Since being quarantined at home and having the internet and social media as my main connection to the outside world, my online bubbles have been full of news and images circulating of violence and injustice happening all around the world. How do we respond in these moments of relentless urgencies and emergencies that have been echoing calls for liberation from centuries ago?
It seems we are constantly exposed to the barenaked horrors of colonial capitalism, the haunting presence of the laws and actions of dead European men.
It’s not that people don’t know or are unaware that extreme inequality, racism, police brutality, genocide, climate crisis, gender violence, transphobia and homophobia exists. It’s not that people are not aware that COVID disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and migrant worker communities more than others.
How many times have we heard, “we just need to educate people, then things will change”? This strategy hasn’t worked, and it’s not going to work.
The information, the statistics, the research, the testimonials, the evidence – it is all there. But there is an assumption based on liberal politics that racists are ignorant, misogynists are just ignorant, and so police just need anti-racism training, rapists just need consent workshops, that abusers just need anger management programmes. How many times have we heard, “we just need to educate people, then things will change”? This strategy hasn’t worked, and it’s not going to work.
Being back in a space of education (or more specifically, the university), I have been meditating on what it is that takes us from consciousness to action, from knowledge to commitment, from education to activism, from awareness to organising. What is that step in between where some people are too afraid to venture into, what creates that hesitance or unwillingness?
We see a lot of campaigns, especially in the age of mass (social) media that are aimed at awareness-raising. There are countless books, articles, films, music, zines, videos, art and performance that is aimed at reaching out, educating, raising awareness, presenting information that hopes to move people into action.
The question of how we build mass movements is still relevant, how do we build mass movements that don’t only emerge in certain moments of crisis but that are sustained, ongoing and consistently coordinating and organising to build alternatives.
In my lonely thoughts about why it is that some people are moved to act when they are confronted with injustice and others may feel something but are not moved to act, I have started formulating some theories. I’m interested in the question of what social conditions and infrastructure can create and sustain thriving cultures of resistance? The question of how we build mass movements is still relevant, how do we build mass movements that don’t only emerge in certain moments of crisis but that are sustained, ongoing and consistently coordinating and organising to build alternatives.
The dominant systems of education, awareness raising and making information/knowledge available and accessible alone is not enough to mobilise. As Kassie said, it’s not just about having the right ideas, relationships are central to our organising. I want to engage with her thoughts on that and think about what could motivate us to be in supportive relationships of resistance. What would pull us towards forming relationships and connecting with others to strive towards a better world?
There are so many incredible teachers, scholars and educators who do the work of consciousness-raising and being grounded in community work. I have directly benefited from their pedagogical labour. I’m not dismissing that work and it is not that kind of work I’m critiquing. I’m trying to make sense of why people who are aware, who are exposed to knowledge about injustice either accept it, or only engage on a surface level, who cannot imagine beyond what exists.
When we are presented with information, for example, the history of slavery, colonialism, capitalism, war and the ongoing presence this has on the world; when we are aware of the statistical inequities in health, education, incarceration rates and income between groups of people that show clearly patterns of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia – there are several possible reactions from people who are not directly affected by this inequality. I’ve grouped them below.
Reaction A: Privileged individualism and acceptance of status quo
You might think there is nothing we can do to change this. This is just the way things are.
You might think this is normal and inevitable. You might be okay with this if it doesn’t directly harm you personally. You might think it’s up to every individual to get themselves out of positions of oppression, not your problem. You might think that if you’ve been able to achieve success in this system, everyone else should be able to do it too. You might justify to yourself why it’s okay to just absorb this information and accept it. You just don’t care.
Reaction B: Liberal benevolence and short-term engagement
You might be shocked that other people have it so much worse than you. You might try to learn more. You might share this information with our friends and families. You might feel anger at the system. You might think making reforms can fix the system.You might think the systems are generally working well but some minor tweaks will make it fair again. It’s just a few bad apples in positions of power, if we remove them and have better people in power, everything will be fine.
You might think making donations, signing petitions, sharing information, supporting legal changes is the solution, showing up to protests every now and then will be enough. You might think the system is redeemable and the worst of it can be avoided through changing things from within. You might think a world without capitalism is too extreme and wouldn’t work.
Reaction C: Radical empathy and long-term commitment
You understand on a visceral and emotional level what this information is talking about because you have lived it or still living it or have family members, friends and people who you are related to experience it. You might be in community with people trying to organise against this system. You might think of ways you can contribute to organising. You might reach out to groups and organisations to make links. You might start your own collective to build something.
You might seek coalitions and work with allies. You might be exposed to alternative possibilities and can imagine something better, something else. You might seek out stories and genealogies of resistance. You might already be organising with people with shared ideas and values.
