Rage away Friend!

The world seems full of possibility, everything doable. I remember when I was a girl and would rail against some sexist thing or the other, fighting with my cousins-uncles-aunts-teachers who insisted that women were an inferior type of human (it was quite normal to hold such views in those days), who told us that if some man pinched us on the bus, it must be because we’d worn Jeans (an immodest western invention) or looked someone in the eye (more immodesty). I once bit one of my cousins, so incensed was I by his unshakable and illogical superiority over me. Another one, I refused to speak to for years after he told me proudly about how he and his friends “rubbed against” the girls on the bus. And all those awful Bollywood movies in which either the woman was burnt to death by her in-laws or was raped before her marriage and had to kill herself to protect her family from shame. And everyone else found these movies perfectly entertaining!

And this was all just 15 years ago – all of these seem so bizarre now that I find myself questioning whether these actually happened or whether I’m exaggerating. And no! This and more happened routinely. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would change so much, so fast. I never dared hope – I assumed the world would remain what it was, and the most I expected for myself was to escape being burnt alive or raped.

And today, I look around me, and my family whatsapp group is filled with people tripping over themselves to proclaim their support for feminist ideals. The cousin I bit – he is the most vociferous of them all! The Indian girls in my class are loud and don’t seem to feel the need to mute.

So today, the world seems so full of hope. Everything can change and will change.

None of these changes, of course, can be traced back to anything I specifically did. But I believe that all my constant fighting and arguing and railing and hoping and praying and raging and supporting those I thought were on the “right side” and sometimes-sneaky battles against those I thought were on the “wrong side”….I believe that all these actions somehow helped create the world I see around me. Today, I go into a road-side restaurant in Chennai and there are young women sitting alone at tables ordering meals – 15 years ago, I was the only one I knew who did such “shameless-forward” things. It makes me want to crow and jump for joy seeing this. And of course, this does not mean that all things are great; clearly they are not….But I feel so certain that the thankless task of arguing and fighting and raging will bear fruit; perhaps not in any direct tangible way, but it will bear fruit and much much sooner than we expect or even dare hope for. So rage away, my friend! The world shifts and changes and reforms itself every time you do.

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rage not gratitude

Recently I have been thinking a bit about the role of anger in political struggle and specifically about social justice framing that seems to eliminate the constructive role of anger. Ironically my reflections have been prompted by wondering why certain things seem to fill me with rage.

For example, those “gratitude” posts a lot of my friend network is doing on Facebook. They make me roll my eyes and make it harder for me to like the friends who do them, even though I know and love those people, and I understand that in most cases my friends are just trying to search for the beauty in this beautiful, terrible world we live in. They are just trying to find their own reasons for getting out of bed every day.

Nonetheless, they have a stifling aspect as well. When people make a conscious project out of only posting – to others as well as for themselves – only the things that happen in their days for which they are grateful, it seems a bit self-righteous. It is certainly sending the message to “be grateful for what you have,” which is followed by a silent “instead of complaining about what you don’t.” I guess in some social circles complaining about what you don’t have might take the place of wanting a new toy or a bigger fancier house, but generally I use Facebook to complain about things like the fact that Black people in the United States don’t have the right not to be executed on the sidewalk by state- and public-sanctioned violence. Or the admittedly less tragic fact that capitalism makes me a sadder and more anxious person by requiring me to have a job for which I either feel a survivor’s guilt for my adjuncting friends, or in which I feel underappreciated because the state government which employs me is actively involved in ridiculing the value of what I do and teach, or where I must walk the line between “doing what I love” and allowing myself to be taken advantage of by an institution that certainly does not love me back.

I recently attended an event which honored the lives of Black men and women who have been murdered by the police across the United States. While the program was inspiring, no sooner had the possibility of anger been touched on than the (African American) organizers began to sidestep the blunt truth in an effort to make sure the police officers in attendance felt included and heard in the conversation. In fact, the officers in attendance were more profusely thanked than just about anyone else. Simply for being cops at a community event. I was personally enraged by the bending over backwards on display to make sure the cops at the event did not feel somehow personally implicated in these stories. Shouldn’t we be working to make sure that cops DO feel personally implicated so they can begin to reflect on the role they are playing in such an obviously racist institution? Don’t we need cops who can at least face the facts of what their colleagues across the country are guilty of if we have any hope of a less racist future for policing? Certainly love has a place in my ethos of struggle, but I’m not so sure about gratitude.

I am agnostic about the strategy of building bridges with oppressors in an effort to bring about change. I cannot say with assurance that there’s never a role or necessity of doing so, or that nothing good ever comes of it. What I can say with confidence is that this is most certainly not the ONLY way of bringing about change and that often this is a way to de-escalate successful radical tactics.

