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Questioning Us Versus Them

Opinion | March 28, 2016

I’m not the radical I thought I was.

Being openly queer seemed like big deal in high school. It was a laborious form of activism that involved dealing with all kinds of awkward situations. Sexuality is inherently political, and a queer person in high school can’t really choose their environment so instead often has to deal with whatever life throws at them. Although I didn’t have it that bad relative to others, I still felt obligated to involve myself in queer activism.

Perceptions of radicalism, of course, are different at Tufts. Sometime during my first week here, a guy carrying a stack of pamphlets walked briskly into my dorm’s common room. He tossed me one. It read “Tufts Disorientation Guide” and was, by and large, a list of grievances with Tufts. The pamphlet was informative, but bitingly critical of Tufts—sharply adamant about terminology, and packed with invective. Tufts, for example, was described as an “oppressive,” “for-profit” institution. Some of the pamphlet’s more polemic content made me wonder if I was even qualified to be involved in social justice activism here. One section lamented the status of queer-designated spaces on campus as being “extraordinarily” White and cis-male. I now know that they weren’t wrong, and nor were they really writing to my White cis-male self directly, but at the time, I was concerned this amounted to a disinvitation from campus queer spaces. If the overrepresentation of people like me in queer environments was drowning out the voices of others, should I really be involved in queer politics at all?

I was, and am, reluctant to describe institutions (i.e. organized religion, Tufts, the United States, etc.) as being wholly oppressive. They aren’t perfect, and all are certainly oppressive at times, but it doesn’t seem fair to classify them as malevolent in their entirety. There are people using any one of those institutions for very good things, just as there are people who are using them for their own benefit. But classifying things as being entirely good or evil is something people like to do.

I recall a discussion with some Tufts friends:

“Marriage is an oppressive institution,” one brought up suddenly.

Another friend concurred. “People act like gay marriage is a big deal, but it’s not. It doesn’t matter! All of those straight girls with their rainbow colored filters who are like, ‘Woo! Gay rights’—it doesn’t matter. They did nothing for us.”

“Marriage is patriarchal anyway.”

This was when I made my mistake.

“I kind of want to get married,” I ventured cautiously. My admission was met with perplexed silence.

“Well, a lot of queer people admit that they want marriage-like relationships, and they might even give up and get married one day,” the initial speaker said pensively.

I shook my head.

Call me stubborn, but I do want to get married one day to a man, and I would like for that marriage to be recognized by the state. While it can often be oppressive, particularly towards women, I’m not sure that it always is.

A saying that has been thrown at me a lot is: “If you aren’t fighting the system, you’re part of the problem.” One such system might be marriage—if I’m not actively fighting it, then I’m tacitly embracing the patriarchy. It logically follows that in order to be a real activist, one has to work as hard they can to subvert the continued functioning of oppressive powers, lest they become as an oppressor themselves. This kind of reasoning is applied towards all sorts of things, and seems to be an extension of the “for-us-or-against-us” mentality that itself creates tremendous issues in our society.

It took me a couple of months here to realize that this really wasn’t going to work for me.

It seems sometimes that the negative focus of social-justice orthodoxy is often what does it in—in certain aspects, it reminds me of my own childhood experiences with fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist Christianity. Often, the most radical parts of the campus activist community are focused on the details of negative emotional experience and concepts that define them: micro-aggressions, imperialism, symbolic subtext.

The mindset of an angry social justice activist comes from a very human place. It often comes from a place of social and systematized pain acutely felt by young people. It comes from the genuine desire to right the world’s many wrongs. It comes from the desire for solidarity and belonging. It is often deeply, deeply personal. Someone with very negative experiences with the most powerful institutions in our society might be led to assume that such entities and the social forces they channel are fully negative. That mindset, unfortunately, can be dangerous when applied on a broader spectrum. There’s no crime in being angry about being treated poorly, but it’s ultimately an insufficient, frustrating, and unproductive way to organize one’s approach.

To me, Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) decision to protest Friends of Israel’s “Taste of Israel” event last October is an example of a militant mindset taken too far. One argument raised to me was that FOI’s usage of the falafel was an example of “cultural imperialism in action.” What was the real value, however, of protesting Friends of Israel’s “appropriation” of the falafel? I happen to believe that the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people is, in fact, a human rights violation. But at the same time, in a sincere effort to spread information about the inhumane treatment of Palestinians, SJP leadership chose to focus on a fast food product, casting themselves as unnecessarily extreme and alienating potential allies.

I believe, perhaps naïvely, that there are steps beyond simple analysis of the worst parts of our society. Instead of endlessly scrutinizing society’s malignancies, we can choose to cultivate our own values: compassion, respect, and inclusion. These are not magical words whose utterance lead to sudden societal equity, and nor are they particularly easy to implement. But if we, as humans, want to live in a pluralistic, egalitarian society, these are virtues to which we must aspire and put into place in our political endeavors. If we commit to being agents of positive social values, then it doesn’t make sense to use coercive “direct action” techniques as the first resort to try to compel people to do what we want. We all know this world is a cruel place, and sacrificing respect for opposing perspectives does no good, even when that seems justified.

I’ve recently joined a couple of activist organizations, and I hope to soon be working with more. There are plenty of constructive ways to work towards the things I care about, like transgender rights, the safety of religious minorities, and racial and economic equality. I will work and advocate for them as best I can. However, the one thing I will not do is treat the people I need to convince as inferiors. The most dangerous thing for any activist group is to forget the humanity of those in power. Our greatest enemies are often ignorance and self-interest, rather than outright maliciousness. While those in power regularly forget the suffering of the people they affect, those who wish to fight systemic inhumanity can never afford to lose sight of our shared human experience. Keeping perspective is incumbent upon anyone seeking the moral high ground.

We do need people to act vocally and powerfully, to speak up against the behavior of power structures at their worst. The voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, powerfully bring attention to issues with the United States’ criminal justice system. Most successful movements, however, rely on the development of positive relationships between groups and between individuals—think the role of straight allies in the gay marriage or trans rights movements. Protesting the appropriation of falafel outside of an Israeli cultural event, for example, seems to do little to affect US foreign policy and a lot more to further polarize one of the many heartbreaking humanitarian issues of our time.

At what point does the “struggle” become more important than the people engaged in it? In my opinion, never. I try, perhaps foolishly and certainly imperfectly to view our institutions as they are, as flawed and selfish and corrupt and beautiful as the people who created them. The nuanced nature of the world around us requires us to be flexible in our interpretations of it, and in trying to alleviate our society’s many injustices, we have to note both the good and bad in the systems that form it. This doesn’t mean being “moderate” all the time, but it means being very judicious about when we choose to be combatively radical. Militant pessimism may be intuitive, but we should strive for compassionate realism when we can.