Tag Archives: social justice

An Open Letter To Tom McLaughlin And Joshua Sealy-Harrington

15 Apr

We need to talk about your recent article in the Globe and Mail.

Specifically, we need to talk about the fact that you have cast yourselves as allies and yet are doing far more to hurt the causes that you claim to believe in than you are doing to help them.

First of all, let’s get a few things straight here:

1 You are not being silenced – and the fact that you try to claim that in a column published in a nationally syndicated newspaper is sort of sublimely ridiculous

2. Not everyone’s perspective can “positively contribute” – for instance, I do not think that the KKK’s perspective can “positively contribute” to discussions on race, nor do I think that the Westboro Baptist Church’s perspective can “positively contribute” to discussions on sexuality

3. You are being bad allies

That being said, I want to ask who, exactly, you imagine to be the target reader for your piece. Is it your hope that anti-oppression activists, specifically those who are marginalized, will read what you’ve written and realize how wrong their approach has been? Because if that’s the case, then unfortunately you’ve missed the mark by quite a bit. On the other hand, if the group you are writing for is one made up of privileged people who feel distressed by what they perceive to be deliberate silencing and disenfranchisement, then congratulations, you’ve succeeded! If your goal was to confirm what privileged people everywhere have long suspected – namely, that “equality” means that their voices should always be heard on par with everyone else’s, even though their voices have long dominated nearly all forms of discourse – then you’ve done a great job. If what you were trying to do was make sure that the oppressive status quo – you know, the one that so many of us are trying to tear down – is maintained, well, mission accomplished. You only need to read the comments on your article to know that you’ve done exactly that.

I also want to ask you how, exactly, you consider yourselves to be allies to any kind of social justice cause when your main message is that oppressed groups need to make room for the voices of traditionally oppressive groups. You write about this dynamic as if the opinions of the privileged aren’t already culturally dominant, and as if privileged groups don’t already have an excess of places to spout off about their beliefs. I mean, look at the platform you’ve been given – an enormously popular newspaper with a huge reach. And yet you have the gall to worry that your voices aren’t being heard? Because I promise you that your voices are being heard.

And yes, sometimes your opinions will be discounted because of your identity – because you know what? In the context of social justice, lived experience trumps everything else every time. When you are speaking, you are not speaking from a place of knowing or understanding, and that means that your arguments, no matter how well-crafted, do not count for as much as the arguments of someone who has experienced oppression and marginalization firsthand. Oh, and by the way, comparing an oncologist who has never had cancer to a male doctor treating a female patient is probably one of the worst pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever read. Cancer is a disease; being a woman is not. An oncologist may someday develop cancer; chances are good that a doctor who lives as a man will not experience life as a woman. People who have cancer are not marginalized by a pervasive oppressive force that systematically silences and discredits them; people who identify as women have lived with that force their entire lives.

You say:

The use of terms such as “mansplaining” (and its racial counterpart, “whitesplaining”) can cause disengagement. These labels are sometimes used to dismiss arguments when men and white people simply disagree. But if a man or white person makes a poor argument, why not just refute it? 

And somehow you don’t seem to understand that marginalized people spend so much time coming up with intelligent responses to poor arguments. In fact, sometimes it feels like that’s all we do. If I were to reply to every bad piece of logic that came my way with a lengthy and intelligent response, that is literally the only thing I would be doing, all day every day. And you know what? If I were to do that, the vast, vast majority of what I had to say would fall on deaf ears. It is both impossible and just plain not worth it to engage every person who says something problematic and thoughtfully explain to them why they are wrong.

It’s not worth it, and it’s also just plain not my job.

If you really want to be good allies, then you need to understand that your job is to amplify the voices of marginalized people. Your work here isn’t to tell traditionally oppressed groups that they need to be more open to the opinions of privileged folks like yourselves – and by the way, this isn’t exactly a new or radical message, though I get the feeling that you think it is. As an ally,  your work is in educating yourself and maintain your engagement. Your work is to help educate other privileged folk. Your work is to get to the back of the room and sit down and let someone else take the stage for a hot second. That is what an ally is supposed to do. That is what you should have used your platform to do. Instead, you used it to castigate already oppressed groups for not participating in activism in the way you think they should

And for the record, being sweet and nice and engaging has never done much for social justice activists. Making room for the thoughts and opinions of oppressive groups has never gained us anything. Women weren’t granted the right to vote because they valued the opinions of the men who didn’t think they had the mental capacity to participate in democracy – they won the right to vote by fighting for their beliefs, by being imprisoned for them and sometimes even dying for them. Their refusal to engage misogynists did not stifle progress – in fact, it hastened it. The sad truth is that it’s only when privileged groups realize that their voices can no longer fully dominate the discourse that we begin to see real change. Otherwise, if marginalized people continue to “make room” for the privileged, if they continue to stroke their egos and promise them that their thoughts are valued – in part because too much time is spent licking the master’s boots to actually get anything done, and also because if privileged voices are given free reign in a discussion about marginalizing forces, then they will almost always take over. Because that’s how privilege works.

Look, I get it. You’re both young guys, and maybe this is your first taste of not having your opinion automatically valued simply because of who you are. And I’m sure that the backlash to your article has not been a nice experience – no one, especially not someone who believes that they are an ally – wants to believe that they are hurting or oppressing other people. But you are being hurtful and oppressive, and until you sit back and listen to what we’re trying to tell you, you will continue to be so.