You might listen to the people and respect the leadership of those who have been most impacted by these systems, learn from their perspectives and support their demands.
You might decide to commit your life to changing and transforming these structures of power so that everyone can live a life of safety, dignity and freedom.
There are many more possible reactions to education about injustice. I just wanted to highlight these three for now and think about the differences between them and what the conditions are for each of them. I want to try to understand these different positions to better shift and engage with these responses, to try to change the conditions that produce them.
The difference between A and B I think is care and empathy. This is political because of the ways that care and empathy are selective, whose lives are grievable and whose lives are disposable. The ideologies and structures of racism, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, speciesism renders some lives more valuable and grievable than others. If someone cannot empathise or care about lives and bodies who are not like theirs, they are unlikely to take care enough to act. They may not even consider it an injustice. This is not about “ignorance”. Even if they had all the information and knowledge, even if they are presented with sobering facts, it won’t change their perspective if their values or ethical compass are fundamentally different.
Another aspect in the difference between A and B is a sense of power to change things. Even if you did recognise injustice, you might not think anything can be done about it and it’s better to accept things and “move on”. How many times has that been said about colonial injustice and issues around Te Tiriti? This comes from a place of not caring but also a place of “I can’t do anything about it”. It might come from a place of fear or insecurity of how any change to the status quo might affect you if you are relatively comfortable or privileged. It might come from a place of “it is hard, but we have managed to survive in this and people just need to work hard and they can get there too.” It might also come from traumas of political violence that has destroyed their hopes of change.
Reaction B does involve some level of empathy and care, but this could also be coming from a place of benevolence, of charity, a recognition of injustice and wanting some kind of change, but not too much. There may be tokenistic short-term action to reform some laws or change some policies, like diversifying the government or the police force.
I think the main differences between B and C reactions are lived experience and imagination. While reaction B insists on the maintenance of the existing system and believes the system is just, but it’s people within it that do the bad stuff. Anything outside of this system of capitalism and colonising democracy is unimaginable, deemed impractical or impossible. I am reminded of Dr. Moana Jackson’s call for the need to imagine a different reality, to be able to imagine the impossible.
Political structures are made and maintained by people, they can be unmade, destroyed, replaced and transformed.
The boundaries and “territories” of imagination are constructed by the systems we have grown up in. My generation grew up with maps of the world colour-coded with nation-states, lines drawn to demarcate colonial borders, names of places imposed by colonisers. Even two generations back, these borders were not the same, they have not always been there. This is not the way that humans have always imagined the world. Owning land and property has not been the dominant way humans have related to land. The gender binary system doesn’t exist across all cultures and times.
Political structures are made and maintained by people, they can be unmade, destroyed, replaced and transformed. But in the hegemonic systems of education, our imaginations are limited, confined and we are taught stories of how lucky we are to have democracy, to be able to vote. We aren’t taught how this democracy was built and how it operated to strip Indigenous people of sovereignty and political power.
Having lived experiences of oppression is a form of knowledge that is irreplaceable by academic theory. You cannot truly understand something by only reading books. The other difference is relationships, but if we are committed to change, this is something we would form by getting involved. You can imagine wider possibilities without necessarily having lived experiences of oppression. You need to be open to worldviews and perspectives, knowledge that is not institutionally stamped as legitimate knowledge.
I’m mapping out these different kinds of reactions to figure out how people can be moved from A to B to C, how we can facilitate easier pathways to create thriving cultures of resistance, liberation, collective care and mutual aid in the face of a multiverse of apocalyptic presents that started over 500 years ago.
The liberal strategy of “we just need to educate people” is not working.
This is not to say that political education isn’t important. We do need the analytical tools too, and theory helps us to make sense of things, but this is only part of the process. We cannot assume change will happen through that alone.
It is one thing to understand something theoretically, another to be in the practice of it. Change and learning comes with practice, it cannot be devoid of practice. I have known far too many cismen who know the language of feminism, have had education on consent and patriarchy, but still hurt and abuse ciswomen, nonbinary and trans people. I have known too many cis-feminists who hurt and abuse nonbinary, trans people and other ciswomen. I have known too many anti-racists who participate in upholding white supremacy. These politics are a practice, a relationship, not an identity or a theory. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a new skill knows that it takes practice to master something, and it takes persistent practice for it to become embodied and second nature. Even if you understand and can read music, it doesn’t mean you can play any instrument. It takes commitment to practicing and learning. We need to imagine and practice the impossible, to focus more on creating and demonstrating alternatives.
Beyond education and awareness raising approaches, we need to figure out ways to shift values, frameworks and expand imagination. We need consistent practice in learning respectful relationships with each other. Those relationships are sites of building confidence and power to create greater social change.
Many thanks to Kassie Hartendorp for inspiring this article, as well as for feedback and proofreading!