If we’re going to survive within a poisonously racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist dominant culture, don’t we need to cultivate some rage to keep ourselves sane? Melissa Harris Perry draws extensively on the metaphor of the crooked room where women of color spend all of their time adjusting their behavior to the crooked room in which they stand. While there may be a place in such a struggle of radical love for oppressors, mustn’t we permit ourselves and other to first feel the rage that surely must attend the daily insults to our sanity in order to recognize ourselves as the fully human people that the dominant culture cannot see? How can we recover our own dignity without feeling anger at the systems and people who steal it from us on a daily basis?

As I write this I notice I’m feeling somewhat defensive about my embrace of rage. I wonder if my own vacillation between embracing my rage and trying to quell it can even be untangled from all of the bullshit sexist messages I’ve received over the course of my life about being such a polarizing, shrill, person. Actually I spend a lot of energy trying to shield others from the full-on, gale-force level, shrieking harpy brunt of my real rage at the hideous and preventable injustice I see at work every. fucking. day. in our world.

Why should I protect others from outrage at injustice I haven’t caused? Fuck that; rage it is.

Saying what I really think.

I am envious of my dear friend Unamerican. She has found, through what most likely was a not-straightforward process, a spot within academia that reconciles multiple interests and fits within her moral view of the herself and the world. I am jealous while also simultaneously disagreeing with her and being happy for her. Let me focus on the disagreement part for the moment.

Let me back up a bit and start with what I thought/hoped for when I joined academia. I thought: (a) that by joining academia, I’m participating in a parallel world that is set-apart and away and above the industrialist system, giving me the role of overseer, evaluator, and educator. I thought that an academic job, where I might contribute to understanding alternative forms of firm governance and corporate wrongdoing, was a simultaneously more worthy and more interesting task. (b) I also thought/hoped that this more critical view of our existing system would be my contribution as a teacher. (c) and finally, I thought that my presence (as a brown woman teaching a business course) helped overturn implicitly held notions about who does what type of work.

And in the past 12 years within western academia, it is true that some of these did hold. It is true, for instance, that as a researcher, I have had the opportunity to study the industrial system as an outsider. However, what is also true is that there is almost no demand/interest in such work, and the bar for publishing/getting a job/tenure in such areas is impossibly high, which tends to happen when there is too little demand for a particular type of work. I cannot, in good conscience, encourage PhD students who are interested in this field. The reasons for this dearth become painfully obvious as soon as you walk into an MBA classroom. This is a place populated by keen middle-aged men (and a handful of women) who have shelled approximately 50K in the hopes that an MBA will give them a boost in the career-race. They want courses on leadership and motivation and negotiation skills and technology strategy. They don’t want to hear about how the industrial system is organized and which types of arrangements are most likely to lead to corporate wrongdoing, and you can’t teach something people don’t want to learn. No demand for a particular type of teaching -> less interest in that field of research (on average, 3 people read the articles published in top-journals in this field) -> a greater and greater reliance on contribution to core theory to justify research -> high bar for publication/tenure -> a handful of white men survive and dominate the field -> activism consists of these few getting together once every couple of years and bemoaning their irrelevance.

So at least in my little bit of the universe, there is no connection between academia and social relevance.

in defense of stridency

I am the kind of person that enjoys being loud, definitive, and often strident. This does not mean that I enjoy dominating other people or converting them to my point of view, but I often find it is a struggle just to openly hold my own beliefs, many of which are anti-mainstream. I am the kind of person who literally gets a jaw ache after a meeting or a cocktail party where I have self-censored and not spoken the majority of my thoughts. To some extent, this just makes me an extrovert. I think it also relates to my understanding about social change, which is, put succinctly, that the only place one can be free is in the struggle, but that connection is too elaborate and of too little interest to anyone else to unpack here.

More relevant to our project here, my inability so much of the time to just say what I think is directly tied to the racist, sexist, classist, speciesist, capitalist, ableist norms in the society at large (and society writ small in the institutions where we work and play). If what I fervently believe is anti-racist, then it stands to reason that it will be perceived as radical, and strident, and maybe even antagonistic, to the majority of people in a racist society. I’ll be a bitch if I say what I think.

I’m writing in circles here.

Maybe instead I should start at the beginning. I see myself as a person with a strong moral compass and a strong sense of ethical standards. Being an irreligious person, and a person who believes there’s no such thing as god, and having been raised outside of any formal religious or ethical traditions, I have spent a significant amount of thought developing my own sense of how to be a good person in the world.

I’ll explain this through an example. I don’t eat meat of any kind. And I do so for ethical reasons. Sure, it’s better for the environment. Sure, it’s pretty good for my health. But the fundamental reason I don’t eat meat is because I think it’s wrong to eat another living animal if it is completely possible for me survive (and even thrive) without doing so. And, if you really press me, it’s true that I find it abhorrent for others to eat meat. I think it’s wrong.