Also I truly believe that someday you will be deeply embarrassed by this tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 11.17.08 PM

 

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Pete Seeger, or How Teenagers Listen To Music

29 Jan

I’ve had a weirdly emotional reaction to Pete Seeger’s death. Like, way more intense than I would have imagined. I mean, he was 94, right? That’s a good run. A really good run. And I haven’t listened to his music in years and years. Maybe not really – not seriously, anyway – since I was a teenager, back in the days when I wore daisy chains in my long, ratty hair and fancied myself to be some sort of hippie. Later, I abandoned him when I grew what I thought was a more sophisticated taste in music; his stuff started to seem too plain, too openly earnest, too babyish.

Today, though, I’ve been listening to his songs non-stop, and nearly every single one of them has made my eyes well up. These days, I’m all about plain and openly earnest. I’ll take someone who really means what they’re singing over the clever kid with the hollow, dead-eyed lyrics any day.

I guess I’ve always loved Pete Seeger; at the very least, I’ve been listening to his songs my entire life. When I was a little kid we sang “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” in Brownies and Girl Guides. When I was a bit older I liked “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I Had A Hammer”. As a pretentious teenager who loved all things indie and underground, I fell in love with “Guantanamera” after it was used in Don McKellar’s 1998 film Last Night.

Last Night takes place during the final six hours of the world, which is about to end in a very polite Canadian apocalypse. The movie follows various story lines of characters, their paths often crossing and re-crossing, trying to make their last moments significant (or not). Sandra Oh plays a woman who’s desperately trying to get home to her husband, having gone out to buy the guns that they’re going to kill each other with just before the end comes – a sort of fuck you to the current circumstances, a way of taking control of their own deaths. But she can’t get home, because people are rioting in the streets, so she winds up at the apartment of a man played by Don McKellar. She asks to kill (and be killed) in lieu of her husband, as a way of keeping her word to him even if she can’t be with him. He agrees. And so the movie ends with them on his patio, guns pressed against each others’ heads, waiting until the last possible moment to pull the trigger. “Guantanamera” plays in the background.

But instead of shooting each other, they lower their hands, lean in, and kiss. And that too is a form of resistance, a way of saying fuck you to their circumstances.

And then the sun flares into an obliterating white, and everything stops.

I can’t watch it without crying. Still. Sixteen years later.

That scene might have been my first lesson in the ways that protest and resistance can look so different from how we might imagine them. It also may have been the first time I really understood that just because you know that there’s no possible way out, you still need to go down fighting.

Those were things that I learned from Pete Seeger’s music, too.

When I was a teenager, all music held some sort of lesson. I listened to music differently back then, in a way that seems uncomfortable, maybe almost painful now. There was an intensity of focus, a dizzying, full-body absorption that is almost totally lacking now. I studied songs that I loved as if they were going to be on the final exam; I learned them backwards and forwards, parsed their lyrics for meaning (especially meaning that seemed to apply specifically to my life), wrote them out over and over in the margins of my schoolwork. I lived those songs in a way that I just don’t anymore. I’m not sure when this stopped – sometime in my early twenties, I would guess – and I miss it. But maybe you just can’t sit with that kind of emotional intensity forever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that kids – teenagers especially – listen to music. And it’s almost like at that age, we listen as a way of learning how to interpret the world around us. Pop songs are, for teenagers, a sort of crash-course in understanding major life events that they haven’t yet experienced. I’d heard hundreds of songs about heartbreak before I ever had my heart broken; I’d listened to songs about death, about war, about inequality and resistance and protest long before actually living through those things. I sang along with songs about love, about its joys and its frightening fragility, years before falling in love. And so maybe that’s where the intensity comes from – we’re studying these three minute lessons packed full of unknown and highly romanticized human experiences, wanting so badly to know just exactly how they will feel when they finally happen to us.

When I was a teenager, I thought every song was about me. Even the ones I didn’t understand.

Pete Seeger’s songs seemed to be about me, too. Or at least about the great things that I would do – stand up against injustice, lead the charge against the oppressors, save the world. I wanted to be the girl who walked up to the line of soldiers, their guns, cold and oiled and gleaming, pointed straight at her, calmly offering them a daisy. I wanted to be so unafraid, even though I couldn’t imagine a time when I wasn’t always afraid of something or other.

hippie_puts_flower_in_gun

And maybe I am that girl now, just a little bit. And if that’s true, then it’s at least in part because of songs, like the songs of Pete Seeger, and theatre and art and literature and oratory that have stirred my stupid sluggish soul and made me believe that I could and should be doing something more than I am. Because that’s the magic of Seeger’s music – that it can create community where there was none before, move the crowd to action, and actually affect change.

Music, if properly wielded, can start a revolution.

And maybe tonight I’m listening again with that same intensity that I used to have. And maybe I’m learning all over again about subjects that I know nothing about; subjects that yesterday I might have thought I was some sort of expert in.

So thank you, Pete, for all the revolutions, big and small, that you are responsible for. Thank you for the big thoughts framed in simple rhymes and simple chords. Thank you for the music you gave to the labour rallies, the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes the written word can be ten times as powerful than a punch or a kick or a bullet. Thank you especially for your earnestness, because these days what I want more than anything is to be earnest. Thank you.

I hope it’s warm and peaceful wherever you. I hope that it’s dark, and that you’re finally able to take your rest. You’ve more than earned it.

This machine surrounds hate - Pete Seeger's banjo-8x6