Okay, so I already got cracking with the sermonizing. I had a lot of criticism in that post, and expressed a lot of doubt about our movements as they currently stand. So what do I expect? What am I asking for, other than hey, y’all, let’s all have feelings together, won’t that be swell, what that is of substance? If I’m so sure things aren’t working, what’s my better suggestion? How is vulnerability really going to change our movements and our world, other than to get us talking about all of our aches and pains?
I plan on being infuriating, and answering the question with a question. No: an exercise. I think it’s time we go to class for a minute. For this, I turn, as I often do, to one of the best teachers I will ever know for inspiration. Two years ago, Alexis Pauline Gumbs published a piece called Wishful Thinking, one which I only let myself near every now and then because the first time I heard her read it I was in tears, and it is easy to get me there with her work ever since. With her piece, she asks one of the hardest, scariest, most vulnerable questions of all:
Oh, come on, like I’m just going to say it. It’s under the cut. But I’ll tell you one thing in advance: I think if feminism is an anti-sexism movement, it has already failed.
What do we really want? Really? What is the world we’re trying to build?
In asking that question, I’m going to ask you to join me out here in danger and see what we can do with it.
I know it sounds easy at first. I’ve answered that. I know what I want. This is hippie cuddles-and-gumdrops bullshit. I know. I’ll just blather on while you let it sink in that this is, if you’re asking it right, one of the hardest questions there is.
See, we spend all day surrounded by an advertisement culture, one that wants to sell us things. And you can’t sell something to someone who doesn’t need it. You have to create a need. In order to get someone to buy what you’re selling–your nonfood, your gadgets, your idea systems–you have to convince them that they lack it and must have it. And the easiest thing to do for that is to convince someone there’s a hole in them. The trouble is, when you have enough people and images and companies constantly bombarding you with messages about tiny holes in you, they add up. They add up into gaping hollow insides. Empty people make the best consumers, after all–once you scoop out all of their own ideas about what they want and need, you can tell them to buy anything, and they usually will. They need your machine, your weight-loss program, your fashion bag that costs a whole paycheck, your ideas about relationships. They don’t need a healthcare system that cares for them and their neighbors–they need your insurance program. They need your cocaine and your celebrity gossip and your latest TV drama that convinces them that torture works. They need your new vacuum cleaner. They need your salvation. You can sell people anything, so long as you sell them loneliness first, and buy their hope up like foreclosed houses.
We purchase a very ugly status quo, where we forget about meeting our next-door neighbors, let alone building a supportive, nurturing community; where we prefer the chain restaurant to the local mom-and-pop place down the street; where we would rather buy an empty greeting card than honestly talk about either how much we care, or how much we really don’t, any more. Where we get ours because we’ve been sold the notion that that’s the best thing, and we forget what we hoped for.
It’s a cliche for a reason. Hope is very, very, very dangerous. If you accept that things can be different, and not in the I’ll-do-my-hair-differently-tomorrow way, in the this could be a whole new world way, we are far, far less profitable for the people who already bought the lie and don’t know what to fill their emptiness with except conquest and profit. If we are really aware of what is good and healthy for us, it is much harder to play us against each other or encourage us to ignore that decisions get made that starve whole continents and feed individuals despair to make them pliable. We have all these piddling stories about little, nonthreatening hope, the feeling, that allows us to safely restore a status quo that was never amazing in the first place–but hope isn’t an emotion any more than love is. Hope is an action. Hope is a will. Hope is an overwhelming power, and hope is above all a vector: a force, and a direction.
Hope is the first thing we are convinced to abandon, or at least dilute. I “hope” for a raise. I “hope” to go out to a nice restaurant for my anniversary. I “hope” for enough of a reduction in housing and hiring discrimination that I can live a secure life. I “hope” my wedding turns out pretty. I “hope” my busted truck doesn’t break down before I can afford to replace it. I “hope” my vote doesn’t get thrown away. I “hope” they’ll stop hurting me so much.
None of these is a hurricane or a revelation and none of them is a direction for all that hopeful force. None of these really changes anything, not in a way that works for a community and not just one person. They just maintain things as they are. What do you really hope for? I mean, what did you want for your birthday? What did you want in your diary? What did you want at sixteen years old?
How much of it did you get from TV? A billboard? A tired person telling you, look, that’s silly, but you could sort of have this if you buckle down and forget about all that? How much of it was sold to you in advance, even if secondhand?
When was the last time you focused on a desire, a will to action, that would really move mountains? You have it in you. I know you do. We all have it in us before it’s ground out. When was the last time you looked in yourself, looked to a future that was more than a threat, were mighty?
When did you last give yourself a quiet moment to really, really feel a need, let alone nurse a dream unadulterated by the impulse to give away parts of it before you even begin?
It’s frightening to go out there that way, to accept how powerful you are every hour of every day. Even in our activism we accept what we’re fed: this is what we can have right now. This is what’s pragmatic. This is what people will listen to, and we’ll try and push it further later. Their rights will wait until mine are advanced. This is something we can think about when we have the funding. Maybe in the distant future, but not in my lifetime. Look at our focus: the anti-racist movement. The anti-war movement. The post-colonialist movement. The please stop calling my marriage a lie movement. The please stop treating me like I’m not human movement. The we need to stop destroying everything movement. The please stop hurting me movement.
