Monday, April 13, 2015

Fear Culture and the Misappropriation of Safe Space

Three weeks ago, the New York Times ran a pretty nasty op-ed by a woman named Judith Shulevitz, ridiculing efforts by college students to make their campuses “safe” or “safer”.  Ms Shulevitz focused on efforts to shield students from the traumatic impact of racist, sexist, Islamophobic or homophobic speech and suggested that students were “infantilizing” themselves by trying to wrap themselves in security blankets.  Because her tone was so unnecessarily belittling, the article drew pushback from students and educators, along with predictable plaudits and reposts by right-wing blogs like The Daily Caller and  Unfortunately, amidst all the name-calling, her legitimate point – or at least the legitimate point she might have made – got lost.

I was part of some of the first feminist organizations to introduce the idea of creating “safe space.”  It seemed like a good idea at the time (the early to mid-1980s), a way of enabling that the most oppressed among us – women of color, working class women, immigrants, lesbians ‑ would be able to express themselves without being attacked or shut down.  We used tools like active listening, guidelines like “Use I statements,” (“I feel attacked,” rather than “You’re attacking me”), and caucusing with others who experienced similar oppressions.  None of this, however, was intended to shield us from hearing oppressive things, it was a way to deal with them when they happened, which they inevitably did.  In fact, the reason we wanted to make a safe space was so that we could tackle the thorniest issues within our groups – racism, homophobia, sexual trauma, fat oppression.  This was particularly important in a group like San Francisco Women Against Rape, where so many of us were survivors of violence.  We understood that without a process for examining and trying to address power imbalances and harmful dynamics, they would be swept under the rug but not go away and eventually women would leave the group.

By the late nineties, feminists had recognized that “safe space” was impossible and started talking about “safer” spaces.  Ten years later, that concept had evolved again, into “working space.”  Another veteran of SFWAR, who now teaches at a women’s college back east, said she tells her students, “This is not a safe space, it’s a learning space, and learning isn't safe.”  Nonetheless, the principles, that we ought to take care of each other, that accepting conflict doesn’t mean it’s open season to lash out in oppressive ways, remain valid and important.

Feminist and queer theorists of color have pointed out that the whole idea of “safety” is culturally laden.  Assuming, for instance, as the Michigan Women’sMusic Festival does, that women feel safer among people who share our natal genitalia presumes a primacy and community of gender that many women do not feel.  When I was in college, we white feminists could not understand why Black feminists wanted men to participate in a Take Back The Night march.  Only years later did it occur to me why being among hundreds of white women chanting about rape might have felt scary to Black women (yes, I was really dumb).

When we all have such different requirements for safety, the idea of making policy – whether it’s for a school, a city or a country – based on people’s individual perception of danger risks doing the very opposite of what the feminist movement was aiming for when we introduced the concept of safer space.  The claim that Jewish students feel“unsafe” has been repeatedly used to shut down campus activism criticizing Israel.  The feeling by police officers that their lives were in danger was the alleged basis for the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Yuvette Henderson and hundreds of others in the last year.  Binyamin Netanyahu’s, and by extension the Israeli public’s, feeling that their security is threatened gives us a drumbeat of dire predictions if the US does not declare war on Iran – a drumbeat inexplicably given enormous space in the US media.

My brother-in-law and I were talking a couple weeks ago about buffer zones, or no-protest zones, around abortion clinics.  He said that women find it upsetting to be harassed on their way into a clinic.  I said yes, and I expect delegates to the World Trade Organization found it upsetting to be yelled at by protesters at the Seattle ministerial.  But I and 20,000 of my friends felt we had the right to do it.  There’s a large Catholic church on the corner near my house.  If I happen to walk by there during Sunday mass, I usually see two people standing in front of the church with signs about misogyny and child abuse.  (One of the two is Pat Maginnis, who was prosecuted for handing out illegal information about abortion in the 1960s - check out her great websitie.).  I’m sure the people who go to the church find it upsetting to see them there.  I wish people would not think it was their business to tell women what to do with their bodies, but making laws outlawing certain opinions in certain locations is, in my opinion, much more dangerous.