However, this is never, ever information that I volunteer. I do not shame others for what they eat, or ask them not to eat it in front of me. I simply refuse to eat, prepare, or have meat in my own house. If you ask me why I’m a vegetarian I will give you the short answer “for ethical reasons” specifically to avoid making anyone feel judged or uncomfortable about their own choices (which, after all, are theirs to make). It’s only if you keep asking that I’ll say what I said above—that I think it’s wrong to eat animals. The vast majority of people dearest to me in the world eat meat and a good portion of those disagree with me on the moral question; for me the test of those close to me isn’t whether they meet my moral standards, it’s whether I can be explicit and open about my moral standards with them and find a situation of mutual respect and tolerance.

The trouble is, this is how I see myself but this does not seem to be how others (less close relationships) react to me. When it comes out, as it did recently, that I hold some kind of core ethical belief, people sometimes react as if I’ve become a Puritan right in front of their eyes. As if it were unfashionable to have a moral compass, or as if I had begun praying for their souls right there at the dinner table. When my friends discover that I think they are wrong for eating meat, I wonder if they feel like I did in high school when I realized a Baptist friend was certain that I was on my way to hell, and that this fact regularly made him very sad?

The thing is, I feel like I’ve learned to live with having a lot of people around me who’s relationships with me co-exist with their sadness that I’m on my way to hell. Those are irreconcilable ethical differences, and to me the only thing we can do is set them aside and agree to disagree. They’re at once very deep and somewhat unimportant, because that’s how the world is. It isn’t consistent or tidy or permanent. In fact, that’s why I feel I need to have a clear sense of morality so that I can be guided in all this murkiness, but that also means that my sense of morality has to allow for change and compromise and above all the complete humanity of others. Which means respecting their autonomy and ability to make judgments and what David Foster Wallace called “the richness of their interior lives.” But somehow I feel that others are not always able to do this for me. When I sense that I disagree on some fundamental level with a friend (for example, about the existence of god), I don’t attempt to get them to tell me what they think so I can convince them otherwise. I think that fundamentally disrespects the other, because it implies that I don’t respect their ability to develop ideas as correct as my own – why am I sure I know better than them? I am sure of that for myself but it’s wrong to impose that.

My fear of how others will react to what I really think leads to self-policing, which inevitably leaves me feeling silenced and somewhat lonely. I have a deep need to say what I think (maybe we all do), and I don’t think this need implies a similar need to have others agree with me. I just wish I was sure I could count on receiving the same respect in return.

the university is and is not a good base for struggle.

CAUTION: THIS IS NOT A HOW-TO.

A few weeks ago I promised this post, and I want to start out by saying very clearly that I am not arguing that academia is the perfect activist career, or that it is an activist career of any kind. Academics do sometimes make this claim. Colleagues have at various times said that “teaching is my activism now.” I do not agree. While I think there is a role for activism in academia (and find it to be a good place for me), I don’t think anything about academia is inherently activist and I disagree that teaching in an institutionalized setting is in and of itself activism. Even more radical forms of university teaching are not actually the same as activism. That seems to be committing the same fallacy as believing that activism begins and ends with “awareness.” But making people “aware” of a social problem, no matter how important that may be, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with changing that problem or encouraging people to act. And it certainly doesn’t lead directly to any kind of collective action (usually just the opposite) which is likely to be the only way such problems will change. Good education encourages more engagement than that, but I feel strongly that it is no substitute for engagement itself.

OK, so being an academic doesn’t make you an activist. In fact, as Bodhi and Potato have been pointing out vividly, academia compares to other work environments as “same shit, different pay scale.” There are, however, some things about it that make it, for me, an excellent base for struggle. One is that while it compares poorly to non-jobs like being active in the struggle, it compares well to other jobs one can do in the capitalist economy. It’s not-for-profit, so while I may be participating in maintaining many forms of inequality (my classes, like most other college classes, certainly contribute to the reproduction of race-class-gender inequality), I am participating much less explicitly and directly. I am not aiming to increase anyone’s profits and everyone has to at least give lip service to having an interest in a more altruistic and intrinsic value to the work. I like that.

Even better, parts of my job can be successfully combined with things I’d do anyway as an activist, reducing the conflict I feel between how many hours a week I need to work in order to pay my rent and the time I can spend on activist projects. For my dissertation research I spent a lot of time participating in a movement as a member and doing the work of that movement. I’m now beginning another research project, and I’m hoping with this one to engage my students in some community activism and to use the format of a class to gather some useful data for community activists. I’m still ambivalent about whether the publication of this research constitutes activism, but the fact is that I can do grassroots work in my community and count those same hours as research instead of logging two separate activities in the same constrained time frame.