Anti. Anti. Anti. Am I anti- sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, transphobia, war, environmental destruction, fascism, hell, can we just call it anti-oppression, anti-kyriarchy, anti-hate? Oh hell yes I am. I just think these are completely insufficient. If feminism is about ending sexism and nothing more, it’s already been bought and sold. It’s accepted filling that advertised hole as a priority over centering who it’s meant to uplift.
You can always find an enemy. You can always find something you want to go away. I want there to be no more intimate partner violence. I want class exploitation to stop. But we run further and further into what we’re fighting against and we forget hope. We forget what we’re fighting for, let alone in what direction. We forget that thing we’re protecting, or building, because of the endless and often necessary distraction of everything that’s trying to tear it down. Being against all of these oppressions and injustices is important, but I would like to propose a semantic shift as truly meaningful: one where we define what we do by what we love, what we need, and what we hope for, where we center hope rather than the opposition when we talk about our ideals.
What if we could conceive of a post-colonialist movement that isn’t first defined by fighting colonizers, but affirming and supporting indigenous peoples, that isn’t post-horror but pre-liberation?
A movement that wasn’t first anti-homophobia, but pro-queer/LGBTQI affirmation and the growth of a society that holds love sacred no matter who is doing the loving?
A movement that wasn’t first about stopping the constant ableist bars to access, but one that centers building a fair, accessible world where every kind of body and mind is valued and given a chance?
A movement that can take a minute before fighting the endless waves of discrimination and violence directed at trans people to center the affirmation and celebration of gender diversity and the human right to self-definition and self-actualization?
A movement that got to talk about the value and strength and beauty of historic neighborhoods before it had to turn and focus on fighting exploitative gentrification?
I know this all sounds like silly technicalities or pie-in-the-sky nonsense. I’m sort of saying the same thing, aren’t I? I’m just playing word games.
But please, let it sink in.
When you engage in social justice–be honest–do you think first about the oppression, or about the oppressed? Do you think first about the hunger, or the right to be fed? The degradation, or the basic personhood being violated? When was the last time we let our aspirations be bigger than wanting what we abhor to go away? When was the last time we allowed ourselves room to conceive of a movement that was more and greater than make the hurting stop?
It’s understandable that we focus on it, because it’s going on and it’s urgent and it’s often life or death. I get caught up in it, too. But our ideals can be bigger than “make oppression go away,” because what do we do after that, after our we’ll-overturn-the-bad-regime revolutions and our once-everything-changes-we’ll-do-things-differently? What were we building this whole time? Did we encode the same oppressive tactics used against us into its foundations, because we had to beat the bad guy? Did we get so focused on punishing malefactors that we failed to comfort those harmed? Did we use everything we had to fight those trying to take from us, only to discover at the end that there was nothing left? Did we win the war, only to discover that we didn’t have a plan for where we and our wreckage went next? We can do better than this. We can do better than being anti-sexist. We can be pro-equality. We can be better than anti-bigotry. We can be pro-the support and celebration of shared and basic humanity. We can be better than anti-poverty. We can focus on the hope–force, will, direction, and action–for a new kind of world where everyone has enough to make it through the day. Does that seem like too much, too ambitious? If we never hope for it at all, we smother that future in its crib before it even has a chance. Think about it like taking a trip: does it go better when you say, I’m on my way to Oakland because that’s where I want to be, or when you say, I’ve got to get the hell out of this town, and you don’t have something better in mind than getting out? What’s more likely to get you somewhere good for you?
So, to that end, my question, and my exercise: get out your pens and paper, or your keyboards, and tell me what you want, what you need, what you hope for. And here’s the catch: you aren’t allowed to use the words no, or not, or end.
Don’t write, I want racism to be over. Write, maybe, I want everyone to get the same fair chance at life no matter where they come from or what they look like. Don’t write, I don’t want malnutrition to continue in my community. Maybe write, I want everyone to be decently fed, I want there to be fresh vegetables, I want there to be healthy children, I want a community where we look after each other. Instead of writing, I want an end to war, try writing, I want a peaceful world where people find cooperative solutions to problems. Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
It seems like word games, but try it. Keep writing out the list until it sinks in. And then try it even more concrete: make a list of your wishful thinking not in terms of what you look forward to, but as a description the world you want to build, what you want your efforts and energy and life to contribute to. In the present tense. What do you really, really want? Not what do you not want–you are making what you are ultimately working for. Describe it and let it be as real as you dare. And keep doing it until you remember that this is what you and your movement and your work are reaching for, and you are either moving toward it or not, but this is what you are open to. This is where your hope is.
It’s much scarier this way, isn’t it:
Everyone goes to as much school as they need.
My family is a healthy part of a healthy community.
Everyone has a say in how their government’s affairs are conducted, which is counted and listened to and given its proper account.
My children live in a safe world with clean water and clean air and peace.
I have the health care I need to grow beautifully old with my loved ones.
My choices about my body are respected and treated as valid.
Everyone is free to make decisions about their sexuality wherein their consent is valued and honored.
When someone falls on hard times, they know the people near them have the will and the means to give them aid.
Everyone gets a fair shot on an even playing field.
It feels dangerous to say these things, or dishonest, or foolish. It’s a very vulnerable place to be, having concrete and positive ideals where someone might see, and tell you they’re nonsensical. It’s embarrassing. You can just feel that impending correction hanging over you, pulling all this down, saying, come on, seriously? This isn’t difficult because it’s hard work to push through all the lies we’re sold and believe that things can be not just a little less bad, but actually wonderful–it’s just difficult because it’s silly, right?
We can do better than this.
It is possible.
It is happening.
We are ready.
Today is a beautiful day.
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