The concept that the personal is political and emotion is as important in politics as rationality has been an extraordinary contributions of the feminist movement.  But it was meant as a starting point, not a way to block out ideas that make us uncomfortable.  Since each of us is made uncomfortable by different things, if we banned everything that made anyone feel unsafe, what would we have left to discuss?

Ultimately, what we feel must give way to a sober assessment of what actual danger exists or doesn’t exist.  And college campuses are a good place to learn to do that assessing.  Being controlled by our fear opens the door to untrammeled authoritarianism, a danger that currently - in my sober assessment - is all too real.  That’s what Judith Shulevitz should have pointed out.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Five Alternatives to “Thank You For Your Service”

I cringe every time I hear the words.  That’s okay, though, because so do the people they are directed to.
I’m talking about “Thank you for your service,” the nifty catchphrase that’s supposed to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – or War on Terror veterans, if you will – never feel the sting of rejection that Vietnam Veterans did.

I guess I missed the moment when that particular murmur became de rigeur.  It must have been around the time “No worries” entered the U.S. lexicon.

But no worries; whenever and however it got started, I hereby declare it done.

Vets say they hate it because the people saying it don’t really mean it.  People don’t really want to hear about their service; they just want to thank them and move on.  I think people do mean it, but it doesn’t mean what they think it does.

Here’s what it’s supposed to mean:  Regardless of what I think of the war you fought in, I appreciate the fact that you were willing to die to keep me safe.

Seems harmless enough.  But it’s not.  Here’s why:

  • The purpose for which people fight does matter.  The troops know it and so do we.  A lot of us have participated in things we thought were a good idea which weren’t.  But we don’t get “thanked” for them.  They’re not “service.”  A service has to benefit someone.  Just thinking you were doing a good thing isn’t enough.  These kids may have signed up to keep us safe, protect democracy, bring liberation to the Iraqis, protect Afghan women from the Taliban, but they didn’t do any of that.  When we thank them for participating in a lie, we perpetuate and enlarge the lie.  That’s called doubling down on our folly.
  • The lie becomes its own raison d’etre.  On The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the other night, a vet explained that the troops are not thinking in geopolitical or global economic terms.  The only thing they’re thinking about, he said, is protecting the guys on either side of them.  Unfortunately, that’s another way of saying, “American lives are the only thing that matter.”  That’s what got us into this mess in the first place, and it’s a problem when you’re sitting in someone else’s country with many tons of destructive equipment.
  • The actual services people perform every day are not valued.  Airline pilots don’t call out the names of teachers, nannies and nurses and thank them for their service.  We don’t say thank you to the kids who got a job at McDonalds after school to help pay their families’ rent or the ones who are watching their little siblings while their parents are at work.  We certainly don’t say it to the people organizing Black Lives Matter marches.  The message to the returning troops is that nothing else they do, no matter how much more worthwhile it may actually be than whatever they did over there (which they’re right, we really don’t want to hear about), will ever earn them the appreciation we’re giving them for participating in a grand lie.  And what it says to the young people who didn’t make that fatal mistake is that unless they’re willing to be violent, no sacrifice is worthy of our thanks.
  • The people who are busy thanking the troops love to talk about “accountability.”  Yet for the returnees, there is no accountability.  It’s true that no one wants to hear about what they did, and it’s also true that no one makes them say what they did.  Many of them did terrible things.  No, it wasn’t their idea, but again, many of us join in bad schemes that weren’t our ideas.  And for some of them, it was their idea.  If one-third of women in the military are sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers, someone is doing all that assaulting.  Ultimately, they know what they did.  For those with a conscience, it will haunt them forever.  For those without – well, that may come to haunt us forever.

So here are some things we could say to those returning vets in the airport, instead of “Thank you for your service.”

1)      “I’m sorry you were lied to.”  Okay, it’s not poetry, and it might not make them happy.  It’s honest, and it might lead to a conversation.

2)      “What are you going to do next?”  It’s never too soon to remind them that they do have a future.

3)      “How are you?”  Simple, but to the point.  You have to want to hear the answer.

4)      “What would you like people to know about what happened there?”  I’ve actually tried that one.  It’s always interesting.

5)      “Welcome home.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

It's Your Grandkids' Civil Rights Movement

If Oprah Winfrey were not so in love with Hollywood, she would not say something as stupid as that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has no leaders and no concrete demands.

