biocentrism should somehow exclude the work of anti-oppression from the work of environmentalism, or anti-capitalism, or any other -ism. In fact, it seems to me that by its very definition, biocentrism is inherently inclusive of anti-oppression. To paraphrase Judi Bari:
Biocentrism states that nature does not exist simply to be used or consumed by humans, but that humans are simply one species among many, and that because we are part of an ecosystem, any actions which negatively affect the living systems of which we are a part, adversely affect us as well, whether or not we maintain a biocentric worldview. (Emphasis mine, from Judi Bari’s Revolutionary Ecology)
Clearly, when we hurt each other, we create more damage than what is done to our own individual hearts and egos. We dig the hole deeper, so to speak, and make the climb out more difficult.
As it stands, anti-oppression work and the movement for social justice are sometimes separated from environmental or earth justice based work. In my opinion, this distinction doesn’t serve anyone—the one is not a distraction from the other, but rather they are different facets of the very same problem. Ultimately when one looks closely at issues of environmental degradation or resource extraction, they cannot be separated from the people and communities they affect. Yes, humans impact the planet in a far more damaging way than any natural process or other species, but this is not an excuse for oppressive behavior or systematic persecution. In the fabric of earthly destruction, clear-cutting forests, racial profiling, mountain top removal, cultural imperialism, bioengineering, industrial agriculture, homophobia, and an almost infinite number of other strands are woven together. To dismantle the whole problem, it is simply not sufficient to pull on a single thread.
The entanglement of culture and socialization with the individual implicates each of us in this ugly pattern. Destruction of the environment and the exploitation of human life are in reality symptoms of an oppressive, violent, conquest-oriented society, in which white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, misogyny, classism, etc. are the basic building blocks and infrastructure that our lives are crafted upon and within. To recognize these dominant forms of systematic oppression is merely a foot in the door compared to the eventual amount of consistent openness and work it will take to disengage from them. Despite everything we have accomplished or how we may choose to see ourselves, these structures and processes have profoundly, almost indelibly, shaped us into present form. We continue to implement their designs nimbly with one hand, all the while waving our green anarchy flags, or what have you, with the other.
If what we seek is to halt and demolish the systems that destroy and exploit the earth, we can only succeed so far towards that goal when our behavior and treatment of each other ultimately reinforces and replicates these oppressive power structures—unless we actively, consistently, and shamelessly work to identify the ways they mark us and to undo the ways we’ve learned to mirror them.
All arguments aside, what we must begin to address is the pervasive attitude one encounters again and again at activist events and in activist communities. You must know what I’m talking about: the general discomfort around sharing feelings, the expression of deep and vulnerable emotions; and the accompanying dismissal of such displays as hysterical or woo-woo. Our hesitancy to fully engage in the exposure and discussion of racist/classist/sexist/ageist tendencies among and between ourselves, and the overall elitist, exclusive attitude of what often feels like our closed community. (And don’t get me wrong, I love our community, and I have felt that love come back to me; this is not an across-the-board condemnation.)
I know that these are some of the themes that the Kick in the Ass workshop series is supposed to address, and so it follows that I am not alone in pointing them out. However, the discussions I participated in leading up to the most recent workshop where the topic of anti-oppression was to be included, centered on how to get the people who we (those who will readily engage in such discussion) felt most needed to attend (those who will not) to actually show up and join us in the conversation. As in, how do we obscure this topic in a palatable way, so that these repeat offenders won’t shut their mouths, turn their heads, and refuse to eat what’s good for us all? This kind of strategizing feels like an awful waste of time, when we have absolutely none to spare.
I fear these ways we harden ourselves. The defense mechanism of closing off and toughening oneself against the catastrophic devastation that humans have wreaked upon earth and upon each other, is what allows some to fight for a better world in the short-term. But, I feel that it is a dangerous flaw. Our work is clearly driven by our hearts, yet our conversation does not include this. And in Western industrialized society, it seems to me, that one of the biggest oppressive forces that keeps people shut down is the maligning of the heart and of the hearts’ desire, and the appropriation of our lives’ force for profit- and power-mongering. To pull together, to create a revolution that will roll as ceaselessly as the tides across this world, we must harness our hearts, be open to each other not just as activists and comrades-in-arms, but as compassionate fellow beings. It is within our reach to heal so many wounds with the simple acts of listening, caring, softening, extending. As much pain as it brings me to be vulnerable and open to the world and everything it presents, I know that it is the way forward, that my pain is intertwined with great power.
You should consider it, too.
To put it all together, I propose this: Wherever you are, stop, take a deep breath—breathe in, pause, breathe out. Focus on the pause, because it is the place from which you are empowered to change yourself. The space between planning and acting, dreaming and living, living and dying. Keep breathing. Now, swallow your pride. It may take a few swallows, actually. Then try to imagine opening your heart. I mean really open. Don’t know how? Think about something you care about, something that causes you to feel anger, compassion, or grief. Follow the strand of that feeling back to yourself, back inside your deep dark self, the part you shelter and protect and hide. Let this path be a crack, an opening, a sigh, and a way out to the surface. Immerse yourself in the feeling of shared humanity, shared life, shared experience, in all of its extremes.
It is a start.
Elizabeth has been working with Buffalo Field Campaign for the last four years. Currently she works with Seeds of Peace and lives in Montana; dedicating herself to saving wild creatures, wearing scarves, and drinking hot herbal beverages.