Some other advantages: (1) academic freedom–what’s left of it–prohibits my employer from firing me for my activism (unlike in the private sector); (2) I can use other job duties like reading and keeping abreast of advances in my field to keep myself informed in ways that make me useful to the wider community in which I participate as an activist; and (3) I remain in touch with young college activists, who are energetic, have a few fresh ideas, and most importantly are much less cynical than my own cohort.

Of course the most ethical thing to do is quit my job and join the struggle full time, amassing no possessions or career of my own. However I have found that very few people are able to sustain this attitude over any length of time, and in the long run it seems like having some slightly less committed folks engaged for decades in meaningful community work challenging power is probably better than having totally committed people who give up completely in a few years. This is what I meant by the “pursuit of lifelong militancy”; the university provides me with a salary and enough stability to reduce the possibility of burning out as an activist while placing those things in less competition with activism than they would be in most jobs. At this job, my responsibilities will not continue to increase if it seems like I have “too much time” to spend in the community (although the side-glances of my colleagues might increase and that is more true if I am not white). But I feel that academia complements my activism most of the time, especially the less invested I am in my prominence and success within it. Perhaps that’s whyacademia is so deeply under attack in the US today. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found this base for myself. It’s not a bunker apart from racism, classism, and sexism, but I think it can be a haphazard lean-to in the capitalist storm.

bourgeois struggle

Today I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of being overly bourgeois. Of course, in an empirical sense, that’s just true and there can be no debate. I’m a college professor with a PhD and a steady income. What I’m really concerned about is being so wrapped up in my own concerns and my comfort to the exclusion of noticing the discomfort (oppression) of others. Probably this is a worry caused by suddenly having too much time on my hands (how bourgeois).

I know though, or I think I know, from experience that it’s important for me to hold myself responsible to this concern. Very few other people will. In fact, if this isn’t just a response to too much (bourgeois) time on my (soft) hands in my (single family) house, it could be because I just emailed one of the few friends in my life who does actually hold me accountable to the meaning of militancy.

The email involved a lot of guilt on my part. My friend is someone I met doing fieldwork in Buenos Aires, where I haven’t managed to return for a full two years, my longest period of absence since I first started my research there in 2008. It’s important to me that my research and militancy in Argentina is actual committed militancy and not just a temporary relationship that serves my academic needs, and when I fail to prioritize contact with my compas there it becomes harder for me to convince myself that this is the case. On top of that more general guilt, I also hadn’t emailed this friend directly in a very long time, which always makes me feel bad (and since I have a lot of friends and write few emails, I feel this guilt a lot).

As an excuse and in order to catch up, I explained to my friend that the last year has been a really big one for me: I finished writing the dissertation we’ve talked so much about, got my PhD, moved to a new town, and began life as an assistant professor. I lamented that I did not have much news to report in the way of struggles or movements I’ve been involved in here in the United States. Now, most of my friends would understand this, and would start immediately pointing out how many classes I’ve taught this year and how overwhelming it has been (and they wouldn’t be wrong: in the last year I taught 7 classes, 4 preps, and 3 new preps, for those of you keeping score). But I know that this friend is not going to do that. She is going to be disappointed in me, or at least be unimpressed with my excuses and wish that I was doing more with all my yanqui privilege. My biggest fear is that she’s going to feel I’ve confirmed her suspicion that I have settled into the identity of bourgeois professor who feels that writing, researching, and teaching are activism (which they are not—maybe I’ll post about that another day).

bourgeois prof

One of the things I love about this friend is that her presence in my life helps me resist becoming precisely this kind of non-militant academic. I wish that more of my friendships kept me accountable in this way, and I wonder why they don’t. Is it too hard to point this out to one another? Is it a devastating critique to suggest to your friends that they ought to spend a little more time out in the streets (or practicing liberation in covert spaces), especially when your friends are academics who know what a difference that time could make? Academia is full of people who talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. I myself often point out that fact about people, but I rarely hold friends and colleagues accountable for it to their faces.

I suspect my feeling (particularly) bourgeois is related to my disconnection from other militants. Militants, after all, are by definition people who do actually hold each other accountable to the necessity of struggling for a better world. Academics do not do this. More often we help each other find reasons why we are too busy doing other things.

In my case, I have in fact been filling my time with meaningful pursuits, many of which I know are really important for the pursuit of lifelong militancy rather than the more intense brand one can usually only sustain for a few years in their 20s. But I am also suddenly faced with a feeling that I’ve been very focused on myself and unconnected to the struggle for liberation, and it’s time to change that. It’s true I’m in it for the long haul, and it’s true that I live in a smallish town where barging in with a new idea for radical struggle without first understanding the local terrain could make it impossible for me to do much for the next 10 years. But it’s also true that if I never get started, if I never get committed (or recommitted, again and again), I may just get more comfortable. And more removed from those compas and militants who will push and inspire me.