The people who say that stuff must have their quotes sitting in a drawer to pull out every time there’s a threat of a viable movement in the present, because legitimate social movements can only exist in the past, and insofar as they can be rendered suitably photogenic for a major motion picture.  If they’re too messy (read complex), they either (1) don’t exist, (2) have to be dumbed down, or (3) are insane.

In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, the widespread accusations of leaderless chaos and fuzzy principles of unity are hard to comprehend, because the movement has some very visible spokespeople and a five-point program.  In contrast to the all-demands-welcome Occupy culture, #BLM has explicitly requested that everyone who wants to support their movement refer to these five demands:
  • We will seek justice for Brown’s family by petitioning for the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough. Groups that are part of the local Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition have already called for Wilson’s swift arrest, and some BLM riders also canvassed McCullough’s neighborhood as a way of raising the public’s awareness of the case.
  • We will help develop a network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US. The Justice Department’s new investigation into St Louis-area police departments is a good start, but it’s not enough. Our ride was endorsed by a few dozen local, regional and national organizations across the country – like the National Organization for Women (Now) and Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation – who, while maintaining different missions, have demonstrated unprecedented solidarity in response to anti-black police violence. We hope to encourage more organizations to endorse and participate in a network with a renewed purpose of conceptualizing policy recommendations.
  • We will also demand, through the network, that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement. And though Congress seems to finally be considering measures in this regard, it remains essential to monitor the demilitarization processes and the corporate sectors that financially benefit from the sale of military tools to police.
  • We will call on the office of US attorney general Eric Holder to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already.
  • And we will advocate for a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.
No leaders?  Alicia Garza, Ashley Yates, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Jameila White, Cat Brooks, Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrel, Zakiya Jemmott.  Maybe the reason Oprah Winfrey can’t see them is because they’re women?  Try Larry Fellows III.  Zachary Murray.  This is a leaderful movement.
BLM’s real offense is that they have embraced the slogan “This is not your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”  That ruffles a lot of feathers, because the grandparents’ civil rights movement has been cast as the gold standard of U.S. activism.  What the youth are saying may sound, to those who were part of the civil rights movement of the sixties (or want to believe or pretend they were), like a dismissal of their proudest accomplishments.  It’s not.  Millennial activists are not trying to deny the importance of what has come before; they’re just saying, “That was then, this is now, you did your part, we’re going to do ours our way.”

In the movie “Budrus,” about the Palestinian nonviolent movement, 16-year-old Iltezam Morar says, “All my life, I heard people talking about the First Intifada, the First Intifada.  This is my turn.”  Every generation of activists needs to make that break, find their own form of struggle.  In my day, it was all about affinity groups and six-hour direct action trainings.  I still think that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t fit so well with the quick click lifestyle.  Most younger activists are getting their training on the street.

The civil rights movement is a mythical yardstick for new movements.  It was never one thing.  As has been well documented in so many books and articles they would probably reach from New York to California, there were movements for Black freedom in hundreds of towns and cities in the fifties and sixties.  The “civil rights movement” included innumerable organizations, not all of whom liked each other, from the NAACP to SNCC to the Organization of Afro American Unity.  Many of the people who marched in Selma considered Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Ivanhoe Donaldson more significant leaders than Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Freedom Riders nicknamed Dr. King “De Lawd,” it was not out of respect.
People who suggest that the Black Lives Matter activists should be doing today what Dr. King did in 1965 ignore the fact that King and others founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, following a year of activism around the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which itself grew out of years of similar actions that failed to capture widespread attention and thus spark a movement.  By the time King was invited to the White House, he had been in jail numerous times.  In part because of the ability to spread information about actions quickly across distance, #BLM has been able to coalesce around its messages much faster.  In 1970, activists Carol Wilson and Patricia Jackson drove across country to spread literature and news about the women’s movement.  Now you can post a picture on Tumblr and the next day see someone across the world holding up the same image.

Mainstream critics like Oprah want #BLM to hurry up and institutionalize, get an office, rein in its brilliant semi-spontaneous unpredictability in favor of choreographed nondisruptive protests, and lobby for short-term policy changes.  If I thought there was any chance that would happen, I would lay out the reasons it’s a terrible idea.  But I’m pretty sure the movement is just getting started.  Hopefully, the skeptics are just about done.